I didn’t realize it until I watched Prince of Darkness, but viewing it completes me having seen every movie director John Carpenter made during the ’80s, the decade he’s probably most synonymous with. His work during the decade saw a run that’s fairly unparalleled in genre filmmaking, even if not every entry in this string of films was properly appreciated during its time. Carpenter was in such a self-contained groove during this period that even his films that aren’t successful in every aspect are extremely watchable, as is the case with 1987’s Prince of Darkness, a film somewhat overshadowed by the two cult classics in Carpenter’s filmography that it’s sandwiched between, Big Trouble In Little China and They Live.
John Carpenter’s premises usually strike me as being decidedly straightforward, but Prince of Darkness was one I had slightly more trouble keeping track of. It entails the partnership between a Catholic priest (played by Donald Pleasance) and a college professor, Howard Birack (Victor Wong), who specializes in quantum physics. The priest has invited the professor to take a look at a giant cylinder filled with green glowing liquid that was housed in the basement of his monastery by a former priest. Howard invites a bunch of his colleagues and brightest students to take a look at the green monolith, which they deduce is the physical manifestation of Satan.
Through researching the ancient texts in the basement of the church, this crack team of scientists also deduces that Jesus was an alien who tried to warn people of the evil contained within this green liquid, who was then persecuted. This isn’t really expanded on and is more of a sidenote. As the team continues to do their research, various maggot-covered vagrants (one of which is played by Alice Cooper) keep hovering around the church, clearly followers of the prince of darkness. These homeless people start murdering the members of the research team, while other members start becoming infected with the green goo (which has a mind of its own) as the remaining inhabitants of the church get picked off one by one.
As I mentioned earlier, Prince of Darkness was John Carpenter’s film after Big Trouble In Little China, an incredibly entertaining movie that nonetheless was a huge flop whose financial failures were magnified by its hefty budget. Prince of Darkness feels very much like a reaction to that film, as it was made one year later with a much smaller budget and sees Carpenter returning to a more pure horror movie, after dabbling in sci-fi and big-budget spectacle. It sees him returning to a familiar formula of his, putting a bunch of people in one enclosed space (à la Assault on Precinct 13 or The Thing) and watching them fend off some terrifying outside threat. And while the special effects and the sense of dread happen to be the main sources of intrigue, it doesn’t hurt that Carpenter traps us with some likable character actors (like Dirk Blocker from Brooklyn Nine-Nine or Donald Dun, another Big Trouble alum).
Yet despite this fairly straightforward plot device, I wouldn’t say that the script is quite as economical as some of Carpenter’s other best films, despite Prince of Darkness still clocking in at a fairly lean 101 minutes. He supposedly became inspired to write it (under the pseudonym Martin Quartermass) after becoming interested in theoretical physics and atomic theory, which clearly carries over into the various scientists trying to apply their rational explanations to this supernatural presence. Which I think does make the film a bit more interesting than your average zombie-esque movie, but at the same time the actual mechanics of everything was a little lost on me, and are probably a little silly if you think about them too hard.
Still, I think the way that this group of nerds gets slowly picked off and then becomes avatars for Satan is effective enough, while the movie keeps things fresh by having pretty much every character be affected by the green goo and its influence in a different way. But most of all, the movie just has that classic John Carpenter ’80s vibe that many have tried to emulate, but never quite hits the same as one of Carpenter’s actual films from his golden period. When it was released, it was the first time in a while that Carpenter had written, directed, and composed the score for one of his movies, so it has that charming hand-made quality that his best work has, while also being a little more ambitious in the subject matter it’s tackling.
Speaking of, like at least one other of Carpenter’s movies, Prince of Darkness is almost certainly an AIDS metaphor, especially considering it came out as the epidemic was in full swing. The presence of a transmittable liquid that tears an insulated group of people apart, with one character literally having the most gruesome version of lesions on their face you can imagine, it all seems in tune with a crisis that must have been on everyone’s minds at the time. I’m not sure it all coalesces with the scientific or philosophical elements of the movie perfectly, but considering it was conceived with Carpenter at the top of his game, it still makes for a deliciously devilish stew.