Reviewing John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy Part 2: ‘Prince of Darkness’

Fear Flashback is continuing to celebrate the launch of ScreenAge Wasteland with a tour of John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy. Up this week is the Satan-in-a-jar classic, Prince of Darkness.

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“I have a message for you. And you’re not going to like it.”

This is almost a great movie. Almost.

I like John Carpenter movies. For me the best will always be The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China, but I’ve got soft spots for Escape From New York, Halloween and The Fog as well, and I’ve owned copies of those films since VHS. I like Prince of Darkness and At the Mouths of Madness, but I didn’t buy them for a long time and watching Prince again I remembered why – they’re ambitious, interesting films that seem to come apart at the seams as they go along. As if Carpenter didn’t have quite enough time or money to give them the polish that they really deserve.

Which is too bad, because Prince of Darkness has one of the most interesting and disturbing representations of evil in film history.

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I remember I was disappointed when I first saw it. After Starman and Big Trouble in Little China, Prince of Darkness was billed as a “return to horror” for Carpenter. I hadn’t liked Christine that much, but The Thing loomed in the background of every discussion of the man’s horror work and that film is a freaking masterpiece. So yes, I went in with heavy expectations and, as often seems the case when you lay that burden on a film, it failed to live up.

In fact, that sense of disappointment was so deep that I actively avoided watching it again for the longest time. I’ve seen a lot of Carpenter’s movies multiple times – most of them in the double digits – but I’ve somehow only seen Prince of Darkness maybe two or three times since it was first released. On the plus side that means that I’m less familiar with it, and more likely to be open to re-assessing it.

The Medium
I bought this film on the iTunes service in 2011 and have somehow not gotten around to trading up. It’s a passable enough copy – though not HD – and was clear enough on my computer screen. I’ll be looking to pick up the Shout Factory Blu-ray sometime soon, however. I’m keen on hearing some of the commentary and going through the rest of the extras.

The Movie
The basic setup: A priest (Donald Pleasance) requests the help of a professor of physics (Victor Wong) and his students in the study of a strange container in the basement of an old church. The container is ancient and full of a swirling, luminescent green liquid.

EEEeeeevil green liquid.

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I kid, but it’s true.

Carpenter wrote the film under the pseudonym of Martin Quatermass and that, plus a reference to a Kneale University, are nods to the great British screenwriter Nigel Kneale. There are echoes in Prince of Darkness of some of Kneale’s work, particularly The Stone Tape – a 1972 BBC broadcast about a group of scientists investigating a ‘haunted’ Victorian mansion – and Quatermass and the Pit (AKA 5 Million Years to Earth), with its unearthly influence from a time before man.

And the thing is, I find the container and its contents to be damn creepy. Carpenter gives us a pre-human representation of evil. One of the eeriest lines in the whole movie comes when the Susan (Anne Marie Howard) says “I’ve been carbon dating the corrosion on the lid there. We’re talking 7 million years.” That’s a time period when apes first started to diversify and spread and evolve. That means the container must have been built by a pre-human civilication. Unfortunately, that Lovecraftian possibility is  never followed up on. Instead we hear a lot about Jesus (as an alien) coming to warn us, the container being hidden away until mankind could ‘prove what Jesus was saying’ and that it’s actually the SON of an even MORE evil being.

“Am I crazy, or are we stroking ourselves heavily here?”

The stuff in the tank expands its influence to take over the minds of the homeless outside (including an awesomely freaky Alice Cooper) and to direct insects and worms. Eventually it leaks from the container and sprays itself into human hosts, so it can directly control them and look for the perfect body.

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Which is really where the movie loses most of its horror for me. You know what’s terrifying? A thing in a jar that’s millions of years old, can control people and animals from a distance, and can also move objects by telekinesis. You know what’s not? A blond chick with a skin condition. The movie goes from a Lovecraftian horror – a monstrous, ancient thing from beyond this world – to a much more pedestrian ‘resurrection of Satan’ story.

Not that there aren’t moments of genius. The recurring ‘dreams’ that seem to be transmissions from the future are pretty freaky (and allow for the obligatory 80’s pseudo-science mention of Tachyons). The homeless ‘zombies’ are very unnerving, and the character who comes to deliver the “pray for death” message is nicely gruesome. The acting is a bit uneven, but Wong and Pleasance are always good value, especially when they’re spouting metaphysics at each other. Jessie Ferguson does a great job as a man possessed but still wholly and horribly aware (as he walks around singing ‘Amazing Grace’ and crying I actually shivered a bit). Even the weaker members of the cast manage to be likeable, if not memorable.

Unfortunately all those cool and interesting moments are overwhelmed by the climax, where our perfect host reaches into a mirror to bring the ‘father’ across into our universe and appears to be hauling Tim Curry from Legend through it.

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I’m not sure what I expected the first time I saw the film, but that red, taloned hand was definitely not it. And I remember wanting more to come from the future ‘dreams’ – maybe even the whole team coming out of the church, possessed and ready to spread evil to the rest of the world as harbingers of that horrible, ultimate evil.

The Bottom Line
I dunno – I feel like I’m being unnecessarily harsh on Prince of Darkness. I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t like the film, because I do – I think it’s overall a fantastic film full of interesting ideas, set pieces and atmosphere.  I think I’m just frustrated because it’s so close to being something exceptional and is instead merely a really good John Carpenter movie.