Title: Prince of Darkness (1987)
Director: John Carpenter
Written by: John Carpenter
Stars: Donald Pleasance, Victor Wong, Alice Cooper, Dennis Dun
John Carpenter’s career is filled with really high ups and some medium size downs. By this I mean that when Carpenter makes a good movie, it’s a really good movie. And when he doesn’t make them great, they are just “watchable”. For example The Thing (1982), Escape from New York (1981), Halloween (1978) and In the Mouth of Madness (1994) (to name just a few of the really good ones) are all excellent in my book. Unfortunately in between those films Carpenter also made films like Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992), Escape from L.A. (1996) and Ghost of Mars (2001), which are some of Carpenters not so great films. In my opinion, they don’t really represent Carpenter at his full potential. Prince of Darkness, the film I’ll be talking about today, falls somewhere in that second category of “not so great” yet watchable Carpenter films. Not great, not horrible, just watchable.
Story is about this group of scientists who are brought together to try and decipher a great mystery that the Catholic Church has been keeping from all of humanity for far too long. You see, the church has a secret sect called “The Brotherhood of Sleep” which has been guarding a container that holds the entity known to all Catholics across the world as the Anti-Christ! Yes my friends were talking about the son of Satan here! The scientists are called in by a priest to try and decipher the mystery behind the container. This container lays hidden deep within the catacombs of an old church in the middle of the city. Little by little the malevolent force within the container starts to exert its evil influence over the small group of scientists. Will the evil contained within escape? Or will the end of civilization as we know it commence?
The main problem for me with this movie is that there is absolutely no pay off. The movie is all build up, build up, build up without a satisfying climax. Basically, the whole movie consists of this group of people being scared of the green slime that swirls inside of a container thing. Supposedly the green slime is the ultimate evil in the universe! The Catholics think it’s the anti-Christ, but the scientists think that it might be alien in origin. One thing is for certain, the green slime does make weird things happen. The green slime escapes the container and turns people into ravenous murderous zombies! It makes homeless people turn into murderers as well! And for some reason, it turns ants into flesh eating creatures! Pretty nifty stuff for a vat of green slime huh?
In Prince of Darkness, there’s always that ominous feeling, like we are going to get to see whatever is inside the container at some point. The characters keep talking about it, they feel the room getting colder, they feel an evil presence, and they keep looking at the container like it’s the most evil thing they have ever seen. After all this build up, I’m expecting something cool because after all, this movie comes to us from John Carpenter, the guy who gave us The Thing! Unfortunately, when the movie is close to finishing and no creature, monster, demon or devil shows up, you feel like you’ve been had. All we get to see of the ultimate evil in the universe is its hand! I’m thinking that Carpenter was trying to make a film in which he could scare you without showing you a whole lot. And that’s a valid notion; unfortunately, the movie feels like a half hearted effort that keeps repeating the same themes all the way to the end. It stretches things to make up for the fact that the story wont go any further!
But I guess for a movie made with a budget of 3 million dollars, this isn’t that bad at all. Carpenter made a deal with a company called “Alive Films” in which he would get to make various films with them, at a budget of 3 million each. He only ended up making two movies for Alive Films: They Live (1988) and Prince of Darkness. This low budget approach that Carpenter took with Alive Films is probably the reason why Prince of Darkness and They Live never truly live up to their full potential. They Live for example is a film about an alien race trying to invade earth, which is really an epic storyline; but keeping true to its low budget nature, the film only reveals the true appearance of the aliens only when they use these special glasses that allow us to see them. And when we do get to see the aliens, its nothing spectacular, they look like bug eyed purple skeletons. A simple yet effective make up effect. The film is deliberately kept at a small scale, and I love that movie for what it is. On Prince of Darkness, we can tell the films story is kept deliberately small because the film is about a container that holds the greatest evil in the universe; yet all the movie gives us is a bunch of scared scientists turning into zombies inside of an old church.
But I don’t want to sound like I absolutely loath this movie because I don’t. I enjoyed the science vs. religion angle. There is always that constant debate of religious myth versus scientific fact. The movie does a good job of mixing the two. Carpenter plays with catholic secrecy on this movie, where the “Brotherhood of Sleep” has kept guard over the container for years and years without anyone knowing much about it. This secrecy within the Catholic Church is a theme he later revisited in Vampires (1998). There’s some gory fun to be had on this one, though it’s not too over the top. Lovers of heavy metal get Alice Cooper playing the leader of the homeless zombies that hover outside of the church’s gates. And it was cool seeing some of the cast members of Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (Victor Wong and Dennis Dun) working with Carpenter again. I also enjoyed the films dreadful atmosphere, this is something that Carpenter has always been good at. Creating that feeling of dread.
The movie has many elements in common with John Carpenter’s own The Thing. The green slime inside of the container is probably alien in nature and it spits out this liquid that transforms people into zombies, making people turn on each other. Like in The thing, Prince of Darkness has that element of distrust amongst people by turning people you once considered friends into deadly enemies. The only difference between both films being that the levels of tention felt in Prince of Darkness are nowhere nearly as high as those displayed on The Thing. This film also reminded me of Phantasm (1979) because it mixes science fiction with religion, and it has that dimensional portal thing going for it as well.
I guess the thing with this movie is that it pales in comparison with Carpenter’s bigger films like The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China. It feels like it deliberately took a minimalist approach with its storytelling. If there’s an upside to Prince of Darkness it’s that it was interesting seeing Carpenter trying something different, stretching his storytelling muscles by telling a story that’s smaller in scope. Prince of Darkness and They Live both have that epic-ness in their background, but their budgets never let that epic side emerge. My advice is, if you want to see a movie about people locked up in a spooky church with some real demons, watch Michelle Soavi’s The Church (1989). Now there’s a movie that won’t disappoint ya!
Rating: 3 out of 5