If there’s a horror filmmaker who truly deserves the label of maverick and master at the same time it would be one John Carpenter. From the very beginning, Carpenter did his films his way despite working within the Hollywood studio system. This has made his films turn out not as well-received later on in his career (especially during the 1990′s) as studio interference and him burning out after doing so many projects one right after the other. In 1987 he made one of the more under-appreciated horror film of that decade with Prince of Darkness. This was a film born out of Carpenter at some point during the 80′s studying on the subjects of theoretical physics and atomic theory (the man’s a veritable polymath).
The film begins with a sequence montage of setting up the setting for the film. It’s a rundown, but still occupied church in Los Angeles where we see an old priest pass away leaving another priest (played by Carpenter vet Donald Pleasance) the secret hidden within the church to him. This secret leads to this priest asking physics professor Birack (another Carpenter vet in Victor Wong) to assist him in unraveling the mysteries of the container beneath the church. With some of Birack’s best students to assist them the film moves onto the meat of the story. We find out that the container vessel that has been kept secret under the Church and by the Inner Circle of the Vatican itself is a prison for Satan itself who whose form is a swirling green liquid within.
Prince of Darkness, written by Carpenter himself under the pseudonym of Martin Quatermass, posits an interesting take on the concept of good vs. evil. The film puts forth the idea that Satan is not just evil, but may only be the son of an even bigger evil. An evil voiced out by the professor as the Anti-God. Carpenter’s foray into researching about theoretical physics really helps in making all the talk of quantum mechanics, atomic theory and the like within the film to try and explain evil in a scientific way made for an interesting film. It is definitely one of the more inventive take on the God vs. Satan theme then and even now.
The film does suffer from having a weaker cast the your typical Carpenter film. Pleasance seems to be sleepwalking through the film and whose only role seems to either burst out in indignant rage against what his Church tried to keep secret or to spout out observations in a hushed, conspiratorial tone. His opposite in Victor Wong does a much better job in the role of the physics professor whose not so entrenched in the material world of science that he’s not willing to entertain the thought that Satan really is the swirling green liquid in the container. The rest of the cast do a good enough job to be better than one-note, but not enough that its difficult to empathize with any of them that when they finally get killed or possessed in the film we don’t feel anything for them.
Prince of Darkness marked the second leg in what Carpenter has called his “Apocalypse Trilogy” which began with 1982′s The Thing remake and ends with 1995′s In the Mouth of Madness. Thematically this film works within the context of that apocalyptic theme. It is a film that’s really a low-budget “Second Coming” film which began to manifest within all forms of entertainment during the late 80′s as the 1990′s neared and the new millennium loomed over everyone. While the film’s cast performance was probably one major reason why the film didn’t do as well as it should’ve in a horror-crazy environment of the 1980′s the film has gained a considerable amount of a cult-following since. Prince of Darkness, as flawed as it was, really shows Carpenter at his most rebellious (something he would exponentially reveal years later with the subversive They Live) in not just taking on the concepts of God and Church vs Science and Logic, but in creating a film with an ending so ambiguous that it probably would kill what good will some audiences were willing to give it down the drain. But it’s an ending which tied into his “Apocalypse Trilogy” and one that horror filmmakers still not willing to use.