❉ The middle chapter of Carpenter’s Apocalypse trilogy contains some of his most ambitious ideas as a writer.
“Prince of Darkness is Assault on Precinct 13 by way of Nigel Kneale. On one hand we have a siege film with a bunch of homeless zombies, led by a pasty-faced and mute Alice Cooper, and on the other hand we have a film dealing with the lurking evil that mankind can barely comprehend which can only be best explained by theology.”
Once seen as the first blip on the radar that started to mark the decline of quality in his directorial output, John Carpenter’s Prince Of Darkness has revealed itself over time as a flawed but darkly philosophical work that contains some of his most ambitious ideas as a writer. Working with his lowest budget in years, as a result of a deal with Alive Films that afforded him more creative freedom, he confronts the viewer with what may be his most diabolical antagonist; an “anti-god” held captive in an ancient chamber that risks discovery once unearthed beneath a church in Los Angeles.
Donald Pleasence, possibly Carpenter’s second-greatest secret weapon in his recurring troupe of actors, plays the priest, imaginatively named “Priest”, who – alarmed by the greatest evil the planet has ever known possibly being unleashed once more – enlists a university department to investigate and raise awareness of said evil when his own church turns its back on him. The students, who appear to have been studying since the mid-seventies, are the film’s weakest link.
Carpenter, who was usually so good with heroes and anti-heroes, whether it was Laurie Strode, Snake Plissken, Dr Loomis, Macready or Jack Burton, presents a frankly unmemorable gang with very little to distinguish themselves other than Jameson Parker’s blonde moustache. Dennis Dun, who was so good as Wang in Carpenter’s previous film Big Trouble in Little China somehow comes across as the most annoying character here, when he’s not cracking lame come-on jokes at his fellow female students he can be found screaming and moaning about his predicament once the evil is unleashed and enslaves his friends.
Thankfully to balance things out we also have returning from Big Trouble… the estimable Victor Wong as the department professor Howard. It is through the discussions between Howard and the priest that the film reveals its ambitious, if sometimes wacky, philosophy. Christ is casually mentioned as of being from extra-terrestrial ancestry at one point whilst a computer monitor warns our heroes onscreen that “You will not be saved by the god Plutonium.” Arriving onscreen in 1987 this was, and still is, refreshingly ambitious stuff for a horror film. The boom of American horror that was so prevalent in the early to mid-eighties was winding down and dominated by Freddy Krueger who by then was becoming a staid and predictable presence. Carpenter reveals his main influence here with one of his many pen names; Martin Quatermass.
Prince of Darkness is Assault on Precinct 13 by way of Nigel Kneale. On one hand we have a siege film with a bunch of homeless zombies, led by a pasty-faced and mute Alice Cooper, ready to dispatch the students and on the other hand we have a film dealing with such subjects as quantum physics, hidden history, dream broadcasting and lurking evil that mankind can barely comprehend which can only be best explained by theology. And often is, at length. At the time of its original release the audience may simply not have been ready for such heady themes when they may have only been expecting a standard stalk and slash thriller from “The Master of Horror.”
Not that Carpenter forgot to give his audience what they wanted however. One particular and protracted death scene, involving a multitude of bugs, shows the director managing effortlessly to both gross and spook out his audience. At times as well as his love of Kneale he also seems to display an appreciation for Italian horror cinema, one shot tracing the descent of a knife recalls Argento and the films tone recalls Lucio Fulci’s more dreamlike imagery and the viewer is even reminded of Lamberto Bava’s Demons as more and more of the cast become mindless killers spewing green bile from their decaying bodies in the increasingly claustrophobic church.
As the middle chapter of his self-proclaimed Apocalypse trilogy, preceded by The Thing and followed by the even more ambitious Lovecraftian-themed In The Mouth of Madness, this shows Carpenter at his most thoughtful and yet pessimistic. By the film’s climax, one of Carpenter’s most haunting, organised religion is exposed as nothing more than a security blanket for the masses and it is not a question of how the world will fall to darkness but when.
StudioCanal have done well by the film. It has never really had a decent home release in the U.K. so the commentaries, documentaries and interviews are a more than welcome bonus that reveal the films gestation and process behind it nicely. As with their recent re-releases of The Fog, Escape From New York and They Live we are gifted with another 4K remastering that reveals and preserves more of the details in the darkness. It may not be a stone-cold classic like those just mentioned but it shows that at his peak Carpenter was one of the greatest genre directors around. Unafraid to reclaim his independence after big studio film-making as a director and writer and equally unafraid to tackle and combine horror and science fiction in new and interesting ways.
❉ ‘Prince of Darkness’ 4K Restoration (STUDIOCANAL) receives its theatrical release on 26 October 2018 and Blu-Ray Release 26 November 26 2018 (Steel-book Oct 29th).
❉ Iain MacLeod was raised on the North coast of Scotland on a steady diet of 2000AD and Moviedrome. Now living in Glasgow as a struggling screenwriter he still buys too many comics and blu-rays. Has never seen a ghost but heard two talking in his bedroom when he was 4.