Prince of Darkness (1987)

Prince of Darkness (1987)

Prince of Darkness (1987)

Prince of Darkness‘ is a US horror movie that was released in 1987 by horror legend, John Carpenter. And like a most of his other films, John Carpenter wears as many hats as possible by writing, directing, editing, and scoring this left-field supernatural horror.

John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness follows the attempts of a team of scientists assembled by Donald Pleasance’s troubled priest, Father Loomis, to investigate and thwart Satan, who has been trapped in a barrel for last seven million years and is currently stored in the cellar of a church.

Much of the action takes place in this church with the group having to deal with ever-increasing supernatural threats.

There’s shades of the Da Vinci Code in the mysterious Catholic sect which has kept this secret, there’s radio signals from the future sent back through dreams, there’s psychokinesis, an extra-terrestrial Jesus, something called the anti-God and a crucified pigeon.

This sounds like overkill of the worst sort, it sounds like a bunch of schlocky B movie concepts rammed together into one over the top movie and it sounds like nonsense. In a way it is, but it’s so brilliantly handled that, not only does none of that stuff bother you, you don’t even think about it whilst watching.

Prince of Darkness (1987)

Despite all it’s weird digressions the basic plot is extremely simple. The team of characters start with a healthy scepticism but events soon prove that there is something unnatural going on here. The plot unfolds when a translation of ancient texts reveals that Satan is attempting to make contact with his father, the anti-God! Spelling apocalyptic destruction for the human race. Trapped in the church by an army of zombie-like homeless people outside, the team one by one are taken over by the Prince of Darkness in his quest to be reborn and release his all-powerful father.

There are several key things that raise this story above its own ludicrous limitations. Firstly there are the characters, and these are CHARACTERS, not ciphers in service of the story but fully rounded human beings with lives outside of the film. Donald Pleasance in particular is key in a large ensemble, his conflicted priest, devastated by the role of his own religion in covering up this potential nightmare, struggling with each revelation as it erodes away the basic tenets of his faith.

Prince of Darkness (1987)

Prince of Darkness (1987)

Prince of Darkness has the potential to be a huge Satanic-apocalypse movie like End of Days (1999), that’s certainly its theme. But it compliments that theme with a narrow focus, barely moving beyond the walls of the church and dealing exclusively with its small cast of characters. None of them are heroes and yet here they are trying to save the world, something they had no wish to do and are entirely ill-equipped to deal with. Because of this the end remains uncertain; you always know that James Bond will save the world, but these guys? Who knows?

Secondly, Carpenter lavishes time on the build-up. There is little that could be called ‘horror’ in the first half hour; we meet the characters and the team comes together. But throughout this section there is a constant state of growing unease, an ever-mounting tension applied subtly beneath the workaday details. This superlatively executed groundwork means that the first kill comes as a total shock and yet also seems a natural event.

Perhaps most importantly for the genre aficionado, Carpenter does not let things like logic get in the way of his outlandish tale. He populates his cast with scientists and then establishes that science does not apply. He does not feel the need to explain why some victims are consumed by insects while others stab themselves in the neck with a broken bannister. He fuels his vision with every horror trope available, but all in service of a single premise, and because that premise is an ultimate evil, it never feels inconsistent.

Prince of Darkness (1987)

Prince of Darkness (1987)

Proof, if proof were needed, that Carpenter is having a fun can be found in the plethora of in-jokes. Script credit is given to Martin Quatermass, a pseudonym for Carpenter himself paying tribute to the British sci-fi horror character Professor Quatermass. Father Loomis is named after Pleasance’s more famous Carpenter role in Halloween, while the characters Wyndham and Susan Cabot are named after the author of The Triffids and the star of Roger Corman’s the Wasp Woman respectively. There’s also references to Curse of the Werewolf and To Have and Have Not, as well as rock star, Alice Cooper, playing the lead homeless zombie.

Prince of Darkness is insane, overstuffed, self-indulgent and schlock-filled. It ought to be bad and in the wrong hands it could have been unwatchable, but in the hands of John Carpenter it is a little gem.

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Written by: Robin Bailes