I watched John Carpenter’s 1987 film Prince of Darkness this weekend. I’d caught the final third or so of the movie on AMC back in my first year of university, and while I remembered it being low-budget and kind of inexplicable it nevertheless intrigued me enough that I was more than happy to watch it in full when I stumbled across it on Netflix Saturday afternoon. With the day off from work and no obligations to speak of, I plopped down on the couch, put my feet up on the coffee table and hit play.
Roughly an hour and a half later, the credits were rolling and I was rubbing my chin, processing what I’d just seen. It wasn’t a mindbender by any means but neither was it trash. It’s actually a fairly solid film from start to finish, occasionally clumsy acting and dodgy pacing balanced out by Carpenter’s cinematography and pulsing synth score, and while it wasn’t nearly as good as The Thing, I could easily see how its cult status has endured over the last quarter of a century.
But later on that day, strolling through the Glebe with a drink in my hand and the thawing ice crunching beneath my feet, I slowly realized that buried within this admittedly unsettling doomsday flick was the potential for what could have been one of the greatest horror films ever made.
Prince of Darkness is the second part of Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy,” the first being 1982’s The Thing and the last being 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness. It’s not one his most well known flicks, and with the exception of the late Donald Pleasance the cast is comprised of B- and C-list actors. In the public consciousness it’s probably more obscure than the titular song written by Alice Cooper for the soundtrack (Cooper himself cameos as a murderous transient; more on that later). But what it lacks in notoriety it more than makes up for in concept.
Every once in a while you come upon a work of fiction structured around a collection of really, really neat ideas. The dream worlds of The Matrix and Inception come readily to mind, as do the infectious language in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and the purely abstract creatures swimming about Stephen Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts. Likewise, Prince of Darkness is built on a fascinating conceptual model. Writing as Martin Quatermass, Carpenter constructs an end of the world scenario out of Judeo-Christian theology and quantum physics.
The film sees a Catholic priest (Pleasance), a university physics professor (Victor Wong) and a collection of grad students discovering a series of long-hidden catacombs beneath a derelict church in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. The catacombs contain a massive tome written and rewritten in several languages and an inconceivably old canister of swirling green liquid. Analyzed, the physical and chemical traits of said liquid take the form of differential equations, even though the substance and its container were in existence long before those mathematical processes had been devised.
At this point, Carpenter plays around with traditional Christian theology, intertwining the discovered tome’s borderline indecipherable Gnostic texts with the concept of antimatter. For God to exist, as the characters gradually come to suspect, particle physics dictates an Antigod must as well, this dark parallel contained to a mirror universe lest it be destroyed on contact with regular matter. “Satan”—actually the ancient green liquid—is an organic means of converting human beings into hosts capable of receiving the Antigod from the other side, while at the same time protecting the Beast, so to speak, from its new hazardous environment. A sect of the Catholic Church long suspected these revelations, as foretold by several prophets and—in the context of the film—even Christ himself, but were never able to prove them until the development of advanced mathematics. In Carpenter’s world, evil is no longer a moral or abstract but a physical force, as tangible as gravity or electromagnetism.
(An aside: scientific progress has long had a demystifying effect on both faith and morality, exposing the supernatural as the work of either simple ignorance or manmade deception and reducing black and white morality to subjective shades of grey. In Prince of Darkness, however, Carpenter uses modern science to both reinvent the paranormal as well as make evil concrete once again. Just some food for thought.)
Carpenter’s manufactured theories work as a perfect jumping off point for the rest of the film, but for one reason or another, he never takes the plunge. To give the film some credit, it’s genuinely horrific at points: a possessed biology student slits his throat in desperation but is forced to cling to life by the presence driving him; another is disintegrated by a swarm of insects to the horror of his peers; and the cast is haunted by a series of grainy, cryptic dreams, supposedly sent back from the future. And yet the majority of the scares remain largely superficial. Necks are broken, nerdy grad students are impaled on bicycle frames (courtesy of Mr. Cooper) and someone gets a pencil in the eye, but for the most part Carpenter never really has the audience try to comprehend the sheer, psyche-destroying horror of the dark science he’s created. What could have been one of the best works of cosmic horror in cinematic history devolves into your standard zombie flick by the final act.
Since watching the movie I’ve pondered over and over again how Prince of Darkness ended up as a lesser film than it had the capacity to be. Budgetary restrictions might have been an issue, the film operating on a $3 million budget. By comparison, The Thing, released five years earlier, was made for five times that much—but it really shouldn’t matter, seeing as the horror of Prince of Darkness isn’t grounded in elaborate body horror effects. There’s no real problem with the acting, either; I mentioned it being clumsy earlier on but to tell the truth it’s no better and no worse than in any of Carpenter’s other flicks.
I guess it comes down to this weird, mildly disturbing pseudo-zombie flick just being the movie Carpenter wanted to make. And that’s really disappointing, far more than if Prince of Darkness had been shitty through and through. At the risk of alienating everyone reading this with a bad analogy, there’s meat on these bones, but Carpenter seems interested only in eating the crispy, greasy skin.
Honestly, I think it’s one of the few films that not only deserves, but needs a remake. The ardent fans might gasp in horror—and with good reason: most remakes of Carpenter films have turned out to be crap and, perhaps worse, miss the point of the originals—but I think someone with a good eye for dark and unsettling psychological horror could turn this would-be masterpiece into a definite maybe. I could see Brad Anderson, director of The Machinist and the unfortunately overlooked Session 9, taking the helm. Maybe even David Fincher. In any case it would have to be someone willing to look past the horror of the flesh, someone who manoeuvres around the obvious scares and veers toward the more deep-rooted ones. Someone who could, by the time the credits rolled, make us fear any and every mirror in our path.
Also, someone wise enough to get Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to do the score. I mean, come on, that’s a given.