Prince of Darkness Ascends Its Throne

I often tell my friends that my opinion of a book, film or album should never be trusted until I’ve either read/seen/listened to it again or waited 48 hours. Entertainment is a largely emotional experience for me, and so I’m liable to have a high opinion of any work that gets my adrenaline pumping in spite of whatever flaws it might possess—at least until the rush wears off. I really, really liked Transformers when I first saw it and, Hell, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was one of my favourite films for years. So when I say I enjoy something, feel free to treat me like a little kid who has just ingested a pound of sugar. The stomach ache will come, just you wait.

The same applies to the inverse. Some things will leave me feeling sour after I’ve first experienced them, but whether because of the mood I was in at the time or simply due to changing tastes I’m liable to come around to liking or even loving them some months or years in the future. I initially disliked Rebellion’s 2010 Aliens vs. Predator game and it took me three years to realize that my shitty living conditions in third year of university had actually contributed to my feelings of ill will rather than the game itself. It’s actually pretty rad.

John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness is another such case. Made for a fairly low budget of $3 million and released in 1987, Prince is the second entry of what Carpenter calls his “Apocalypse Trilogy,” preceded by The Thing (which I liveblogged while drunk on New Year’s) and followed by In the Mouth of Madness. It didn’t exactly thrill me on my first full viewing a couple years ago, but after watching again it during my most recent horror binge in October I’ve come around to it in a huge way. Not only is it Carpenter’s best film after The Thing, it really is a little gem that deserves critical re-evaluation.

My major complaint toward Prince of Darkness was that it failed to fully utilize the concepts it introduced. While the movie is about demons and demonic possession at its core, Carpenter introduced a twist on the usual premise that grabbed me the first time I saw it and still intrigues me now. His screenplay mixes Biblical scripture and the supernatural with (admittedly simplified) quantum physics and advanced mathematics. As every particle of matter has a parallel anti-particle (e.g. electron = positron, proton = antiproton), Carpenter postulates that our concept of “Hell” is a parallel, alternate dimension to our own, overseen by not so much Satan as an “anti-God”—though our brief glimpse of the titular Prince of Darkness near the end nevertheless resembles the hand of Tim Curry in Legend, red skin and all. In an admittedly Dan Brown/Ancient Aliens bit of pseudoscience, it’s revealed that Jesus Christ preached about the eventual invasion of our universe by the anti-God and its denizens, and proof of his prophecy takes the form of differential equations written into a kind of Gnostic text kept hidden and protected by a secret sect of priests, and…

Okay, at this point this is all starting to sound like a big old bag of bullshit, so I’ll stop doing Prince of Darkness a disservice and just say this makes more sense in the context of the movie. ANYWAY, the priest guarding this text, as well as a canister of green, unearthly liquid (which is actually Satan! Okay, I’ll stop now), suddenly dies and the subjects of his care fall into the hands of another priest, played by Donald Pleasence (the only big name actor in the film). Disturbed by the tome and the prophecies it contains, Pleasence contacts his friend, a theoretical physics professor, in hopes of unscrambling the text’s contents and trying to find a way to stop whatever’s coming. The professor brings a team of physics and biochemistry grad students to the church where the book and the mysterious canister is held to start their experiments, and everything goes to Hell—ha ha—in the form of possessions and murderous transients.

All of this exposition now out of the way, I will mention the first point in the movie’s favour: its cinematography, supervised by Director of Photography Gary B. Kibbe. From its first scene to its very last, Prince of Darkness contains the best photography in John Carpenter’s career. Scattered throughout this article are some of my favourite frames from the film, each well-composed in its own way, evoking the movie’s unsettling atmosphere, and showcasing Carpenter’s eye for a good shot. Carpenter deserves all the credit he’s been given for revitalizing the horror genre, but I think critics often glaze over how good his movies look. Mark my words, one day his knack for framing and scene composition will be regarded in the same light as Stanley Kubrick’s. A big claim, I know, but I would be willing to put money on the table if I had any.

Carpenter’s also an accomplished musical composer in his own right, having scored most of his films with his recognizable work on the synthesizer. His theme to Halloween is one of the most memorable in cinematic history. A lot of it is “dated,” I suppose, but I’m a sucker for the sound of old, heavy synths, which this movie has in spades. For Prince of Darkness Carpenter opted not to fly solo and recruited fellow composer Alan Howarth as a collaborator. In a neat little mini-documentary about the soundtrack, Howarth explains how he would lay down a basic synth track, setting the mood for a particular scene, over which Carpenter would improvise and later refine a melody—a similar composition process would later be used by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Carpenter and Howarth’s score contrasts sampled, vaguely ethereal voices with the darker, more rhythmic sounds of a keyboard played in its lower register.

And the music’s not underused, either. I have yet to time it out but I would guess that Carpenter and Howarth’s soundtrack plays underneath the vast majority of the movie’s runtime. I have my qualms about Carpenter’s use of music in Halloween, how he sampled the same four or five cues over and over again and whipped out stings like a sultan does fliff, but in this case I feel the score greatly contributes to the pace. It makes simple transitory scenes like the grad students setting up equipment in the church feel far more on edge than they ordinarily would. There’s a genuine sense of dread throughout the whole thing as a result, so that while Prince of Darkness is the most “normal”-looking (aka the least gross) entry in the Apocalypse Trilogy, it’s probably the most unnerving. Jonny Greenwood’s work on There Will Be Blood had a similar effect on me.

Going back to the film, I think my feelings toward it improved so much because my initial expectations weren’t so much high as unrealistic. By introducing quantum mechanics into his film’s fiction, I was hoping Carpenter was going to make a revelatory horror film, something that would transcend its medium like House of Leaves did for literature. Two years ago, I was disappointed that he used those concepts to make what was, in a lot of ways, another zombie movie. But the more I think about it, the less I’m sure what exactly I was hoping he would do with the material. Was I expecting demons that both did and did not exist simultaneously? People controlling faraway items through quantum entanglement (though, now that I think of it, this might actually be demonstrated through the telekinesis shown in the movie)? A lot of peeved film buffs talk about what they would have done differently, but in this case I’m kind of stumped. Perhaps I’m rationalizing my lack of imagination, but I’ve come to believe that Carpenter’s execution of his ideas is perfectly fine. His conceit was to give the ideas of demonic possession and zombies a new twist, and to lend a vaguely scientific support to certain religious ideas that might seem archaic in contemporary times. Overall, it does feel like a breath of fresh air.

Browsing my older critique, I think I might have hit the nail on the head in a paragraph I then deemed a digression:

“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.”
I think that holds up better than anything else in that earlier piece did. Prince of Darkness is full of neat little ideas such as that, like the secret Gnostic text containing differential equations centuries before they were invented.

I also have to commend the film’s imagery, which manages to be both subtle and horrifying at the same time. Carpenter sprinkles the movie with a few unnerving visual motifs: masses of earthworms clinging to windows, liquid “raining” upward and fire ants amassing in electrical equipment. It’s also almost entirely devoid of blood or gore, but the moments it chooses to indulge stick with you: in one instance, biochemist Calder, partially possessed but still holding onto a modicum of his humanity, belts out a strained, tortured rendition of “Amazing Grace” before giggling and stabbing himself in the throat with a scrap of wood. When he reanimates a little while later, now fully under the thrall of whatever malevolent force is inside of him, he is capable of only guttural chuckles and an occasional sob. In this way, the movie’s take on demons seem truly unlike anything seen prior to it in fiction. In the one instance the invading force does communicate, it’s by possessing another student and having her repeatedly type words of warning. As with Hideo Nakata’s Ringu, Prince of Darkness does more with less.

Lastly, the movie greatly benefits from its ensemble cast. Donald Pleasence leads the pack, but the rest, especially Victor Wong, Lisa Blount and Jameson Parker, need to be given their dues. Parker’s character, for all intents and purposes the protagonist, starts off a little douchey, but he’s smarter than you’d think. And props should be given to Dennis Dun for portraying the least stereotypical Asian dude in an ’80s flick. As with most horror movies, I prefer it when the cast consists largely—or even entirely—of unknowns, as I usually find it hard to fear for an A-list actor who seems, by comparison, untouchable.

Jesus, have I really written over 1,800 words about Prince of Darkness? I’ll have to check but I think that’s more than anyone has ever written about this movie previously. It truly is a far better film than I remembered, though, an overlooked and imaginative flick that’s certainly one of John Carpenter’s best.

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