Horror Movies

PRINCE OF DARKNESS. Rare horror gem

Prince of Darkness is rarely spoken or written about; it doesn’t make it to the best horror lists, it remains in the shadows. And undeservedly so.

Tomasz Bot

15 July 2023

Prince of Darkness cover

The further into the new millennium, the more universal praise falls on John Carpenter. The director has faded as a creator (at least in film, because he is successful as a musician), but he is growing in strength as a legend. The world does not forget about such movies as Halloween, Attack on Precinct 13 or The Thing. We also remember about They Live or Big Trouble in Little China. Yes, the director’s output includes many great items that have been making their position for decades. Today, about a film that has probably never been appreciated. It is rarely spoken or written about; it doesn’t make it to the best horror lists, and TV hasn’t made it a favorite. Prince of Darkness remains in the shadows. Strange thing. After all, we have an excellent scary movie here, perhaps not reaching the level of The Shining, but so atmospheric and filled with horror that, as a fan of the genre, I can only recommend multiple screenings.

prince of darkness

Father Loomis finds a large container with a green substance in the dungeons of the church. It is an ancient evil. Perhaps the one that used to be called Satan. In addition to the shimmering goo, there is a great old book; it must be translated to reveal the secret of the find. The priest summons a professor friend and a group of students for help. A lot of modern equipment appears in the church and specialists from various fields of science will be able to take a look at the strange entity. Meanwhile, homeless people begin to gather around the building – apathetic and in a state of some kind of trance…

Carpenter is a conscious, focused and consistent artist. When he shoots something it’s from the heart. He is like a teenager who has never stopped loving monsters, spaceships and portals to other dimensions. But the director’s helm holds firm. He usually focuses on a clear narration, a precise script; knows that there is no fear without discipline. Small budgets do not allow him to pack a lot of special effects and hundreds of explosions, so he bases his positions on mood and tension. If he charges, it’s conscious and interesting (Big Trouble in Little China or – partially – They Live). However, when he really wants to scare, he makes sure that the modern viewer gets something more than a sheet hanging in the air with cutouts for the eyes. Carpenter takes the viewer and the genre seriously. That’s exactly how it is here. Prince of Darkness is a serious horror game.

prince of darkness

The starting point here was the BBC series from the 1950s (and features produced by the legendary Hammer studio) with Professor Quatermass – a scientist confronting dark secrets and cosmic forces. Carpenter decided to refer to the age-old series, clashing rationality with an alien, sinister force, but the theatrical and naive tricks of the original could not work in the 1980s. The director used all available means to make his contemporary viewer feel the breath of evil on his neck – and with it fear. In my opinion, it worked. What distinguishes this film from other horror films from the 80s (and not only) is its unmistakable Carpenterianness. A tasteful freak, a veritable tangle of clichés and tricks from many horror movies, but glued together professionally and with love for the genre. What I mean here is the first-class atmosphere of tension and anticipation that grips the viewer and then cuts further and further.

prince of darkness

Carpenter knows how to tie the knot. From the first seconds, even though theoretically nothing happens, we feel the breath of horror. The impression of communing with the Other thickens gradually. Carpenter does not rush anywhere, does not immediately open a box full of paranormal delicacies. At the beginning, there is pulsating music and disturbing frames or scenes (a strange glare of the sun, shots of ants or the frenzied timbre of the voice of a homeless woman licking a priest’s hand). We get to know the characters, the problem they have to face, and the growing awesomeness of the presented world is naturally woven into the fabric of the starting story. We have time to believe in this world and the whole situation before the terror sets in and reality derails.

Parallel to the main plot, there is a romance (those are really gruesome in many horror films) between two students, but fortunately it does not eliminate the horror, it is not too sweet or tiring. Our couple likes to talk about the nature of reality and Schrödinger’s cat, not parties, so it doesn’t break up the film stylistically. However, the characters are not the film’s strongest asset. They’re not irritating, but they’re not memorable. The character’s actions also fall through the dialogue, which somewhat lacks life and naturalness. The most interesting was the figure of the priest. He is created by Donald Pleasence, an experienced, characteristic actor with an interesting, diverse track record. In Halloween, he played a psychiatrist who pursues a patient – evil incarnate – while remaining an unobvious and disturbing character himself. Here he brings similar fluids to the role of a clergyman whose name is the same as the character from the series about Michael Myers. Pleasance always adds flavor to the movies he appears in and naturally enhances the aura of the extraordinary. Father Loomis is another dark pearl in his oeuvre. The homeless zombies (?) are led by Alice Cooper. It’s more of a decoration of the film and part of the background than a full-fledged role, but fans of shock-rock darkness should know that the singer shines in Carpenter’s as well.

prince of darkness

After the heroes move into the church, the otherworldly elements are activated and the group becomes a target for them. This is still happening gradually and relatively slowly – Carpenter, a big fan of H. P. Lovecraft, knows well that creeping evil presents itself better than any unleashed Saws or Hostels. Faced with the eternal problem of the creator of horror (how much to show so that the horror does not become ridiculous or trivial?), the director prevails. Carpenter gave us an original and bold vision. Satan appears here as slime, moves from mouth to mouth, and his activity is accompanied by a lot of unusual phenomena. The world becomes chaos. Just a horror. Not the uniform, predictable, systematic roar of this or that monster, but a series of wonders. The ontological shattering of everyday life, the lack of any certainties, the disgusting horror pressing from everywhere and the helplessness of people – this is an interesting variant of the apocalypse. At the same time, its architect allowed himself to jump from idea to idea, resigning from the crystal purity of his earlier titles, which are usually easy to summarize in one or two sentences. There is a lot in he mix: possession by a sinister liquid, mysterious, coarse-grained dreams haunting scientists, homeless zombies, a strange priest, philosophical conversations about the rules that organize the world and the thread of the newly discovered Supernova. Many of them are left unsaid, barely touched upon. It looks like the best of the genre or a creative “I’ve always wanted to do this.” The story seems not very original, it resembles a patchwork. At times, the film looks like Dario Argento’s achievements, such as Suspiria ir Inferno, which aim for brilliantly lit, intense scenes and a psychedelic atmosphere, but less focused on the plot.

prince of darkness donald pleasence

In Prince…, Carpenter draws on motifs from many different horror films. Omen, The Exorcist, Night of the Living Dead mix here, but also his own Attack on Precinct 13 or The Thing. Because, after all, we again have the creator’s favorite theme of cutting off a group of people who have to fight side by side to survive. However, Carpenter’s cinema is not about originality, but a combination of a unique atmosphere, fluent narration with love for well-known pop culture motifs. I was convinced by the vision in Prince, even if it is not the neatest. The mood remains dense until the end. The creator keeps seriousness and multiplies and intensifies the invasion of dark forces, thanks to which we sympathize with a group of scientists. We get in The Prince not only a great picture of the struggle for survival, but also some excellent scenes for gourmets of the genre: a character filled to the brim with vermin falling apart or a murder with a bicycle. The director tries not to dazzle with the macabre excessively, but it must be admitted that he skilfully presses the pedal when necessary.

prince of darknessPerhaps the image would have less impact if not for its pessimistic message. Evil turns out to be relentless and full of power. What about the counterweight? It’s possible there is none. Jesus does not come to the scientists’ aid. Instead, they fall into the traps of green slime one by one. The group crumbles, and scientific knowledge is useless. Carpenter, who has long resented Catholicism, has no intention of comforting us. The priest – an ambiguous character and tired of life – reveals bluntly that the church has produced a less threatening vision of Satan to sell its religious Prozac more easily, and now the priest faces a real, substantial evil, helpless and scared. In fact, no one – neither with the help of a rosary, a piece of glass and an eye, nor the strength derived from love motives – can face the devil here. Thanks to this distribution of accents, Carpenter’s vision of the clash of people with the forces of darkness has the right weight. Formally – as it is with the creator of The Thing – it is impeccable and pleasantly rough at the same time. The locations are great. We watch dark undergrounds and dirty alleys or university halls. Los Angeles without glitz, but disturbing. The photos are tasteful and glamorous, but not cartoonish. The slowly and stylishly flowing camera creates a trance-like, mysterious atmosphere of the story.

A great soundtrack, based on synthesizers, of course, is one of Carpenter’s better worksIt’s . simple, dark, and gives the story a clear, strong rhythm. Only electronics can sound so demonic. It’s naive, but the musical horror effectively creeps under our skin. It’s no wonder that Carpenter has been producing such sounds recently as part of non-film projects and is gaining recognition.

To sum up, here we have another technical gem from the director of The Fog. And at the same time lively and meaty. I really like the plot and formal precision of Halloween or Attack on Precinct 13. But Prince of Darkness is a vision so strong that I enter its world with equally great pleasure. The story – alternately secondary and dotted with interesting motifs – can, however, draw you in. The precise workmanship makes it hard to tear your eyes away, despite the fact that we have here actually a cheap auteur cinema.

No known performers (except for Pleasance), small budget ($3 million), short filming time (14 days) – probably all this is to some extent responsible for the unique flavor of the whole. If not for these limitations, a shiny 80s soap could be created. And here we have original diabolical cinema – rough, hypnotic and unpredictable. Because as it happens, you’re unlikely to guess how it’s all going to end. Suffice it to say that the picture is bursting with sulfur until the end. The writer of Quatermass is actually Carpenter, and his nickname refers us to the review of the BBC series mentioned at the beginning. The title discussed here is the middle link of his Apocalypse Trilogy, positioned between The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness.

john carpenter

I love them all and it seems to me that Prince is only slightly inferior to both classics (perhaps less ambitious, but equally characteristic) showing how different horror registers their creator can move. At the time of its creation, flopped, only to make up for the losses on video later. Currently, of course, it has its fans, but it has never broken through to the general consciousness. But doesn’t this passionate love letter to the genre deserve more recognition? Many people appreciate Carpenter’s films, but point out that this is inferior cinema – nice pictures, but cheap, dingy and not Oscar-worthy. Well, I think his gritty and lively stories are beyond letters and categories. And I don’t need to imagine what it would look like on a bigger budget. These films are just complete. Amen.