Between the early 1980s and the mid-’90s, John Carpenter made a trio of horror movies unofficially known as the “Apocalypse Trilogy”. It begins with The Thing in 1982 and later, followed by Prince of Darkness in 1987 before Carpenter ended his trilogy with In the Mouth of Madness in 1994.
His second movie in the trilogy, Prince of Darkness received mixed responses from critics upon its initial release in 1987 and it was largely seen as one of the most underrated horror movies in John Carpenter’s decades-long filmography. I recently revisited the movie and found Carpenter’s then-odd mix of demonic horror, theoretical science and religion largely intriguing and at times, cheesy.
But let’s get the intriguing part out of the way. I love the immediate sense of ominous dread that Carpenter effectively builds from the elaborate opening credits itself, beginning with John Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s atmospheric minimalist score setting the tone of the movie. Some of the brief scenes — an old priest dying under mysterious circumstances after a full moon night, a swarm of busy ants under the tree of a university campus, a quantum physicist professor (Victor Wong) talking to his class about beliefs, time and nature related to quantum physics — all strategically interspersed with the credits back and forth. These scenes may seem random and unrelated. But Carpenter manages to make them work because of the way he juxtaposed the weird phenomenon and everyday life, which in turn, creates a ripple of perturbing effect suggesting an impending doom is coming.
At the centre of the story written by John Carpenter but officially credited under the pseudonym of Martin Quatermass is an anxious Catholic priest (Donald Pleasance), who urgently required the professional assistance of Professor Howard Birack (Wong) and his students (among them includes Jameson Parker’s Brian Marsh, Lisa Blount’s Catherine Danforth and Dennis Dun’s Walter Fong). Apparently, the priest (his character remains nameless throughout the movie) wants them to investigate a mysterious cylinder containing a glowing green liquid located in the basement of an old Los Angeles monastery.
As they search for an answer, they soon discover the green liquid is an embodiment of Satan and it somehow manages to escape from the cylinder. From there, the liquid slowly infects the students one by one, turning them into possessed beings. And that is not all as the equally possessed homeless people led by Alice Cooper (yes that rock singer Alice Cooper) are all gathering outside the church and they would kill anyone trying to escape.
As an apocalyptic horror, a sizable budget is usually needed to make it work and that’s something John Carpenter didn’t have the privilege, to begin with. Instead, he was only granted a paltry US$3 million and the limited budget does show in the finished product. The most obvious one has to be the poor man’s zombie makeup effect on Alice Cooper’s character, which looks like he’s auditioned for an ’80s rock music video.
And yet, being the master of terror and suspense, Carpenter is still able to make good use of the budget to stage plenty of dread-inducing moments. The aforementioned opening scene is one of them and so does the inspired choice of setting his movie predominantly in a church, which has a surreal and gothic feel to it. Not to mention it helps to establish a sense of claustrophobia within the church setting enhanced by Gary B. Kibbe’s atmospheric cinematography. Upon rewatching the movie, I can’t help but the claustrophobia and a single location immediately evoke the similarity that Carpenter did eleven years prior in 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13.
Despite Alice Cooper’s unconvincing zombie makeup, the special effects used in Prince of Darkness aren’t a complete failure. This is especially true with one of the possessed students, which has her heavily disfigured and bloodied face looking like a rotting, walking corpse. The grotesque makeup (yes, it was done practically) still gives me the chills even after all these decades. Then, there’s the use of a mirror to turn it into an otherworldly portal-like universe (again, the amazing power of practical effects and this time with the help of an added mercury). Another scene worth mentioning is the method of killing off a character, notably an unforgettable moment where one of the unfortunate students got impaled by a broken bicycle.
Prince of Darkness also benefits from Donald Pleasance and Victor Wong’s engaging performances, where both of them are no strangers to appearing in John Carpenter’s movies (Pleasance is known for his recurring roles as Dr Samuel Loomis in Halloween and its sequels while Wong previously played Egg Shen in Big Trouble in Little China).
Of course, not all scenes work in Prince of Darkness and this includes the unnecessary love story between Brian and Catherine, which leads to nowhere other than serving as a placeholder. The introduction of Dennis Dun’s character as a comic relief feels awkwardly misplaced due to the movie’s overall serious tone. Carpenter’s bold narrative move to set up an antagonist of Satan in the form of a cylindrical green liquid sounds silly — at least, on paper — as if he was making a supernatural comedy. Fortunately, the execution itself doesn’t turn out that way (read: unintentionally laughable), thanks to Carpenter’s overall know-how direction in Prince of Darkness.