John Carpenter has long since been a master of horror. Although not very active these days, Carpenter has created a variety of iconic horror films in the 70s and 80s. His most well-known works include 1978’s Halloween and 1982’s The Thing, which often (rightfully) rank up there as some of the greatest horror films of all time. He shares the rare distinction of creating both commercial hits, like The Fog (1980), Escape from New York (1981) and Starman (1984), and commercial failures that have now cult classics, like The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China (1986), They Live (1988), In the Mouth of Madness (1995) and 1987’s Prince of Darkness.
Prince of Darkness follows an unnamed priest (played by Halloween’s Donald Pleasence) who invites a quantum physicist, Howard Birick (Victor Wang) to investigate a mysterious cylinder containing a swirling green liquid. Birick brings along many of his students, and they investigate and inspect the cylinder.
As is often the case with various Carpenter films, if the cylinder is opened, then it could inevitably end in disaster, and possibly the end of the world. The film is discussed by Carpenter to be the second instalment of in his self-titled “Apocalypse Trilogy”, following The Thing and preceding In the Mouth of Madness. The film is especially alike The Thing, as it centrally contains a virus-like enemy that attacks a group of characters in a single location, that could lead to the end of the world.
All three of the films are similar as they discuss existential themes. They all discuss what happens when a mysterious entity attacks a person, and how it effects their personality and humanity. These themes are favoured over more political and allegorical themes. If these films would be made now, it would most likely be an comment on global warning and the end of the world, however, Carpenter never really dives into these themes.
However, out of all of the apocalypse trilogy, Prince of Darkness remains the weakest. The Thing is an utter classic, and In the Mouth of Madness is a really underrated and interesting gem, while Prince of Darkness is decidedly non perfect.
One of the main problems with the film is that the characters are mainly one-note and not that interesting. They conform to mainly stereotypes – the handsome and heroic leading man (Brian Marsh, played by Jameson Parker), his attractive love interest (Catherine Danforth, played by Lisa Blount), the worried priest, always harping on about the end of the world (played by Pleasence) and the rational scientist (Howard Birack, played by Victor Wong). We also have the typical “comic relief” character in the form of Dennis Dun’s Walter, and his comedy never quite works or clicks into place.
This is a shame because, for a film like this, it really needs interesting and three-dimensional characters. The Thing, for example, has a really group of fascinating and multi-faceted characters. Also, the film has simply too many characters – other than the 5 leads, there is a variety of supporting characters that are never fleshed out, and unfortunately, shift the focus away from the leading characters. The film also misses a solid leading actor at it’s core – over Carpenter’s films, he has often features one actor very prominently, from Kurt Russell to Jamie Lee Curtis to Sam Neill, and Prince of Darkness misses all of that in favour of a big ensemble cast.
This relates to a problem that is recurrent through the rest of the film – it is very over-complicated. What Carpenter always really exceeds at is creating films with a beautiful simplicity – from The Thing to Halloween, a lot of his films have simple premises that are fleshed out through their brilliant scripts. Prince of Darkness, feels over-complicated and over-cluttered, but because this, oddly feels underdeveloped and simple.
That is not to say that the film is not without some real positives. The film is really great for it’s fantastic body horror, propelled by it’s wonderful visual effects. Carpenter has also been a great pioneer of practical visual effects, with The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness both having some really tactile, detailed visual effects that make the drama more effective. Prince of Darkness is very similar in how it is a real visual treasure, and the body horror is wonderfully gross and disgusting.
Without spoiling anything, the character of Kelly (played by Susan Blanchard) in particular has some brilliant body horror moments over the film, culminating in the most iconic image from the film, as shown above. Also, something that is better about this film as opposed to In the Mouth of Madness is that Carpenter is very sparse with his visual effects. He peppers it throughout the film very smartly, and doesn’t overdo it.
The film has some additionally visually appealing moments, as well. One of the ending shots, in which one of the characters ends up trapped on the other side of a mirror, is a stunning and visually beautiful moment that will rank up there as one of Carpenter’s best moments.
The film, overall, is more to be admired than enjoyed. It can be admired for it’s unashamed weirdness and ambition, however, you can very much poke holes at it’s flaws. If you are a Carpenter fan (like I am), however, it is definitely worth a watch.