Film Reviews

31 Days of Halloween: John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness

John Carpenter interviews are always the best, that is if you get a kick out of cranky old man soundbites. Tell him you love The Thing, he’ll crack a joke about where the hell were you in 1982 when he could have used your business at the box office since that movie famously bombed and made the rest of the decade very hard for him. Call him the master of horror and he’ll – cigarette in hand, puffing smoke in-between sentences – growl that he would have rather made westerns. New Hitchcock? Pfft. He wanted to be the new John Ford! Plus, it’s not like he only made horror. Didn’t you see Big Trouble in Little China?

You could say he’s simply entered into his own don’t-give-a-fuck phase, that late-stage career place where Hollywood types lose their filter. But, no, he’s always been like this. Given that kind of rock star attitude, it seems entirely appropriate that he’s now spending his twilight years touring the world and playing his famous musical scores in concert, his son and godson in tow as members of the band. In an age in which bands and orchestrators are enamored with 80s-inspired synths again, Carpenter is a natural fit, despite the fact that he’s 71-years-old. So, Shudder hired him to write the little piece of music you hear every time you open the app, and rather than write or direct the new Halloween movies he’s composing for them.

It is actually because of this new phase of Carpenter’s career that I was turned on to Prince of Darkness. As a film fan, I’ve always been a bit mixed on his body of work, rallying behind the usuals (Halloween, The Thing, They Live), scratching my head over what he got up to in the 90s and beyond (Ghosts of Mars, Vampires, Escape from L.A.), and liking but loving some of his others (Starman, Memoirs of an Invisible Man). I still had some huge blindspots, though. Until last year, I had never seen Escape From New York, and I was only even vaguely aware that movies like 1987’s Prince of Darkness and 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness existed. (I watched the latter for last year’s 31 Days of Halloween).

Then I heard this on Spotify:

I was mesmerized. Carpenter, the son of a music professor, has always paired his visuals with memorable scores, many of them with driving beats that choke your neck with tension or just plain rock. This is something different, far eerier than usual, the walking bass line intercut with rather lovely sonic soundscapes. To compare it to another score from the era, it strikes me as a more subdued marriage of Brad Fiedel’s “dun-dun-dundun-dun” Terminator theme with his more lyrical Sarah Connor-Kyle Reese love theme. As argued by AVForum in its review of the Prince of Darkness soundtrack:

“Once again working with his trusted musical collaborator, Alan Howarth, Prince Of Darkness was synthesized and built out of passages of sustained ambiance, pounding, insistent themes, deep, swirling electronic experimentalism and a profound and driving sense of fatalistic relentlessness. But the pair eschewed the dominant heroic main theme that had become so symbolic of their work in everything from Assault, Escape, Halloween and The Fog in favor of something much more primal, eerie, penetrating and thickly embroiled in electro-gothic fugue. The ever-present sense of menace and grim anticipation is wonderfully spread across the score, Carpenter’s repetition of theme and heavy portentous chords capturing the frisson of trapped souls locked in battle with something supremely eeeevilllllll that is lurking at the threshold.”

That settles it – I am in love with this music. But what about the actual movie? What is Prince of Darkness even about? Luckily, the programmer behind my local, month-long horror film festival chose to include Princess of Darkness this week. Perfect! I can pay for the opportunity to hear that music through big movie theater speakers and, ya know, see the movie for the first time.

Now that I’ve left the theater, what did I think of the movie? Well…that music sure is great.

What’s It About?

A research team – headed by a priest (Donald Pleasance), a quantum physicist (Victor Wong), and his army of grad students (Jameson Parker, Lisa Blount, Dennis Dun, Susan Blanchard) – finds a mysterious cylinder in a deserted church. If opened, it could mean the end of the world, demolishing the wall separating us from the devil. Small problem: the cylinder actually opens from the inside, not out, and whenever any single member of the group is isolated with the cylinder it shoots mysterious water in their face, turning them into a zombie ordered with converting others to the cause. (The method for conversion will look familiar to anyone who has seen Doctor Who’s “The Waters of Mars.”)

If that wasn’t bad enough, the group is also under siege from an army of mind-controlled homeless people (their leader played by Alice Cooper) standing guard outside, and the closer they come to the apparent end of the world the less the laws of the known universe seem to apply.

Did I Like It?

Noted horror movie expert Kim Newman once referred to Carpenter’s post-The Thing output from 1983 to 1989 as “modestly likable,” a backhanded way of saying the director’s films from that period were usually good, rarely great. Christine (‘83) and They Live (‘88) fans would have words with him over that, but I think that description definitely applies to Prince of Darkness: modestly likable.

This is film teeming with big ideas, cool physical effects, and a crosscutting finale where the heroes are all losing their battles in different corners of the church until something unexpected happens. It also seems to proceed in fits and starts before suddenly nothing happens and there might just be too much quantum physics speak for the movie’s own good. The ending is also a giant “huh?” followed by “so what?” Still, it’s a John Carpenter movie starring Halloween’s Donald Pleasance and Big Trouble In Little China’s Victor Wong and Denis Dun. That adds an extra layer of intrigue.

I’ve since learned Carpenter thinks of this as the middle entry of his Apocalypse trilogy, bookended by The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness. It does actually feel stuck between those two extremes: the isolated-in-a-small-space-and-everyone’s-turning-into-a-pod-personhorror of The Thing and Lovecraftian mind fuck imagery of In the Mouth of Madness. However, Prince of Darkness also has one of Carpenter’s best all-time scores and manages to impress with its ability to offer a fresh take on the Judeo-Christian version of the devil.

Did It Scare Me?

Scare, no, but this scene did get me to squirm in my seat:

Where to Stream

According to JustWatch: Currently, you are able to watch “Prince of Darkness” streaming on fuboTV. It is also possible to buy “Prince of Darkness” on Apple iTunes, PlayStation, Vudu, Google Play Movies, YouTube, Microsoft Store, Redbox, Amazon Video as download or rent it on PlayStation, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play Movies, Microsoft Store, Redbox, Apple iTunes, Amazon Video online.

31 Days of Halloween So Far:

Next Up: Lizzy Caplan lets the river run.

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