Prince Of Darkness * * * * 1/2

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Director: John Carpenter.
Screenplay: John Carpenter.
Starring: Donald Pleasance, Lisa Blount, Jameson Parker, Victor Wong, Dennis Dun, Susan Blanchard, Anne Howard, Ann Yen, Dirk Blocker, Peter Jason, Alice Cooper.

During the 70′s and 80′s director John Carpenter was delivering consistently, innovative pieces of work; his shoestring budget sci-fi “Dark Star“, followed by his homage to Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo” with “Assault On Precinct 13” and his horror classic “Halloween” which was one of the original slasher films. He followed these up with cult classic “Escape From New York” before eventually delivering “The Thing” and “Big Trouble in Little China” to poor box-office receipts. Two highly undervalued films but ones that also marked the point where Carpenter couldn’t get his films the proper financial backing anymore. As a result, he went back to making lower budget films and “Prince of Darkness” is one of them. It may be lower budget but Carpenter’s abilities never left him.

For many years, in the basement of an abandoned church lies a vat containing a unknown and moving green liquid. It had been protected by a priest that had belonged to a secret sect and upon his death, the sinister secret of the vat’s existence is passed on to Father Loomis (Donald Pleasance) who enlists the help of a physics Professor (Victor Wong) and his graduate students to investigate. Upon closer inspection, they find that the vat contains the son of Satan who is intent on breaking free and releasing his father into the world.

Like most of John Carpenter’s films it’s his own music score that first grabs your attention – this is no different. His synthesiser mixed with pop sounds
set the foreboding tone wonderfully. Not before long, he hits you with a superlative concept of both science and religion combing to understand a super demonic power while also tapping in the subconscious and
incorporating dream-states, premonitions and the possibility of time travel through “tachyons“. Of course, while all this is going on, Carpenter is delivering the frights slowly but surely. His skill lies in his eerie use of space and being able to make city streets and rooms seem lonely and isolated. By doing so, the horror takes hold. He keeps the danger lurking – as if it’s just outside the door – and shows an absolute command of his material. He knows the tricks; the pace, the mystery and finally the satisfaction of a truly horrific delivery. This film creeps me out every time I see it and regardless of how I get my frights, I still get them. He sets in the panic amongst the characters at just the right time, cranking up his wonderful score and delivering a depth that is so often unappreciated in his work. He’s an intelligent filmmaker and, quite simply, this is one of his most frightening and affecting pieces. Due to budgetary constraints though, the film does have flaws; the acting is certainly one of them (I’ve probably never seen acting so bad in a film that I actually like) but if it wasn’t for these small indiscretions the film might not have worked as well as it does. If anything the abysmal performances add to the overall low-key feel. I don’t want to overstep the mark and fool people into watching something that they just might not appreciate as much as I do but if the faults are overlooked then there is much to admire here. Horror is definitely a genre that I’m highly critical of, so when one happens to be available that far exceeds the dross of today, it deserves to be looked at. Most critics have panned this film and to some extent I can see why but if you see beyond the poor performances, the slightly dated appearance and occasional sticky dialogue then you’ll still find that Carpenter’s intelligence and skill is at the core of this imaginative and deeply unsettling, Lovecraftian horror. (The second instalment in Carpenter’s ‘Apocalypse Trilogy’, starting with “The Thing” and finishing with “In The Mouth Of Madness“).

One of the most underrated horror films of all time with a director working within the confines of a very low budget yet still managing to transcend his restrictions and allow his abilities to astound. If only all horror had as much originality and concepts as ingenious as this.

Mark Walker

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53 Responses to “Prince Of Darkness * * * * 1/2”

  1. This really is an underrated, under appreciated John Carpenter film, bar none. I love this film! I watch it almost every Halloween season (like we’re in now). The other thing that’s so great about, besides the very clever juxtaposing of science and religion in its premise, was its undeniable atmosphere. The location work, most done nearby the campus of Carpenter’s (and my wife’s) alma mater of USC, really helped with that. I can drive by that old church still, to this day (though it doesn’t appear near as imposing now).

    The film’s imagery and score are so unique, and really unforgettable. First time I ever saw the movie (on VHS tape, I believe), it haunted me for days. I have in my collection the really barebones Region 1 US release. However, the one I treasure is the Region 2 DVD by Momentum Pictures from the UK. Primarily, for its 5.1 sound, anamorphic wide screen picture, and its audio commentary tracking featuring John Carpenter and actor Peter Jason. I’m telling you, listen to their story of its making if you haven’t already gotten your hands on it. It’s great!

    Great to hear you’re a fan of this one, Mark. Many thanks for a wonderful review.

    • Very kind words Michael. Thank you.
      I couldn’t agree more with you on this one; it is the most underrated and under appreciated of his films. It was a good little f@#k you to the studios as well. They wouldn’t finance him anymore and he goes out and delivers this masterwork. No matter how many times I see this, it gets me every time. This intelligence and craftsmanship at work here and it gave me a fear of mirrors ever since.

      If that church you speak of isn’t as imposing it just shows how well Carpenter does his job. These dreams sequences sent by tachyons is some seriously creepy stuff.

      Glad to meet another fan Michael. Thanks again for reading. :-)

    • Victor De Leon Says:

      This commentary by JC and Jason is the only one I believe I have yet to hear. I need to pick that dvd up!

      • It’s another good one by the director and a co-starring actor. I won’t spoil it for you, but the commentary highlight covers the film’s astonishing visual climax with the mirror and Lisa Blount.

      • Victor De Leon Says:

        Very cool! I can’t wait to hear it. JC always sounds pretty comfortable with his actors on his commentaries. I don’t mind his solo commentaries but when he’s with a lead actor it just seems ten times more entertaining. Thanks!

      • I really must check that out Michael. That climax was certainly astounding and I’d like to hear more from JC on it. Cheers man.

  2. DUDE – I wish I could push that like button a hundred times. This is one of my favorites and I try and watch it often. Excellent!!

  3. Sounds like a fantastic film, but reading this review and Michael’s comment above, I don’t think it’s good for my nerves, ahah. I enjoy reading your write up though, as always.

  4. You said “One of the most underrated horror films of all time”. That’s enough to get me interested. I haven’t seen this movie but it’s on my immediate radar now. Good stuff!

    • It has some faults in regards to the budget and the acting Keith but there’s no denying Carpenter’s expertise in wringing out the creepy moments. As a concept, it’s genius like most of John Carpenter’s films. If you like him, you should get something from this. Hope you enjoy it bro. Thanks!

    • Victor De Leon Says:

      It’s pretty cool, Keith, it’s old school and very creepy.

  5. Interesting review, Mark. I think I was only familiar with this before from the title song by Alice Cooper (it’s on one of his boxed sets). It sounds like it might be worth watching.

    • Thanks Morgan. Yeah, I think this is Carpenter’s most underrated film. It won’t appeal to everyone. In fact, some people think it’s pure crap but I love it.

  6. Great write up as always dude. Another to add to my ever growing ‘to watch’ list.

  7. I do hate Halloween. Everyone posts about film I havent seen cos I am too much of a wimp….

    • Haha. You need to test yourself sometimes man. I’m not always in the mood for horrors myself but this is a personal favourite of mine.

    • I re-watched this last night because of Mark’s review and its so worth it, Scott.

      • That’s nice to hear Michael. Glad to be a wee reminder. By the way, do you have a review of it? I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts.

      • I’ve never done one for ‘Prince of Darkness’. Many films I admire I tend to shy away from writing about for fear of not doing them justice. Over the years, I’ve collected some extraordinary looks at the film and shared them out to others (like I will with your splendid look at PoD). I recommend these from a pair of online friends: John Kenneth Muir’s and J.D.’s, if you’re interested. Like you, they put into words what I only feel. Thanks, Mark.

      • Kind words again Michael. Thanks. I’ll definitely check out those links you suggest. It’s always nice to meet other fans. Especially when a film is so under appreciated.

  8. To be honest, I wasn’t even aware of this one, but you’ve done a good job of selling it! I’m not sold on that poster though! Ha!

  9. Great post Mark, I haven’t seen this one but as I enjoyed other films by Carpenter I may watch this.

    • Thanks Vinnie. If you like Carpenter already then theres a good chance you’ll enjoy this as well.

      • Victor De Leon Says:

        Awesome write up, Mark! You have summed up this very overlooked movie way better than I could have. (I’ve not dared to review this one for fear of it being a lovefest). As you pointed out despite some low key trappings the film is impeccably shot, unsettling and sports an awesome score. It has mood and the religious and scientific parallels (especially the quantum physics) are fun. What I love the most, though? Those terrifying dream sequences…

      • Thanks Vic. I was tempted to go go the lovefest approach myself. ;-) It could have been very easy but for those that haven’t seen it, I had to point out the budgetary constraints.

        As for those dream sequences… Very, very creepy. They were what got me most also. They completely stick in your mind afterwards.

  10. So glad to see this getting such a positive review here. I’d always read mixed things about it so only got round to watching it for the first time recently and I was amazingly creeped out by it. Especially the sequence you used for your final photo. Alice Cooper is a brilliant sinister presence in it too and I’d definitely watch it again. A lot of newer horror film-makers should be forced to watch this!

    • I couldn’t agree more my friend. Carpenter could teach these new horror filmmakers a thing or two and the dream sequences you speak of are definitely some of the creepiest parts of the film. This definitely ranks as one of my favourite horror movies. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

      • You’re welcome! I’ve been watching a ton of modern horrors lately and the standard is depressingly low… then you watch something like this or The Changeling and they’re such an improvement. What did they know then that we don’t know now?
        Scott

      • I often wonder that very thing myself Scott. What exactly has went wrong with modern horrors? Has we become a far more sophisticated audience where the genre just doesn’t work anymore? To find any good horrors we have to look back the way. I’ve not seen The Changeling yet bit it was recently brought to my attention. I’m also going to revisit A Nightmare On Elm St as well. That one has always stuck with me since I was a youngster. I hope it still holds up. Thanks again man.

      • It think it still holds up, I got the Elm St box-set recently. The New Nightmare film is surprisingly good too. Nightmare on Elm St and The Terminator were the first videos I ever rented!

        I’ve seen some new ones I’ve enjoyed but the hit-rate is pretty low… most films seem to rely on “Boo” scares rather than creepiness or a sense of the uncanny! The Changeling is well worth checking out, it’s quite slow with a few genuinely chilling moments, great acting and a great story too. I think you’d like it.

      • Yeah, I first seen Elm St when I was about 10 years old. Too young, I know and as a result it has never left me. I used to watch it regularly but it’s been quite a number of years now. Just recently got a copy and just waiting for the right time to watch it. I remember liking A New Nightmare as well. It was cleverly done but I couldn’t care much for the other instalments.

        As for The Changeling, it’s on my list and I’ve looked it recently. As well as reading a couple of bloggers reviews. I think I will like this one. Cheers Scott.

      • @ Heavy Metal Overload: great to hear you appreciate ‘The Changeling’. Another somewhat forgotten gem.

      • I keep hearing of this one Michael. I must seek it out.

      • Oh, yes. Please do. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with the Peter Medak film.

  11. [...] with a splendid film review by my colleague Mark Walker, we somehow reached an overdue alignment (and got me to re-watch and enjoy it once [...]

  12. I love John Carpenter. I haven’t’ seen Prince of Darkness, but you’re right about Big Trouble in Little China. It was criminally overlooked when released. It has subsequently become a cult classic since. I recently watched the film and it really holds up. Great review by the way!

    • Thanks Mark. Great to hear of another Big Trouble In Little China fan. I love most of Carpenter’s works and Prince Of Darkness is definitely up there with his best. It may not be for everyone but the concept is pure horror genius. I hope you get a chance to catch up with it soon man. Thanks for stopping by. :-)

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