Prince of Darkness is the second installment in John Carpenter’s so-called Apocalypse Trilogy, alongside The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness. The 1987 effort also marked a return to Carpenter’s low budget roots. Tired of studio interference on his previous efforts (including Christine and Big Trouble in Little China), Carpenter regained creative control with Prince of Darkness. The lower budget – a modest $3 million – is apparent, but the film effortlessly creates an unnerving atmosphere, the likes of which most Hollywood studios could never duplicate.
In the film, a priest (Donald Pleasence) leads a group of scientists and students to an abandoned church. They are brought together to study an ancient book that accompanies a large cylinder filled a mysterious, green liquid. The text contains blasphemy and heresy, speaking of the “Anti-God.” While the team investigates, a large group of homeless people surround the building. (The leader of the street people is played by rock star Alice Cooper, who kills a guy with a bicycle.) It’s not long before strange happenings occur to the people within the church, where the group are trapped.
Prince of Darkness is slow moving, but Carpenter utilizes the time to build tension; aided by a moody score he composed with Alan Howarth. The story is convoluted but balanced; the most confusing, explanatory scene occurs right before all of the action begins. The plot is interesting enough to keep things moving without relying on kill scenes, although there are several of those too. The early deaths are fairly mundane, but the special effects work is showcased later in the film – including a disfigured woman (Susan Blanchard) who looks like a cross between Freddy Krueger and Frank from Hellraiser.
After successful collaborations on Halloween and Escape from New York, Carpenter wrote the lead role specifically for Pleasence. Pleasance, in between his stints chasing Michael Myers, is a treat to watch as always. Despite his prominent role, his character is only credited as “Priest.” Carpenter also brought in Victor Wong and Dennis Dun, with whom he had recently worked on Big Trouble in Little China.
Scream Factory has released a collector’s edition of Prince of Darkness with plenty of bonus material on DVD and Blu-ray. There are new interviews with Carpenter, Cooper, Howarth and Robert Grasmere (who, in addition to acting, served as special visual effects supervisor). An interesting inclusion is the alternate opening from the television cut of the film, which implies that the film’s events could be a dream. Although minimally different otherwise (and the quality is rough), it would have been nice to have the entire TV version for comparison’s sake.
A previous audio commentary with Carpenter and actor Peter Jason is also included on the disc, and it’s a fun one. Carpenter is candid, if a bit hazy on details, while Jason’s inquisitive nature adds a nice dynamic. Having worked with Carpenter on several other films (including They Live and Escape from L.A.), Jason is genuinely interested in the filmmaker’s process, which makes him a perfect moderator. Rounding out the features are a look at the filming locations as they appear today, trailer and radio spots and a still gallery, along with a Q&A Easter egg.
Although often overlooked in favor of his more well-known works, John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness is a fine, ominous film. (The same goes for In the Mouth of Madness, which I would love to see Scream Factory tackle in the future.) It may not be on the same level as the likes of Halloween or The Thing, but the overlooked gem is deserving of attention.