Listen, I know how it sounds. The devil’s in a big glass jar. He controls the homeless and uses them to trap people in a church, where they use science to try and figure out an ancient evil. They dream TV transmissions from the “future” (the year 1…9…9…9…). Plus, those clothes. And the mustaches. By all rights, John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness should have been a forgettable, maybe even silly, piece of 80s cinema. It shouldn’t work. But it does, and it’s one of Carpenter’s best and most accomplished works.
I talk a lot to my movie-loving friends about how sometimes, you need to meet a movie where it lives instead of expecting it to come to you. Allowing it to happen to you. Some films don’t spoon feed you, some of them need an open mind and a lack of pre-conceived notions about how it’s all going to work. If you can go into Prince of Darkness with that kind of mindset, it won’t disappoint. In fact, it will probably scare the shit out of you.
Taking the idea of demonic possession and expanding the concept to a cerebral musing on science and religion, Carpenter’s movie is hard to describe in a few short sentences. A group of young grad students and their professor are asked by a priest (Carpenter regular Donald Pleasance) to investigate a strange canister at an old church. Using scientific investigation, they discover that the canister may house something worse than the devil, looking for a way to enter our world. Trapped in the church by a zombie-like army of homeless people (led by Alice Cooper), the students are possessed one by one, until the remaining few must try and find a way to stop the end of the world, even if it means the ultimate sacrifice.
All of the classic Carpenter is here – the long POV tracking shots, the synth score, the willingness to allow a downbeat and/or ambiguous ending, the familiar cast of characters (one from Halloween, several from Big Trouble in Little China, and one who is clearly channeling Tom Atkins and his mustache).
Carpenter has never been a man afraid to build a film instead of rushing to the easy jump scares, and this is no exception. There are no stings in this movie, no lead-ins to scares. Instead, it’s about creating an atmosphere in which scares happen. Allowing us time to get to know and care for the characters, building the atmosphere in the church without leading you by the nose. And when the characters start to fall to the entity, they don’t just become evil monsters (except one, who is clearly an evil monster. You’ll know who I mean, promise). When those people are possessed, they know it and can do nothing to stop it. And it’s agonizing. Watching their faces as they try and resist the change, only to succumb to it even after death is one of the scariest parts of the film. Special points to actor Jesse Lawrence Ferguson and his sad, creepy half laugh/half tears/all terrifying possession scenes. This is Carpenter at his best – he doesn’t give you cheap, he gives you horror on many levels, full on with no holds barred. And it sticks with you, long after the credits roll.
I won’t give away the affecting and disturbing climax and epilogue here. But I will say it’s a perfect ending for the film, one only Carpenter (and perhaps a few select others) would have the balls and bravery to deliver. Some of those images from the end have been stuck in my head since the first time I saw this film, and subsequent viewings have done nothing to lessen their power to unsettle me. And even though I know how it’s all going to end, those last few seconds of the film are still tense for me.
I just finished watching Prince of Darkness again. Just now, right before I started writing this review. Before I started watching, I reminded myself that opinions on this film are very mixed, with almost as many detractors as fans, so I should try and be as objective as possible, despite my love of John Carpenter. So with that in mind, I watched it. And I can honestly say I don’t know what the haters are talking about. I’m still in awe of how well put together this movie is, how it shouldn’t work but does, and works so well. Every time I sit down to watch this film, I find it’s even better than I remember. Watch this movie, people, and then try to get it out of your head.