Prince of Darkness (1987) d. Carpenter, John (USA)
With a story centering on a 7-million-year old canister in the basement of a Los Angeles church, kept secret by the Catholics for millennia, this heady brew of quantum mechanics, Christianity, occult legend and science fiction transmissions from the future left critics and audiences puzzled and dissatisfied upon its release in 1987. Over the years, however, it has slowly gained traction among the horror faithful. While I’m still no card-carrying convert and I’ve yet to drink the “unsung classic” Kool-Aid, I’m more willing a couple decades later to give it the benefit of the doubt. Not sure if this says more about the movie or my ever-slipping quality standards, but where I used to find it poorly performed and irretrievably cheap and convoluted, I now find it slightly less offensive in all departments. Damnation by faint praise? Maybe, but it’s a decided step up from the vitriol I was doling out before.
Victor Wong and Donald Pleasance respectively star as a university physics professor and a priest who ally forces in order to contend with this ancient menace, one that might prove to be as old as the universe itself. Yes, Pleasance believes that this swirling cylindrical container – which resembles nothing so much as a green/black lava lamp – is somehow connected to the gateway to the underworld, with, as one character notes, “Ol’ Scratch knocking at the door.” Wong recruits his best and brightest students to try to figure out what the strange energy emitting from the canister and the equations found alongside it mean, but it isn’t long after all of them are assembled inside the church confines that Hell quite literally starts breaking loose.
The first of the film’s many problems is the inordinate lack of character development from the large ensemble. These hastily sketched ciphers have no relationship to one another, with the exception of fellow brainiacs Jameson Parker (Simon & Simon) and Lisa Blount (Dead & Buried), who manage to play hide the salami before the final showdown commences. (Parker’s mustache carries more weight than this thin romantic entanglement, which yields little in the long game.) The rest of the cast are superficially distinguishable from one another, mostly by race and gender. There’s also a small community of transfixed homeless people, led by rock star Alice Cooper, who do little but stand outside the establishment and glare balefully.
And no kidding: every time Dennis Dun – so enjoyable in Big Trouble in Little China – opens his wisecracking mouth, I want to hurl something at my flatscreen.
Next on the chopping block are the oodles of pseudo-religious and/or scientific gobbledegook spewed, (which Carpenter reveals on Shout! Factory’s new Blu-ray commentary track that even he doesn’t know what much of it means). Nothing is as profound or intelligent as it pretends to be, no matter how much quiet intensity Pleasance and Wong try to imbue it with; maybe this is why Carpenter elected to assume the alias of “Martin Quatermass” for his screenwriting credit. (More on that in a second.)
Which leaves us with only the horror to carry the day. Frights that consist primarily of cute radiologist Susan Blanchard, after being contaminated by the demonic lava lamp, turning into a human water pistol, shooting streams of nasty fluid into people’s mouths and thereby turning them into fellow zombies. The effects range from kinda clever (as in one character’s dispatch via a halved bicycle – a gag lifted directly from Cooper’s stage show) to the distractingly obvious (Blanchard’s lethal geyser clearly situated on the non-camera side of her face). There’s a neat little bit where one guy disintegrates into a pile of teeming beetles and another when one of our ladies develops a really nasty rash after being orally inseminated by the demon parfait. But these are the highlights, and they’re not really all that high.
I’ve heard people defend Prince of Darkness over the years by comparing it to the 80s Italian heyday of wackadoo illogic, but it lacks the zany energy and over-the-top splatter those films offer as compensation. Sure, there’s a dash of Lovecraft here and some Nigel Kneale there, but ultimately there’s little in the way of tension and even less of character identification. But, as I mentioned earlier, the movie does have its fans, and Shout! Factory has pulled out the stops in terms of delightful BR supplemental features.
There is the aforementioned audio commentary which the writer/director shares with Hollywood veteran Peter Jason (Dr. Leahy), the latter often asking the most banal of questions in order to keep the conversation going. Oddly enough, it is here (or perhaps in the “Sympathy for the Devil” interview segment with Carpenter) that we might expect to hear something about Carpenter’s use of a pseudonym, but no answers are forthcoming. In fact, if you didn’t already know that “MQ = JC,” you wouldn’t find out about it here unless you happen to find the “Easter Egg” featuring a 2012 Screamfest Q&A following the film's 25th anniversary screening, shot on Marc Pilvinsky’s iPhone.
Other Red Shirt Productions treasures include “Alice at the Apocalypse,” a conversation with Cooper about how he came to be involved in the project; “The Messenger” with visual f/x man turned actor Robert Grasmere, who helped create the problematic swirling vat of green/black liquid among other gags, including his own buggy demise in the church parking lot; “Hell on Earth” with composer Alan Howarth who collaborated with the director on the score – undeniably one of Carpenter’s finest; the alternate opening scene as shown on broadcast TV, a version which purportedly had many different changes, including the fact that the events shown might even be Parker’s character’s dream; and the original theatrical trailer.
The best of the bunch is a terrific segment of Sean Clark’s Horror’s Hallowed Grounds, which visits the shoot’s practical locations today (revealing that, among other things, the church’s interiors have now been converted in L.A.'s Henry David Hwang Theatre). Clark makes for an engaging host, and while he occasionally seems to be mocking the very feature he’s ostensibly paying tribute, it’s all done in good fun and high energy. The Sean-as-Jameson-in-bed sequence alone is worth the sticker price.
Prince of Darkness makes its Shout! Factory Blu-ray debut on September 24, 2013 and is available for pre-order HERE.
--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine