Reviews

'Prince of Darkness' and the Devil You Don't Know

The devil is in the details in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. Well it’s not exactly the devil, it’s a kind of anti-reality particle. And the details, in this case, happen to be quantum mechanics.


Prince of Darkness

Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Donald Pleasence, Victor Wong, Jameson Parker, Alice Cooper
Distributor: Shout! Factory
Rated: R
Release date: 2013-09-24

Horror fans owe a great deal to John Carpenter. He, along with Tobe Hooper and his Texas Chainsaw Massacre, basically invented the slasher genre. Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween long held the title of highest grossing independent film in history. The brilliant 1982 The Thing remade Howard Hawks classic and, along with Ridley Scott’s Alien, forged a link between science fiction and horror that owes more to H.P. Lovecraft than H.G. Wells.

Carpenter also created some minor classics that haven’t been available in a decent print for quite some time. His 1987 Prince of Darkness may be the top film in that category. It’s deeply strange, awash in good ideas and filled with scene chewing performances from the likes of Donald Pleasence that still today seem more iconic than silly. Shout! Factory has done fans a great service with their new Blu-ray release of Carpenter’s satanic thriller.

Satanic tales flooded American theatres in the '80s. In part, the success of The Exorcist and The Omen in the previous decade fueled this demonic renaissance. So did a real-life satanic panic in American society, when Christian evangelicals accused heavy metal musicians of encoding diabolical messages in their music. Meanwhile, contemporary urban legends told of secret satanic worshippers kidnapping children for their dark rituals.

Genius that he is, Carpenter didn’t tell another story of possession and chanting covens in black robes. “Our logic collapses on the subatomic level into ghosts and shadows,” Dr. Birack says during a classroom lecture in one of the film’s opening scenes. Victor Wong, who previously worked with John Carpenter in Big Trouble in Little China, stars as this professor of physics pulled into an apocalyptic weekend at an old church where Something, imprisoned for eons, is about to get out.

The devil is in the details in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. Well it’s not exactly the devil, it’s a kind of anti-reality particle. And the details, in this case, happen to be quantum mechanics. And it’s contained, or was contained, in a bottle of green fluid that the Catholic Church has guarded for two millennia. Donald Pleasence steps in here as an unnamed, and slightly psychotic seeming, priest who knows the church’s deep, dark secret.

It’s an incredible treat to watch this film, a horror film that depends on slowly building dread rather than scaring us with things jumping out of other things. At the same time, it has a suitably insane ending and plenty of interesting ideas. There’s even a bit of H.P. Lovecraft inspired cosmic horror as the creature being held pre-dates human civilization and has slept, or at least oozed, long before the dawn of humanity.

The explanation for all of this is both ludicrous and glorious, giving this extremely odd film a much tighter narrative than one expects from a horror movie from this, or really any, era.

Oh yeah, spoiler alert: Jesus was an alien. And, in an almost perfect collation with the era’s anxiety about heavy metal music, Alice Cooper appears as a murderous, possessed street person being called to the church by the Thing that’s trying to get out.

Shout! Factory tends to do a great job with bonus features and this release proves no exception. Sadly, only the audio commentary failed to live up to expectations. This is such a deeply interesting film, with its odd mixture of science and the occult, that I had high hopes that Carpenter might talk more about his own vision. Carpenter actually mixes up which of his film’s he’s commenting on at the beginning of the commentary, saying that he’ll be talking about Ghosts of Mars.

Much more satisfying than the audio commentary is a detailed interview with Carpenter where he talks about his interest in religion, physics and Hammer horror films. He also describes the ways German Expressionism influenced the sometimes-languid dread of Prince of Darkness. He also has some things to say about the “derivative” nature of horror and how he feels about the pacing and editing of modern movies. It’s a delight.

Also included is an episode of “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds” (I didn't know this existed) that visits the major sites where Carpenter filmed Prince of Darkness. This includes the former church that’s now the David Henry Wong Theatre, the exteriors of which were used for the church in the film. Carpenter filmed most of the interiors in a ballroom in Long Beach. This featurette runs about 12 minutes.

We also get an alternate opening of the film, heavily edited for television. Thankfully, this footage never made its way into theatres. In this version, there’s at least the suggestion that all the events of Prince of Darkness are the dream of Jameson Parker’s character (yes, the guy from Simon and Simon). It’s not clear whether this was used specifically to tone down the horror a bit for TV audiences (“don’t worry, its only a dream!”) or a direction Carpenter considered going and thought better of.

An interview with Alice Cooper offers the real treat of the special features. Its great fun to listen to Cooper describes his love for the Universal Studio monster films of the '30s and '40s. Best of all, we learn that Carpenter borrowed one of the kill scenes from Cooper’s stage show. Bizarrely, Cooper also talks about his own beliefs about the nature of Satan and religion. This is not to be missed if you enjoy the odd byways of horror culture.

Other bonus materials include discussion of the score and the special effects, as well as the original trailer and a stills gallery. Shout! packed this all into one Blu-ray disc, something to be applauded at a time when big budget studio releases often include far less material on their multi-disc combo sets.

This is a real gift for horror fans, a film from a very creative era in horror history that will make you want to rewatch even more Carpenter classics.

7
Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.

Film

The 10 Best Films of Sir Alan Parker

Here are 10 reasons to mourn the passing of one of England's most interesting directors, Sir Alan Parker.

Music

July Talk Transform on 'Pray for It'

On Pray for It, Canadian alt-poppers July Talk show they understand the complex dualities that make up our lives.

Music

With 'Articulation' Rival Consoles Goes Back to the Drawing Board

London producer Rival Consoles uses unorthodox approaches on his latest record, Articulation, resulting in a stunning, beautiful collection.

Film

Paranoia Goes Viral in 'She Dies Tomorrow'

Amy Seimetz's thriller, She Dies Tomorrow, is visually dazzling and pulsating with menace -- until the color fades.

Music

MetalMatters: July 2020 - Back on Track

In a busy and exciting month for metal, Boris arrive in rejuvenated fashion, Imperial Triumphant continue to impress with their forward-thinking black metal, and death metal masters Defeated Sanity and Lantern return with a vengeance.

Books

Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' Reveals the Other Kind of American Exceptionalism

By comparing the American race-based class system to that of India and Nazi Germany, Isabel Wilkerson makes us see a familiar evil in a different light with her latest work, Caste.

Film

Anna Kerrigan Prioritizes Substance Over Style in 'Cowboys'

Anna Kerrigan talks with PopMatters about her latest film, Cowboys, which deviates from the common "issues style" approach to LGBTQ characters.

Music

John Fusco and the X-Road Riders Get Funky with "It Takes a Man" (premiere + interview)

Screenwriter and musician John Fusco pens a soulful anti-street fighting man song, "It Takes a Man". "As a trained fighter, one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned is to walk away from a fight without letting ego get the best of you."

Books

'Run-Out Groove' Shows the Dark Side of Capitol Records

Music promoter Dave Morrell's memoir, Run Out Groove, recalls the underbelly of the mainstream music industry.

Film

It's a Helluva of a World in Alain Corneau's 'Série Noire'

Alain Corneau's Série Noire is like a documentary of squalid desperation, albeit a slightly heightened and sardonic one.

Music

The 15 Best Americana Albums of 2015

From the old guard reaffirming its status to upstarts asserting their prowess, personal tales voiced by true artists connected on an emotional level in the best Americana music of 2015.

Music

Dizzy's Katie Munshaw Keeps Home Fires Burning with 'The Sun and Her Scorch'

In a world turned upside down, it might be the perfect time to take a new album spin with Canadian dream-pop band Dizzy and lead singer-songwriter Katie Munshaw, who supplies enough emotional electricity to jump-start a broken heart.

Music

Nkem Njoku and Ozzobia Brothers Bring Summery Highlife to 'Ozobia Special'

Summery synths bring highlife of the 1980s on a reissue of Nkem Njoku and Ozzobia Brothers' innovative Ozobia Special.

Music

'The Upward Spiral' Is Nicolas Bougaïeff's Layered and Unique Approach to Techno

On his debut album for Mute, Berlin-based producer Nicolas Bougaïeff applies meticulous care and a deft, trained ear to each track, and the results are marvelous.

Music

How BTS Always Leave You Wanting More

K-pop boy band BTS are masterful at creating a separation between their public personas and their private lives. This mythology leaves a void that fans willingly fill.

Music

The Psychedelic Furs' 'Made of Rain' Is Their First Album in Nearly 30 Years

The first album in three decades from the Psychedelic Furs beats expectations just one track in with "The Boy That Invented Rock and Roll".

Music

Fontaines D.C. Abandon the Familiar on 'A Hero's Death'

Fontaines D.C.'s A Hero's Death is the follow-up to the acclaimed Dogrel, and it features some of their best work -- alongside some of their most generic.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.