‘Prince of Darkness’ and the Devil You Don’t Know

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.

RATING 7 / 10