Deciding to return to his independent roots after spending the first half of the ’80s mounting bigger and bigger productions, John Carpenter released Prince of Darkness in 1987 and showed just how little of his craft owed to budget. The film takes place in the confines of a run-down Los Angeles church, a setting that would normally indicate a tempering of scale were so many of Carpenter’s best films not themselves set in cramped quarters. Further, Carpenter’s starkly composed style makes even his biggest work feel sparse and restrained, so that the carefully ordered but uncluttered frames of Prince of Darkness fit as well with similar shots in Escape from New York and The Thing as early no-budget gems like Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween.
The true display of the film’s minuscule budget, then, can be seen in the risks the director takes with its minimal story. The opening sequence alone shows Carpenter at his most free-form, even as his taut control is etched into every image. The extended opening stops and starts for a full 10 minutes, its top credits interspersed among mysterious imagery that stresses mood over clarity. An old priest dies as a moonbeam illuminates his dank room. Ants bustle by the thousands on some grass. Clouds obscure the sun, warping its spherical properties and spilling its shape as if a broken yolk. Even the narrative is established in this oblique, tonal fashion, the constant skips between the aforementioned church and USC classrooms populated by doctoral candidates in physics obfuscating even as characters are introduced.
The film’s juxtaposition of clergy, surrounded by the ruins of their decayed relevance and doctoral students mulling over the philosophy of theoretical science as much as its empirical facts, sets up an easy dichotomy between the end of religious relevance and the rise of science. Nevertheless, the same grim tone that infects the shots of anxious priests and nuns equally shapes the undercurrent of the college scenes, anticipating a narrative that fuses God and physics, only to find no answers in either. The union of the two ostensibly opposed elements is matched by the force that opposes the characters, a vaguely scientific, inter-dimensional manifestation of the Antichrist that takes the form of green liquid that can possess those who come into contact with it.
That the film’s plot proves incomprehensible even to the filmmakers (if the included commentary track is any indication) doesn’t preclude it from being an effective means of generating suspense. Homeless people around the church are lured by subliminal forces into creating a blockade that murders anyone who tries to escape, while some clever lo-fi effects—a possessed man dissolving into bugs, mercury used to simulate a mirror warping to the touch to allow passage between dimensions—lend a surreal, cosmic horror to the hemmed-in production. And while the first half may be dominated by pseudoscientific rationalization for a subatomic Antichrist, the film ultimately relies on its nonsensical meaning to conjure its apocalyptic terror. Even a room full of geniuses find themselves at a loss in the face of pure evil, leaving the rest of us to simply wait to be consumed.
Above all, Prince of Darkness is the quintessential John Carpenter film. Donald Pleasance caps off a series of impotent, terrified authority figures for the director as a priest who must admit a secret the Church buried for millennia, his shame and terror so great that he exists beyond the skittish terror of his president and Dr. Loomis. Carpenter’s score with Alan Howarth is his finest, stripped of identifiable themes right down to a collection of sustained pulses and sampled choirs that chill better than anything the director-composer made before or since. Above all, however, it’s Carpenter’s direction that dazzles and propels, clarifying through blocking and movement what the script leaves bewildering. Carpenter’s formal mastery has long elevated the material he chooses, but Prince of Darkness is the purest distillation of that formalism, a film that exists only as
Prince of Darkness’s occasionally soft image and drab palette are unchangeable aspects of the film, yet Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray presents John Carpenter’s movie in its best condition. Apart from some aliasing and flicker in early shots of Jameson Parker walking around campus, the transfer is free of any nagging issues. Consistent black levels maintain the film’s oppressively constrained atmosphere and avoid the murkiness that previously marred the film’s home-video presentation. Purists will be happy to receive the original stereo audio track, but a new 5.1 surround mix makes such minor changes that most will not notice too drastic a difference between the two.
Carpenter commentaries are always a joy, and the track included here, recorded with regular supporting actor Peter Jason, is no exception. Carpenter and Jason recount various details of production and Carpenter gets into the nitty-gritty of how the film’s effects were done with limited resources, but by and large the track is worth listening to for the pair’s unpretentious and frequently hilarious reminiscences. A batch of interviews with everyone from Carpenter to Alice Cooper (who appears in a recurring bit part, and whose manager’s film company produced Prince of Darkness), fill in some gaps not covered by the commentary. Best of all is Alan Howarth’s segment, in which he discusses the technical background of the film’s score and what its composition means. A fan-service tour of the film’s shooting locations and some trailers and galleries are also included, but the most informative extra of all may be the alternate opening used for television broadcast. If the film seems slack by Carpenter’s standards, this butchered recut of the bravura opening sequence, rearranging and deleting shots, destroying the rhythm and openly positioning the entire film as a dream, shows just how minutely controlled the feature really is.
John Carpenter’s most underrated, possibly best feature finally receives its due at the hands of Shout! Factory.