Film Review: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987)

PRINCE OF DARKNESS **** USA 1987 Dir: John Carpenter. 97 mins

Considered the middle part of an “apocalypse” trilogy bracketed by THE THING and IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, this was Carpenter’s return to low budget filmmaking after several years of working for Hollywood studios. A mature and unfashionable 80’s horror film infused with the spirit of Nigel Kneale (Carpenter wrote it under the pseudonym of Martin Quatermass), it opens like THE FOG with a ten minute title sequence setting up disparate characters in multiple locations, including a Priest (Donald Pleasence) who, like Father Malone, discovers a diary that will help explain the plot at various points.

Carpenter trademarks are present throughout: menacing figures on the edges of the Panavision frame and an ensemble cast holed up in a single building at the mercy of an evil that, as in THE THING, hijacks their bodies one by one. Pleasence, veteran scientist Victor Wong and a bunch of physics students are in an abandoned church assessing an ancient cannister filled with green goop that turns out to be the liquid essence of Satan. Satan needs a host to bring his father to Earth, choosing Susan Blanchard while exerting a malevolent influence on insects, objects and street people – the latter forming an ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13-style gang of marauding hostiles hovering outside.

Afforded considerable momentum by taut, rhythmic editing and Carpenter’s eerily relentless score, this sustains a pervasive sense of menace as computer screens display the message “You will not be saved”, a sceptic’s body falls apart piece by piece while he advises “Pray for death” and everyone shares the same sinister dream : a fuzzy, videotaped image of a tall dark figure in a doorway that now plays like a precursor to the found footage sub-genre. The plot recalls Kneale’s THE STONE TAPE and a hackneyed only-a-dream climactic shock is unravelled by the subtle suggestion that all hope is lost despite efforts to avoid the inevitable. It’s one of Carpenter’s creepiest movies, offering brief concessions to 80’s gore (notably a bicycle impaling), Pleasence in semi-Loomis mode (“No prison can hold him!”) and a silent, glowering Alice Cooper as one of Satan’s minions.

Review by Steven West


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