by Mel Valentin
Imagine the following end-of-the-known-universe scenario. Satan exists, not in the netherworld of the Judeo-Christian imagination, but imprisoned inside another dimension for seven million years (give or take). To reach our world, and jumpstart the Apocalypse, he must pass through a newly opened trans-dimensional portal. That portal, in turn, can be only through the efforts of his Son, the Prince of Darkness/the Anti-Christ, who, taking corporeal form, can bend minds to his will, move objects telepathically, and open the portal between dimensions. The Prince of Darkness, however, has himself been imprisoned, inside a cylinder, where, in pre-biotic form (i.e., green viscous substance, a/k/a goo), he swirls and turns endlessly, waiting for his release. And that's only the beginning.This utterly daft scenario comes to us thanks to the fevered, fertile imagination of John Carpenter (Halloween,, The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live). Prince of Darkness, released in 1987 to mostly negative reviews and lackluster box office receipts, is one of Carpenter’s weaker efforts, hampered by an exposition-heavy, headache-inducing first half, slow, sometimes awkward pacing, minimal scares (and, sadly, gore), and stock, underwritten characters, most of whom are given perfunctory introductions before being unceremoniously dispatched in grisly ways or converted in zombie-like foot soldiers for the Prince of Darkness' plan to reintroduce his Father, the Anti-God, to our world.
"Guilty pleasures? Look no further than this little gem."
After an elderly priest dies of natural causes, Father Loomis (Donald Pleasance, a welcome, if hyperactive presence in many of Carpenter’s early films), discovers a key hidden inside a treasure chest. He also obtains the dead priest’s journal, which speaks of Finding his way back to the dead priest’s church, Father Loomis discovers a locked door. The key, of course, fits. Descending into an underground chamber, Father Loomis discovers the Prince of Darkness of the title, or rather, the green, swirling goo locked inside a massive cylinder. Luckily, the cylinder sits on an unused altar. A nearby lectern contains an open volume, written in multiple, sometimes unintelligible, languages.
Rather than turn over his discovery to church authorities, Father Loomis seeks out an old friend and rival, Professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong, Big Trouble in Little China), a physicist at the local university. Hoping to uncover the cylinder’s scientific properties (and a rational explanation, if any), Birack “volunteers” his graduate students, including Brian Marsh (Jameson Parker), Catherine Danforth (Lisa Blount), and Walter (Dennis Dun, Big Trouble in Little China). Birack also pulls in experts from other fields, including Dr. Paul Leahy (Peter Jason). Susan Cabot (Anne Marie Howard), Kelly (Susan Blanchard), and Lisa (Ann Yen). Additional characters are either left unidentified or identified later in the film, and slip into the background, ready to assume their respective roles as fodder as necessary. Carpenter obviously didn’t spend much time developing these characters. We shouldn't either.
After Father Loomis, Professor Birack, and Barrack’s students set up their impressive (for 1987 anyway) equipment in and around the cylinder, the characters scatter for the evening. One character wanders unattended into the underground chamber and becomes “infected” by the green goo, turning her into the Prince of Darkness’ love slave. She kills some, infects others (anyone who attempt to leave is met by zombie-like street people, new members in the Prince’s army). It takes awhile, but our fearless heroes and heroines eventually realize the threat the Prince of Darkness and his army poses, and do battle, but not until an entire day passes back into night. That’s right, the survivors simply retreat into a room for an entire day before doing anything. Worse, they leave poor Walter to fend for himself in a closet with flimsy doors. Pleading for help, they begin to dig through the wall, slowly, lackadaisically. Not only that, but when we finally get the opportunity to see Satan, we don't, or rather, we see an arm and a hand (interested fans are probably better off revisiting Ridley Scott's underappreciated fantasy/action film, Legend, with Tim Curry as the Lord of Darkness himself).
This discussion leads us back to what grounds, if any, are there for recommending Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness? For horror fans, especially Carpenter’s diehard fans, no real reason is needed, outside of Carpenter’s name above the marquee (not to mention his screenwriting credit, penned under the name “Martin Quatermass,” in honor of a well-known character from a British series and theatrical features made in the 1950s and 1960s). More discerning fans (yes, there are discriminating horror fans), will want to know whether Prince of Darkness is, in fact, a well-crafted, absorbing science fiction/horror film, complete with the obligatory shocks, scares, and thrills, supported by tense, slow-building sequences that inevitably lead to those shocks, scares, and thrills. Prince of Darkness has a few, including one involving hundreds of insects, but Prince of Darkness owes its watchability or rewatchability to Carpenter’s interest in exploring bold ideas.Whether hampered by a limited budget or short production cycle, "Prince of Darkness" obviously fails as a standalone film. Few critics or fans can defend it with a straight face, but maybe they shouldn’t try. Instead, leaving the horror aspects aside, they should give Carpenter (partial) credit for his ideas. In fact, Carpenter does reward his audience with one or two memorable images (e.g., the death by insect infestation of one character, the trans-dimensional portal, Satan’s hand and arm reaching across the boundary between worlds, reminiscent of Michelangelo’s famous mural in the Sistine Chapel of Adam and the Father of Creation, and the final, haunting image that reveals the identity of the character who speaks through dreams). How many other films, perceived by critics and audiences as worth watching (and, therefore, successful on some qualitative level), can make the same claim?
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originally posted: 09/12/05 23:02:18