John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness

The first of two low-budget films that John Carpenter wrote pseudonymously and directed in and around downtown Los Angeles in the late-1980s, John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness is one of the creepiest movies ever made. Underrated at the time by critics who called it “cheesy” (Vincent Canby) and said “[it] stinks” (Richard Harrington), Prince of Darkness was clearly made fast and on the cheap, and it’s roughly crafted by Carpenter standards. Still, it’s a triumph of mood. Filling out a mystery-of-the-ancient-artifact yarn with a cosmic-horror mythology, Prince of Darkness lives in a sweet spot between religious thriller and Satanic potboiler where science is the way, the truth, and the life, for better or worse.


Even if you’ve never seen Prince of Darkness, there’s a chance you’ve heard it: DJ Shadow samples the film’s most hair-raising moment–a (recurring) dream sequence in which a voice insists, “This is not a dream, not a dream” as a shadowy figure emerges from the front door of a church called St. Godard’s–on his landmark album “Endtroducing”. The fuzzy images ostensibly originate in a transmission beamed back in time on faster-than-light tachyon particles and into the unconscious minds of the Brotherhood of Sleep, an ancient sect inside the Catholic church that has guarded a mysterious cylindrical relic full of some kind of green, glowing liquid for thousands of years. The transmission is a warning of bad times to come and a plea for help from the future.

When the last member of the Brotherhood dies, a curious priest named Father Loomis (Donald Pleasence) implores USC quantum physics professor Edward Birack (Victor Wong) to make sense of the strange canister. Birack recruits a small army of students to give up their weekend and live inside the church, using a battery of computer equipment to monitor and analyze the object. What they discover is a series of impossibilities. A 2,000-year-old manuscript includes differential equations in the original Latin. The corrosion on the outside of the canister dates back 7 million years. And, perhaps most disconcertingly, the artifact’s elaborate mechanical seal is securely locked. From the inside. Meanwhile, a group of zombified homeless men and women (led by a stone-faced Alice Cooper) is preventing anyone from leaving the churchyard alive.

What’s remarkable about the unfolding mystery of Prince of Darkness is not just that the characters are so determined to rely on scientific inquiry in the face of an apparently inexplicable menace. After all, that’s fodder for any number of supernatural horror movies predicated on the failure of medicine and physical science to explain or properly address demonic possession, re-animated corpses, the birth of the Antichrist, etc. But these kids (like the scientists in John Carpenter’s The Thing, for example) are actually successful in using their brains to suss out what’s going on.

Carpenter’s approach to this stuff is inspired partly by a broad-strokes interpretation of Christianity, but also by some reading on quantum mechanics. Ideas about matter and anti-matter inspired him to wonder: what if Christianity got it only partially right? What if God actually exists, but in a mirror-image version? More to the point, what if the omnipotent God isn’t a good guy? One of the assembled grad students, Lisa (Ann Yen), is assigned to decode from the original Latin a previously-untranslated palimpsest that is, oddly, full of numbers. It tells the story of an old-timey god who lived on Earth before human life arose and was somehow banished to a dark, negative universe–but not before burying that freaky canister somewhere in the Middle East. “Maybe he’s Anti-God,” muses Birack, “bringing darkness instead of light.” The canister contains the Anti-God’s son, giving the film it’s title. The document reveals that Christ was an alien visitor who came to warn humans of the danger the canister posed: that the Prince would eventually find a way to bring his father back from the dark realm. Helpless to deal with the threat, the Brotherhood took notes on the incomprehensible science of the thing, then developed metaphors for evil that would keep Christianity strong until mankind developed the mathematical skills to make sense of the calculus and banish the Anti-God forever.

Prince of Darkness features a perfunctory love story between impressively-moustachioed Brian (Jameson Parker, from the ’80s TV hit Simon & Simon) and winsome redhead Catherine (the late Lisa Blount, whose genre debut was 1981’s Dead & Buried), but the most emoting on screen is done by Pleasence, whose Father Loomis is stung by the betrayal he feels from his own church. “Why weren’t we told the truth?” cries Loomis in a key conversation with Birack, the priest chagrined before the scientist. “We had a responsibility to warn the rest of the world. Only the corrupt are listened to now, and they tell us what we want to hear. And we believe it to be divine light.” I think this sort of stuff gets Carpenter in trouble with mainstream critics, who dismiss Pleasence’s anguish as aromatic ham-and-cheese and the film’s sentiment as ornamental cynicism, but there’s nothing superficial or opportunistic about it. Carpenter is nothing if not auteur-consistent in his disdain for establishment thinking; in Carpenter’s world, religion is politics, authority is earned through nothing more than repetition, and all of it is founded on secrets and lies.

In that vein, Carpenter has made better films–including his next one, They Live, which short-circuits this picture’s horror-movie metaphors entirely in favour of a straightforward attack on the Reaganite GOP. I’m not sure he’s made any that are this wicked, though. Satan has a sense of humour, and he gets his jollies tormenting the earnest assembly of students. “Hello? Hello?” calls one of them from far below the church windows in a distorted, possessed voice. “I’ve got a message for you, and you’re not going to like it.” And then, as his body erupts in a cascade of insects, he utters the deadpan kicker: “Pray for death.” A computer becomes another conduit for the beast to communicate, as Lisa falls into a data-entry trance at a keyboard, typing the words “I LIVE!” over and over so that they glow in eerie patterns on the monochrome screen. If the trope of the Asian girl as a mechanistic computer nerd is a little uncomfortable, so is the image of the African-American Calder (Jessie Lawrence Ferguson) ascending the church stairs while singing “Amazing Grace.” But why wouldn’t the Devil would seize on stereotypes to better mock any troupe of multicultural Angelenos trying to figure out what makes him tick?

Some of this might have been push-back against critics who claimed Carpenter’s previous film, Big Trouble in Little China, trafficked in offensive Asian-American stereotypes (despite all of Carpenter’s work at underscoring the incompetence and ineffectiveness of its Anglo protagonist). In Prince of Darkness, Carpenter has the character of Walter, played by Kurt Russell’s Big Trouble co-star Dennis Dun, crack that Lisa “could pass for Asian” and make another genuinely bad-taste Jewish-mother joke relying on “witch doctor” as a play on “rich doctor.” Carpenter has said he got more than his fill of bigotry growing up in Kentucky in the late-’50s and early-’60s, making him quite sensitive to racial issues. He does always seems fascinated by group dynamics, and communication across cultural gaps is a theme in Prince of Darkness, as true believers shake hands with physicists, a young feminist’s wannabe lover makes a jokey, tone-deaf claim to being a “confirmed sexist,” and the Anti-God Himself struggles to finally forge a human connection.

Cinematographer Gary Kibbe graduated from camera operator on this film, the first of eight he would shoot for Carpenter. (Presumably Carpenter could no longer afford Dean Cundey following the expensive failure of Big Trouble in Little China.) As much as any of Carpenter’s horror fare, Prince of Darkness relies visually on the spooky interplay of light and shadow, especially in the latter half, and the film is especially handsome considering a reported budget just north of $3 million. Some of the imagery–like the exchanges of bodily fluids that move the Prince among his victims, or the bloody, sore-ridden make-up for Kelly (Susan Blanchard), the pretty blonde who’s picked as the son’s final vessel in this world–has made critics suggest this is an AIDS parable, although the metaphors for gestation and birth are even more direct. The climax channels Cocteau, enlisting mirrors to function as portals between worlds, and we do see the Anti-God (well, his hand, anyway) groping His way towards the light. What rough beast slouches toward Little Tokyo, waiting to be born?

The picture’s biggest weakness is all of the expository dialogue, which has a tendency to circle around and around the points Carpenter wants to make without ever quite landing them; I give it a pass because talkiness is part of the milieu (bull sessions is what grad students do, isn’t it) and because it’s part of the film’s loose, anything-goes nature. Carpenter’s secret scary weapon is sound design. The relentless synthesizer score he performs with frequent collaborator Alan Howarth is among his best musical work, cranking up layers of mystery and menace that help propel Prince of Darkness through some slow spots. The voice of the “pray for death” zombie is treated in a way that was spectacularly unnerving at the time (though a bit of the novelty has worn off with the easy availability of powerful digital audio tools), and the bed of static that whips around underneath the repeating mayday transmission gives the urgent, authoritarian voice of the future a disturbing analog edge.

This is not a dream; it’s the end of the world as we know it. It has little to do with scripture, but Loomis declines to fully acknowledge the message. He holds the Biblical line to the end, quoting from Revelation and falling back on prayer as a last-ditch appeal for strength in the face of the horrors that confront him. The priest achieves a backhanded triumph in the end–one that leaves Brian stricken, and groping for his own idea of the light in the final scene–that allows Loomis to credit “the grace of God” with an apparent victory over the powers of darkness. Well, Loomis’s final sin may be hubris. The way Carpenter tells the story, it’s pretty clear that the idea of an interventionist God is a long-standing miscalculation. And here’s what’s terrifying about the science-vs.-faith chasm: religious men have dedicated body and soul to that very proposition. While hard science can be a cordial companion to enlightened faith, Carpenter sees an inescapable truth at the unhappy core of the relationship: If the scientists are right, and there is no deliverance from evil, no eternal light of salvation acting as a countervailing force against the yawning void at the end of the road, then the believers are in deep fucking trouble. Along with the rest of us.

THE BLU-RAY DISC

I saw Prince of Darkness for the first time the way a lot of Carpenter fans saw it: on a grungy, pan-and-scan VHS tape. I wasn’t crazy about it at first, but the dream transmission sure stuck with me and the movie itself seemed more coherent on repeat viewings. I upgraded through the years, first to a letterboxed Japanese LaserDisc that improved the film immeasurably, given Carpenter’s skills with ‘scope framing, and then to a snap-cased DVD from Image Entertainment that felt like a gift from Heaven. Never, it seemed, would Prince of Darkness look any better outside of a movie theatre. Now we have Prince of Darkness on Blu-ray from Shout! division Scream Factory, and it looks terrific. The image is sharp enough that you can clearly see where it goes soft towards the outer edges of the anamorphic lenses, as well as make out some rack-focus effects that were lost in the video murk on DVD. The 2.35:1 Blu-ray has lost a sliver of information on each side of the frame compared to the DVD (which was mastered at an unlikely 2.47:1), yet the anamorphic de-squeeze appears more geometrically accurate, and the colours are both well-saturated and balanced significantly cooler compared to the earlier transfer, which now exhibits an unmistakably pinkish cast in comparison. There is no troublesome evidence of edge-enhancement techniques, and while there is a fairly healthy layer of film grain here, I suspect some grain-reduction techniques have been employed. The video bitrate is set to an average of around 34 Mbps for the duration, but it dips and peaks substantially as the level of detail warrants. Audio comes in two flavours: a 5.1 DTS-HD MA remix and a 2.0 DTS-HD MA matrixed surround track that, presumably, reflects the original four-track Ultra-Stereo release. The 5.1 track has increased depth, particularly where the low end is concerned, and makes more expansive use of the surround channels for the musical score.

Extras are plentiful for a film of this vintage and reputation. I especially enjoyed “Sympathy for the Devil with John Carpenter” (10 mins., HD), a new interview in which Carpenter talks form, comparing shooting and cutting styles to musical genres. “Movies are bebop now,” he says. “They’re all bebop.” Touching on this film’s ambiguous and undeniably downbeat ending, he sounds a little defeated. “The audience doesn’t really like that kind of stuff. They want a little hope, a little certainty, and they want to know that there’s another day, [that] things will be better tomorrow. But I’ve always loved a little doom and gloom, as the Rolling Stones say. So maybe it was my mood about the movie business at the time.”

“Hell on Earth with Alan Howarth” (10 mins., HD) offers the most detailed technical discussion on the disc, as Carpenter’s co-composer talks about the use of then-cutting-edge instruments like the Kurzweil K250, the Sequential Circuits Prophet VS, and the E-mu Systems Emulator II to create “little sandwiches of samples and synths” for the score. This is as geeky as these things get, folks. Next up is “The Messenger with Robert Grasmere” (13 mins., HD), an interview with the credited computer effects coordinator that Carpenter plucked from the film’s crew to play the now-infamous “Hello? Hello?” guy. He talks about being hand-picked for the role, and shows off some of the prosthetics that were used in his big scene. And Alice Cooper weighs in with “Alice at the Apocalypse with Alice Cooper” (9 mins., HD), in which he remembers meeting John Carpenter at Wrestlemania III in Detroit and explains that they connected through his manager, Shep Gordon, who became a producer on Prince of Darkness, They Live, Shocker, and The People Under the Stairs.

An episode of Sean Clark’s “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds” (14 mins., HD) covers the film’s locations, from the Mission Hills neighbourhood of Los Angeles to the USC campus to the church, still standing just off East 1st Street, only a couple of blocks from City Hall. It now houses the Union Center for the Arts, featuring a theatre that has actually screened Prince of Darkness! (Now I know what I’m doing next time I rent a car in Los Angeles.) The disc’s audio commentary dates back to a German DVD release that paired John Carpenter with actor Peter Jason, who had a supporting role in Prince of Darkness and then appeared in a slew of John Carpenter movies, concluding with Ghosts of Mars. It’s a reasonably entertaining listen, and Carpenter offers a glowing appraisal of Donald Pleasence, one of his favourite actors to work with. But if you’re looking for some kind of explanation of the themes, symbolism, or subtext of Prince of Darkness, you’re not going to get it from Carpenter–and especially not if Jason is in the same room with him. Here’s a sample: “I’m not quite sure what it all means, but it sure was fun to do.”

There are no deleted scenes here, but there is an odd alternate opening, in pan-and-scan (upconverted to 1080i), that is apparently used for television screenings and has some material that doesn’t show up in the theatrical cut. At around six and a half minutes in length, it dramatically reshuffles the opening sequences and, weirdly, implies that the whole story is Brian’s dream. I guess that constitutes the “hope” Carpenter referred to, but there is no indication that he had anything to do with this re-edit. The disc also includes an original trailer plus two radio spots (2:49 in total) and (if you go to the second menu page for extras and select the stylized cross symbol on the lower right) Carpenter’s comments from a 25th anniversary screening of the film at Screamfest 2012 (12 mins., HD). The feature’s audio is plagued by static, perhaps explaining why it’s hidden behind an Easter egg. The audience Q&A isn’t too bad as these things go, though Carpenter’s disillusionment with the biz is very much in evidence. Asked about his advice for young filmmakers looking to make money from their work, Carpenter responds, “Find a time machine and come back when I started.”

There’s also a decent still gallery that runs as a video slideshow (at about five seconds per image) or lets you step through using the next-chapter button on the remote. It contains some nifty international posters that I had never seen before. Speaking of posters, as usual, Scream Factory’s packaging has reversible jacket art, so you can choose whether you want your copy adorned by the newly-commissioned Justin Osbourn cover illustration or the film’s original key art. Does that count as an extra? Well, I appreciate it.

1. Not only did Vincent Canby’s original review for The New York Times misspell Carpenter’s screenwriting pseudonym “Martin Quatermass,” but Canby apparently didn’t recognize the obvious homage to the 1967 Hammer film Quatermass and the Pit and thus blamed poor “Mr. Quartermass (sic),” rather than Carpenter, for overloading the dialogue with “scientific references.” To date, the error has not been corrected. return

2. For his own part, Carpenter–always a DIY kind of guy–didn’t respond well to the term “cinematographer.” “A lighting cameraman is what I need. I don’t need a director of photography,” he told the DGA magazine in an interview that must have made him hugely popular (or not) with the ASC. “I don’t need somebody to tell me what lens to use and where to put the camera. I need them to light the shot.” return

3. Writing music for his films isn’t simply an ego trip for Carpenter. He learned enough about the violin, for instance, to play the instrument in his high-school orchestra. He and fellow filmmaker-to-be Tommy Lee Wallace started an acoustic-guitar folk group called Tomorrow’s Children as teenagers in 1965, and regrouped a year later with a psychedelic cover band, The Kaleidoscope. (Carpenter played bass.) In the mid-1970s, with Nick Castle, the pair formed The Coupe DeVilles–a band you can see in a tongue-in-cheek music video on the DVD and Blu-ray versions of Big Trouble in Little China.

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