It’s an extremely unfortunate bit of irony that John Carpenter’s magnum opus, unquestionably The Thing (which itself is the pinnacle of 1980s horror, but I digress), was a huge commercial failure. Misunderstood at the time and subsequently written off, Carpenter’s greatest work almost became his biggest downfall. His career would stabilize but never fully recover. I often think about how things might’ve been different if that film had gone on to be as successful as it deserved to be.
Then again, very few directors get the kind of career reappraisal that Carpenter has enjoyed. The truth is that he didn’t stop making good films after he lost his multi-picture deal with Universal. Sure, none of them paralleled The Thing in terms of quality (for my money, Big Trouble in Little China comes really, really close), but being forced to go back to his independent filmmaking grassroots allowed Carpenter to make some incredibly off-kilter, surprisingly intelligent genre films that a larger production company might balk at.
Case in point, it’s hard to believe that any major studio would get behind something as outwardly strange as 1987’s Prince of Darkness, simultaneously Carpenter’s most underrated effort from his golden era in 1980s and the one which has received one of the biggest turnarounds in terms of critical analysis. The mixture of heady themes with campy thrills turns out to a perfect blend for the material, which as viscerally exciting as it is surprisingly contemplative. Gary B. Kibbe’s widescreen photography utilizes wide lens in an extremely claustrophobic setting to incredible effect. Carpenter’s own score, notable for its constant thumping bass that oppressively underscores the entire film, is one of his best, and the first hour of the film is a slow burn filled with mounting dread that marks some of the finest directing Carpenter has ever done.
A nameless priest (Donald Pleasance) and a quantum physics professor, Dr. Birack (Victor Wong), team up and invite a group of graduate students to study what the church believes might be the living essence of Satan himself. Trapped in a liquid state and held underneath a rotted, abandoned church in Los Angeles, the grad students investigate the validity of the church’s claims as unexplainable phenomena happen. Is the supernatural real or is there a very logical explanation for everything? And what about the strange, shared dream they’ve all had concerning a mysterious figure emerging from the church doors and proclaiming that the end of the world is upon them? But soon, as many students fall under a possessive spell, the remaining few find themselves trapped inside the church where Satan has woken up, attempting to revive his father, known as the Anti-God.
Part of what makes Prince of Darkness such a unique film is the way it mixes many of the staples that Carpenter would become known for over the course of his career. Some of these don’t naturally seem like a fit, either, and maybe that’s to the film’s benefit. Carpenter’s infatuation with Howard Hawks is fairly well-known. One of his earliest efforts, the grindhouse masterpiece Assault on Precinct 13, was a spiritual remake of Hawks’ Rio Bravo. Funnily enough, Hawks wrote the original The Thing from Outer Space, which was referenced in Carpenter’s Halloween and later remade by him. A large bulk of Carpenter’s films center around the narrative idea of a base under siege (which is a western convention). In Prince of Darkness, the base under siege is the church the various characters find themselves trapped within. Mixing up the formula, it’s less that the characters want to hold the fort from an invading source. This time, the force has already wormed its way inside and won’t let the characters leave because it ultimately needs them to fulfill its evil purposes. Another theme often explored in Carpenter’s work is the exploration of forbidden places. Characters often find themselves in a place that’s out of bounds and lawless, not unlike the frontier in a western. Consider the mystic, cavernous underworld beneath San Francisco in Big Trouble in Little China, the impossibly uncanny Hobb’s End from In the Mouth of Madness, or even the besieged Mars colony in Ghosts of Mars. Carpenter also subtly replicates an Italian horror staple known as a gate to hell narrative, popularized by the likes of Lucio Fulci. In fact, it might just be the best Americanized version of that particular sub-genre.
Carpenter had always intended Princess of Darkness to work as a tribute to British television writer Nigel Kneale (creator of the famous Quatermass character), whose stories often involved characters battling an ancient source of evil while exploring elements of the supernatural through technology or science. Basically, if you like your films filled with clever technobabble, down to discourses on tachyon particles, then this is probably right up your alley. The film’s central conflict can be summed up by asking which allows us to better understand the world around, religion or science? Every character in the film is defined by whichever choice they initially believe to be correct.
While Pleasance’s unnamed priest and Wong’s Professor Birack act as the figureheads for faith/heart and logic/science respectively, the film zeroes in its focus on two of the graduate students, Brian Marsh (James Parker) and Catherine Danforth (Lisa Blount). Their central romance is key to the film’s suggestion that logic alone might not be enough to understand the world around us – and even worse, how the pursuit of answers for something beyond us might inadvertently deprive us inwardly if we aren’t careful. In a bid to understand the world as something governed by logic, these students have forgotten their humanity. That centers their universe, particularly Catherine, who is more comfortable talking about theory than matters of the heart. Her relationship with Brian is purely sexual at first, another means to an end. No matter how hard he tries to persuade her that romance is an option, she initially remains unmoved. Brian tells Catherine at one point, “Talk numbers, you get romantic. Talk to people, you clam up.” And that’s true. An early scene has Catherine excitedly discussing theories surrounding Schrödinger’s Cat with Walter. But later, when Brian flirts with her, she’s stiff and awkward.
The various things that happen within that church cannot be explained by logic. In the graduate students’ bid for logic over humanity, they’ve made themselves the perfect victims. Through them, the oncoming Apocalypse has no real opposition. Evil is not only unquantifiable, but the supernatural and the natural are deeply, intrinsically intertwined with one another. They are one, distinct but inseparable. To believe that one could exist without the other is the greatest error of logic in the film.
There is often a divide between the natural and the supernatural that makes the latter a popular subject in horror. The genre explores the breakdown of order, and the supernatural poses a threat to the natural, which are the principles that govern our physical, everyday life. Often, the supernatural is unexplainable. Some people don’t even believe in its existence. Early in the film, during one his lectures, Professor Birack tells his students, “There is truth in flesh.” So naturally, the supernatural threat becomes flesh to prove its existence is very, very real.
Part of the film’s excellent slow-burn comes from the fact that Satan is “awakening” within the church, and how it’s painted as a mystery the grad students and the priest try to solve. Presented as a liquid trapped within a canister that seems to be opening itself, Satan is not initially a solid being (or rather, is not made of the “flesh” that Professor Birack was referring to). But because he is not flesh, he has supernatural properties. The more awake he is, the more power he exerts. That power is never explained – how could it be in a satisfactory way? But it becomes a very real, very physical threat as objects, animals, and people act out of turn.
One student nearly jumps out of their skin when a piece of equipment moves on its own, and another is marked as the perfect vessel when she burns herself on a machine. Later, several characters notice a strange influx of ants and worms as if they were part of a Biblical plague. Even their movement suggests the supernatural is attempting to meld with the natural, as Catherine watches a horde of worms seemingly crawl up a window pane. In a memorable scene, one of the students attempts to leave the church. He is attacked by one of the possessed homeless people, who carries a single scissor blade in her hand as she proceeds to stab him to death. The scissor blade represents one half of an equation – in this instance, the supernatural, cutting the barrier that separates and distinguishes it from reality. It is no longer a metaphysical presence, having found a home within the possessed homeless. Why the homeless? During the 1980s, the growing homeless problem was seen as an epidemic rather than something systematic (stemming from the Reagan administration’s frequent budget cuts to social services). This is another instance of a supernatural evil possessing a very tangible, physical component in the natural world and preying upon our perception of such things.
Even the embodiment of Satan, initially believed to be just a liquid, becomes a very real, very defined object as it changes from states of matter. In this case, the transformation is carnal, and inherently sexual. Much like how the film’s tackling of homelessness stems from an exploration of timely issues and using a cultural perception to exaggerate something to the point of uncanniness, many horror films in the 1980s explored the AIDS epidemic. Some brief examples… The first student possessed is Susan, who is forced to ingest the liquid inside the canister when it frees itself and takes on a strange kind of autonomy. It’s interesting to note that the women have the most agency once possessed. Susan possesses Ann, and the pair work together to help Kelly (the student who is marked by the scalding equipment) become Satan’s vessel, transferring the liquid from the phallic shaped container that binds him into the chosen host. The men are treated as foot soldiers, returning only to further control the graduate students and professors that remain sane.
Now that the threat has become flesh… If science, and by extension logic, has become delineated and can no longer provide a sense of stability, what could actively combat the evils being brought to life within the church?
The film proposes two principles that fight for prominence over logic. The first is faith, embodied by Donald Pleasance’s unnamed priest. Everything transpires within a church, which becomes defiled as the physical world becomes something new altogether thanks to the boundaries between the natural and the abominable having been destroyed. There is no real sense of logic in that shift. But can faith alone combat the very real, very intangible evil that has wormed its way into earth? The film never answers. The priest goes through a crisis of faith, though it seems to be because he’s misappropriated the purpose of faith in the first place. It’s not meant to answer everything. Rather the opposite, faith provides us with a conviction that whatever remains outside our control or unknowable is very much governed by a higher power.
The second principle that competes against logic is the heart, or humanity proper. This is where we return to Brian and Catherine, whose relationship quietly grows throughout the film when they’re forced to contend with the nightmare they’re trapped in. We learn more about them, how both have a passion or a desire that proves they’re subconsciously aware of their missing humanity. Catherine seeks to know what numbers mean, and not explicitly in a way concerning statistics or simple math. Brian often plays with cards, performing tricks, suggesting that his belief in probability might actually stem from one that gives fortune and luck some genuine weight.
In the end, it’s Catherine who chooses to embrace the humanity she’s so afraid of in order to expel evil from the earth. Not unlike Jesus, who sacrificed his earthly body, Catherine gives herself up in order to seal Satan away. Her final act before is a tearful look at Brian, who understands completely what she’s about to do, even if it pains him greatly. As Catherine fades into the ether, she reaches towards the place where the mirror into our world used to be – presumably towards Brian. The effort is in vain, the connection lost. Perhaps she waited too long. And yet, she realized the virtue of the heart over logic at the precise moment it was most essential. Catherine may have been doomed from the start, much like everyone else, but her death doesn’t become a casualty, but something purposeful and ultimately selfless.
But the film ends on an open-ended note. Did Catherine’s sacrifice save everyone? In order to access the plane in which his father the Anti-God exists, Satan reaches into a mirror, his hand passing through the partition as if it were water. Catherine throws herself into the mirror along with possessed Kelly (who is Satan’s vessel) and the mirror is destroyed, breaking their passage back to earth. After a horrible nightmare, where the mysterious figure who leaves the church to bring about the apocalypse is Catherine herself, Brian wakes up and moves towards the mirror and reaches forward, back towards her again. Perhaps Catherine’s sacrifice could never stop the inevitable. Maybe because she was simply human, and clearly didn’t possess Jesus’s attribute of being both man and God, her sacrifice didn’t quite have the same power.
The most difficult element to reconcile from Prince of Darkness is that strange shared dream – which is chillingly effective in how Carpenter frames it as a “broadcast” of some sort, completely stylized as if it were a VHS tape being played on loop. Framed as a prophecy of an upcoming apocalyptic event, sent from the future back into the present as a warning, this is one of the very few elements of the supernatural that never becomes explicitly physical (not during the runtime, at least, because this is meant to be a vision of the future after all). Even the film’s handling of religion, explaining that Jesus was indeed not just a man and His transcendence is attributed to the possibility he was extraterrestrial (and this perhaps one of the most enigmatic flourishes, and one I’ve never really known what to do with), brings everything back into the realm of the tangible. Even the presence of an Anti-God, the father of Satan, makes sense given how the film stages everything. If there is good, then evil must also exist – if God exists, so too must an inverted version of him.
Perhaps this is why Prince of Darkness has enjoyed the biggest reappraisal of Carpenter’s films. On a first watch, it’s absolutely an exceptional bit of genre filmmaking, leaning its ideas to frighten you as much as its macabre, gory images. But with each subsequent viewing, it’s clear that Carpenter was really attempting to wrangle with something meaningful, a bit unusual for a director who was always a bit more visceral than cerebral. Does he always distill his musings into something entirely functional? Not necessarily, but the film benefits from that, especially as a horror film, wherein a lack of explanation and cohesiveness is par the course. It’s proof that despite budgetary restrictions, Carpenter never lost his technical prowess. Besides, contemplating how the world works – and by extension, how it might one day end – is something challenging, worthwhile, and more than a little frightening.