Before this Octoblur began, I checked out Flickchart's list of the Top horror movies that I haven't ranked or watched, and John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness was up near the top (right behind Onibaba). I must have been subconsciously avoiding Prince of Darkness for the last 28 years, because I've been aware of it since it's pre-release publicity in 1987, and I was already a big fan of Carpenter's classics Halloween and The Thing — and still consider them as among the best horror movies ever made. Prince of Darkness seems like something I might have tried to see right away, but for some mysterious reason I've passed on it until now. In fact, after his subsequent movie, They Live — which I like — I stopped seeking out all of Carpenter's new work. I must've felt like his work was no longer relevant to my interests, which is a shame, because I liked Prince of Darkness quite a bit.
When a Catholic priest (Donald Pleasance) discovers a mysterious ancient vessel of green liquid in a hidden chamber underneath his church, he enlists a physics professor (Victor Wong) to assemble a team of students to study its properties and origin. Not surprisingly, the vessel contains the essence of an evil entity that makes the next few nights pretty rough on the scientists.
Prince of Darkness is conceptually ambitious, and Carpenter creates a masterfully sustained level of tension throughout — with a significant contribution from his typically spartan electronic score — but I'm not convinced that he picked the best story. Writing under the pseudonym Martin Quatermass, Carpenter seems to want tackle the big ideas of eternal evil, metaphysical anti-matter and impending apocalyptic doom, but then reduces it to fit a small-scale setting: a few characters trapped inside a building, concerned with their own immediate needs rather than the global implications at which Carpenter only hints. This seems like a missed opportunity, even if it's one borne out of a limited budget. What Carpenter is able to do with the way he did choose to tell the story is pretty great: scene after scene of mounting dread punctuated with several gripping and disturbing shocks and a sense of doom that lasts well beyond the final frame. It helps that Carpenter seems to take the science and philosophy completely seriously, maintaining a consistently sober and quiet tone, even if it plays at times like complete nonsense.
The performances from the ensemble cast vary in quality, but in most cases the acting is understated and within a close distance to credibility. Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount are decent leads, while Dennis Dun has some trouble finding the right tone, but the writing does him little favors — there's an unsettling artificiality to the dialog and some situations that works in the movie's favor at times, but in other instances can be confusing or flat (or extremely silly, depending on your mood). Alice Cooper appears briefly as a homeless person, but his inclusion is a disappointing and gratuitous tease.
Although Prince of Darkness is the middle piece to what Carpenter calls his "Apocalypse Trilogy" — bookended by The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness — it feels more like the slow-burning first act to something better that never followed. On its own, it's good enough, and not a bad thing that it left me wanting more.