PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987)
A research team finds a mysterious cylinder in a deserted church. If opened, it could mean the end of the world...
Prince of Darkness is an odd film that rests its case on the idea that, on the sub-atomic level, our grasp of reality becomes rather like religious faith. There may be a few mathematicians and physicists who understand quantum mechanics, but even they admit it doesn’t make conventional sense. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon M. Lederman came up with a nickname for a theoretical particle he called ‘The God Particle’. In his 1993 book, The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?, co-written with pop-science author Dick Teresi, he explains his reasoning: “why God Particle? Two reasons. One, the publisher wouldn’t let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature… and two, there is a connection, of sorts, to another book, a much older one…” Isn’t it strange that a serious scientist uses emotive terms like “villainous”, and openly refers to scripture when talking about sub-atomic structures?
Around the same time as John Carpenter was writing Prince of Darkness, he was following Lederman’s attempts to get a mega-science project underway in the US which would’ve involved building the biggest particle collider the world had ever seen; a huge torus, or hooped tube, of more than 50 miles in circumference to be built in the desert just outside Dallas, Texas. The project was cancelled by the Clinton administration in 1993, and it wasn’t until 20 years later that CERN’s Large Hadron Collider near Geneva (less than half the size of the machine proposed by Lederman), began returning data and confirmed the existence of that God Particle. More correctly termed the Higgs boson. British physicist Peter Higgs, one of the team who first proposed the theories, was given a Noble Prize in 2013 as a direct result of the CERN experiments confirming his theories. Sadly, Lederman died earlier this year but lived to see the proof of many of his far-out theories.
This quest to find scientific evidence for theoretical things inspired Carpenter to write a techno-gothic story drawing parallels between the unprovable beliefs of major religions and these mystical aspects of hard science, realising that both ideologies were informed by their own mythologies.
As is often the case, Carpenter wrote under a significant pseudonym—in this case, Martin Quatermass. Although Nigel Kneale let it be known that he disapproved of this appropriation of his famous character’s name, Carpenter intended it as a homage and a recognition of some shared themes, particularly with Quatermass and the Pit (BBC TV 1958-59; Hammer Film 1967), in which an ancient technology is uncovered which indicates extra-terrestrial influences upon human evolution and has a psychic influence on those exposed to it. Ideas central to Prince of Darkness.
The opening titles for Prince of Darkness are spread out through a marvellous montage sequence that spans around 13-minutes and is a masterclass of cinematic storytelling. We witness the death of an old priest who clutches a mysterious little silver box to his chest as he breathes his last. The box turns out to contain a key, which along with the priest’s private journal are passed into the keeping of Father Loomis (Donald Pleasence). The journal tells of a secret sect within the Church known as ‘The Brotherhood of Sleep’ and warns “The Sleeper Awakens”—perhaps Carpenter’s tip of the hat to The Sleeper Awakes, H.G Wells’ 1910 novel that foreshadowed both George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or more likely to H.P Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. John Carpenter has retrospectively referred to his three films—The Thing (1982), Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness (1994)—as his Apocalypse Trilogy. They’re all linked by evils that could end our world and the third being an unashamed tribute to all things Lovecraftian.
Alongside Father Loomis tracking down the door that the key will unlock, we also follow the arrival of Professor Birack (Victor Wong) at a university campus, where he notes a strangely excited mass of ants and squints up at a sky where sun and moon seem to be in a significant alignment. He then delivers an inspiring lecture to his class of mature students about the uncertainty principle and how “our logic collapses on the sub-atomic level into ghosts and shadows…”
What if there is a cosmic consciousness, a God, that inhabits the infinitesimal gaps between the particles that comprise matter and thus governs all of creation? What then of antimatter? Would that be inhabited by an anti-God in a mirror universe capable of entirely cancelling out said creation? And so, the stage is set for a refreshingly original story that will explore the uneasy hinterland between religion and science.
When Father Loomis uses the secret key to open the crypt of a disused church and discovers that ‘The Sleeper’ is a glass canister of swirling green plasm that has been watched over by the Brotherhood for two thousand years, he calls upon Birack’s team from the physics department at Kneale University to help determine its origins. We then fall into a scenario similar to that of Robert Wise’s classic horror The Haunting (1964) or John Hough’s The Legend of Hell House (1973), where a group of scientists camp out in a spooky place to investigate supernatural phenomena, trying to rationalise the irrational.
After establishing the enigma during the expertly crafted opening act, the film slows down a little and spends time developing an array of diverse characters. It’s unusual in that there’s no clear lead—although the story seems to hang mainly on the relationship between protagonists Brian Marsh (Jameson Parker) and Catherine Danforth (Lisa Blount), who fall in love early in the story and whose underlying relationship gives the film an emotional core that weaves together its philosophical and scientific narratives. Perhaps there are a few instances of over-acting here, but the cast is better than they needed to be. There’s a particularly strong performance from fan-favourite Jessie Lawrence Ferguson as Calder, and Donald Pleasence (Halloween) is brilliant as the tormented priest driven close to madness by the theological conundrum he faces.
As the Sleeper becomes more active, it affects the smaller things first: ants, worms, and various creepy crawlies. Then it marshals an army of down-and-out ‘zombies’ led by a cadaverously pale Alice Cooper, who surround the church and make escape impossible. Reportedly, Cooper had approached John Carpenter at a WrestleMania event and asked to appear in one of his horror films. Carpenter said he’d be happy to have him, provided he brought along an impaling special effect he used in his notorious stage show. It was a done deal. The first gory death in Prince of Darkness is when the geeky Etchinson (Tom Bray) is run-through with a bicycle frame being wielded by Cooper. Alice Cooper also wrote the movie’s tie-in track, “Prince of Darkness”, and it can be heard playing over Etchinson’s headphones as he dies.
The film then veers fully into the zombie genre with the power of the Sleeper reanimating those it kills and using them to defend itself against the priest and scientists threatening to prevent its birth into the world. In many ways, it could be considered a follow-on to Lucio Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy, which began with City of the Living Dead (1980), and Carpenter employs a few of Fulci’s directorial tricks. In Prince of Darkness, it transpires that mirrors can be used as portals to some other anti-reality. In effect, they become gates to hell, which will consume reality as we know it if they remain open. Another classic film brought to mind, also concerning gates to hell in a basement, is Dario Argento’s Inferno (1980) and indeed the gruesome stabbing of Wyndham (Robert Grasmere) wouldn’t be out of place in an Italian slasher… and the disturbingly dark and dreamlike scene where his corpse is reanimated, whilst at the same time being entirely devoured by beetles, is something of a Lynchian nightmare…
This was the first in a two-film deal with Alive Pictures, a forward-thinking independent production and distribution company that turned out a few of the most interesting and underrated movies of the 1980s. Although offering modest, some may say meagre, budgets of around $3M, they had an ethos of allowing their filmmakers complete creative control. Alive’s more interesting offerings included Alan Rudolf’s Trouble in Mind (1985), Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Betty Blue (1986) and Wes Craven’s superb Shocker (1989). Carpenter’s other film with Alive was to be the decade-defining They Live (1988) the following year.
Carpenter had already made his name by turning-out slick and successful thrillers on a limiting budget and, with Prince of Darkness, he followed the template established with his earlier successes Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), The Fog (1980) and The Thing: a small ensemble cast under siege in a contained setting.
Principal photography took less than 30 days. Location shooting was kept to a minimum with the opening scenes filmed at the University of Southern California, at the San Fernando Rey Mission in the nearby hills, and the exterior of the accursed church. The cavernous crypt where the canister is kept was a crumbling beachfront dance hall that had been condemned and the crew were allowed inexpensive access provided they all signed insurance waivers. The main part of the church where most of the action occurs was built as a set—a controllable environment that did away with the need for too many expensive set-ups and take-downs.
Special effects were also kept minimal. There are some beautiful matte paintings by a veteran of the art, Jim Danforth, who’d started out in 1963 on classic Star Trek, contributed miniature effects for Diamonds Are Forever (1971), and had previously worked with Carpenter on Dark Star (1974) and The Thing. Notably, he was assistant to the great Ray Harryhausen on Clash of the Titans (1981) and, as a matte painter for ILM, his work featured prominently during The NeverEnding Story (1984).
Utilising distinctive wide-angle lenses with well-choreographed dolly shots, and aided by a resonant synth soundtrack composed by Carpenter, the dark suspense that pervades every minute of Prince of Darkness ramps up slowly but surely towards an unnerving finale which utilises truly inventive special effects involving clever prosthetics, mercury, and underwater filming in a swimming pool. Consciously avoiding the use of terrible ’80s video effects, Carpenter seamlessly edits together some old-school camera trickery to create a magical illusion worthy of Jean Cocteau, who he cites as an influence.
Prince of Darkness performed well on the festival and convention circuit, and Carpenter’s score was deservedly nominated for a Saturn Award, but the film met with scathing reviews from bewildered mainstream critics who didn’t get the quantum weirdness of its premise. I must admit that when I first saw it, I also dismissed much of it as meaningless mumbo-jumbo, but now I know more about the wonderful world of subatomic particles and realise it was simply way ahead of its time. Also, we must remember, this is entertainment and not a documentary! Three decades on, Prince of Darkness remains a hugely enjoyable and effective horror movie that could certainly teach a few of the genre’s current practitioners a thing or two.
Prince of Darkness is one of four Carpenter Classics to have been given the 4K restoration treatment and a new run in the cinemas by StudioCanal, along with They Live, Escape From New York and The Fog. It’s great to see them all cleaned up and uncut and I’m desperately hoping they will do the same for In The Mouth of Madness and complete the so-called Apocalypse Trilogy with what’s possibly my favourite of all John Carpenter films!
Brand new restoration from a 4K scan of the original camera negatives. The 4K disc contains Dolby Vision (HDR with metadata, to ensure every frame is individually calibrated for the best contrast levels). Beautifully restored on Blu-ray, this edition of Prince of Darkness includes a DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track and an extra disc filled with bonus material including a brand new documentary.
director: John Carpenter.
writer: John Carpenter (credited as Martin Quatermass).
starring: Donald Pleasence, Lisa Blount, Victor Wong, Dirk Blocker & Jameson Parker.