Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Donald Pleasence, Lisa Blount, Victor Wong
Spoilers Within: No
Originally posted 15th July 2016 on Letterboxd.
Film 3 – #67 in ‘The Hard Drive Randomiser’
During post-film reading, it immediately and repeatedly came to my attention that John Carpenter’s mid-entry to The Apocalypse Trilogy – Prince of Darkness – is his least respected feature from the glory days (at least, in the sense of his ‘good’ films). While I can slightly understand the indifference during its initial release (having to follow-on from game-changers such as The Thing and Escape From New York can’t have been an easy feat) the frostiness toward it now is baffling, to say the least.
Just days ago I expressed my love for The Fog, specifically noting how rich and uneasy the mysterious set-up was, and with Prince of Darkness you again get a fantastic, stage-setting opening that builds an insidious mood, breaking you out of the hypnotic character introduction with the bold film credits and thumping synth score. It’s rare that I’ve seen a film wherein the bold white font against black has been so well utilised, and yet it’s as simple as it sounds and perhaps not even explicitly done for the purpose of which it felt. There was something wholly effective about the opening; jumping from a hospital deathbed to a school campus, to the abandoned L.A. church all at such a speed as to cause visual whiplash, but it felt purposeful in its overabundance of introductions to create the slowly creeping unease that Carpenter is so brilliant at.
The film has this shuffling nervousness throughout it manifested physically by the cast of academics and priests; all unsure and agitated by the supernatural goings-on in the basement of the church. These two, separate groups are never presented in a heavy-handed way, their particular vocations are set out with an evenness: there’s no science prevailing over faith, or vice-versa. It’s simply a group of people from different paths working together to defeat an unidentified presence.
The otherworldly anti-matter that they discover is slowly revealed to be the “Anti-God”; a metaphysical manifestation of a force of ‘evil’ more powerful than that of Satan. The scene where this is theorised is chilling: for decades in film, the abstract notion of ‘evil’ has been exhausted, but no description of ‘evil’ has actually spooked me more than this. After having countless films/tv/video games use this general idea of malevolent forces as their villain, the fundamental essence of the name “Anti-God” is even more frightening, and that’s even before the characters get possessed and the body parts start liquefying.
Prince of Darkness isn’t perfect, but what it does well and differently means overlooking a faulty, corny script and some hilariously stiff acting is effortless. It’s hammy, it’s cheesy, but it’s also gruesome and terrifying. Like how The Fog was a ghost story that children would tell around a blazing campfire, Prince of Darkness feels like the adult’s turn: a ghost story you’d tell in an attempt to really put the shits in someone.
Is The Apocalypse Trilogy the best trilogy of all time? Considering it opens with the finest horror remake in cinematic history – The Thing – and concludes with the most bizarrely fantastic Lovecraftian chiller – In The Mouth of Madness -I’d give a resounding and defensive “yes!”
Prince of Darkness may be the weak link when considering thematic heft, but when your weakest is also one of the strongest of its genre then there’s really nothing to worry about at all.
There is a very good piece on The Apocalypse Trilogy over on Strange Horizons by Orrin Grey. It goes into the thematic foundations of the trilogy, then the individual entries themselves. A must-read for fans of any of the three films.