Prince of Darkness (1987) dir. John Carpenter
Starring: Jameson Parker, Dennis Dun, Victor Wong, Lisa Blount, Donald Pleasance
By Alan Bacchus
“Say goodbye to classical reality, because our logic collapses on the subatomic level... into ghosts and shadows”
That's a great line from one of the great underrated horror pictures...“Prince of Darkness”, according to John Carpenter, was born in part from his desire to work with some of the Asian actors from his previous ‘Big Trouble in Little China’. Carpenter did indeed bring back Dennis Dun and Victor Wong, but really PoD serves to scare the crap out of the audience, using all the tools, tricks, and recurring themes of Carpenter’s cinematic arsenal.
Carpenter’s film plays on one of the great traditions in the horror genre - spooky Apocalyptic premonitions of the Catholic Church – in this case a two thousand year battle between the God and Devil which will manifest itself in physical reality during the course of the picture. There’s something inherently scary about Christianity, whether its old Church basements or scrolls of ancient Latin text, even the artistic depiction of Jesus on the cross which is in every Catholic Church is terrifying. And so, like ‘The Exorcist”, and “The Omen” Carpenter exploits the real world fear of God Catholics harbour deep in their bones to maximum effect.
Carpenter opens up the film with death of an elder priest from a depressed low income district parish in Los Angeles. Before he dies he gives away a mysterious box and key to his underling played by Donald Pleasance. Who would guess that this little church, an obsolete relic amongst its modern surroundings, would harbour a dark secret held from the world for thousands of years? With as much tension and suspense he can wring out, Carpenter reveals behind the door unlocked by the aforementioned key the imprisoned soul of the devil himself – a soul which now has slowly been awakened.
Sensing the danger which lies in the room, the Priest employs a group of PhD students headed by philosophy professor Howard Birak (Victor Wong), to document the paranormal disturbances and thus prove to the world the existence of the Devil. Like the four horseman of the Apocalypse, or seven, or however many there are, the students experience many of these environmental signs – an eclipse, homeless people possessed like zombies outside, ants and bugs gathering, cold air wandering into rooms.
This is the stuff of John Carpenter, employing the same mood, tone and pacing of his 1980 classic, “The Fog”. Like that picture the antagonist is force of nature, in this case, the soul of the devil which takes over the bodies of regular humans to do his nasty work. Most of Carpenter’s films refashion in some form of another the work George Romero. And so, like ‘Assault on Precinct 13”, ‘The Fog’ “Escape from New York” and others, the physical form of the antagonists turn out to be relentless hollow brained zombies. The possessed homeless people in PoD are more than just lumbering troglodytes, their organized formation and lethal skills with sharp objects are more menacing. Take Alice Cooper’s creative use of the broken bicycle which he uses to impale the nerdy physicist. Or the evil bagwoman’s deadly garden shears which kills the smug scientist Wyndham (who, twice, uses the word ‘Ca Ca’ in a sentence).
Jameson Parker, that handsome blonde TV actor from ‘Simon and Simon’, is the hero playing Brian Marsh, a thoughtful intellectual with an impressively bushy chevron moustache and healthy libido, who has just fallen in love with one of his students. A decent romance emerges during the 48 hours of terror he and his colleagues become subject to which elevates the stakes beyond the mere destruction of the earth. Parker’s shows surprisingly decent leading man chops, but sadly these were the days when television and film rarely cohabitated and thus, when the film did not succeed, Parker never graduated fully to the big screen.
During my prepubescent youth John Carpenter was my absolute favourite filmmaker and ‘Prince of Darkness’ got much play on the VHS. His slow, pulsating slow score acts like a metronome of tension which builds up perfectly to the film’s truly awesome grand climax. And the numerous individual moments of shrieking terror still haunt my nightmares. Let’s list my top five:
5) Possessed and sweaty Calder (Jessie Lawrence Ferguson) singing ‘Amazing Grace’ before sticking himself in the neck with chairleg – ouch!
4) The communal dream experienced by the research students resulting from tachyon-beamed signals from the future – how awesome is that!
3) The insect-infested body of mullet-headed Wyndham (Robert Grasmere) collapsing like a sack of potatoes in the parking lot
2) The terrifically freaky ‘radiologist with glasses’ who becomes the devil’s #1 minion of death
1) The final shot, a classic Carpenter moment – a terrorized Brian reaching for the mirror looking for his lost girlfriend.