The key to John Carpenter’s underrated ‘Prince of Darkness’ is the pseudonym under which he took credit for the screenplay: Martin Quatermass. Carpenter cheekily alleged in the press notes that this personage was no less than the brother of renowned scientist Bernard Quatermass.
This latter Quatermass, of course, was the brainchild of Nigel Kneale whose fiendishly inventive and cleverly constructed ‘Quatermass and the Pit’ was an acknowledged influence on Carpenter. ‘Prince of Darkness’ can easily be read as a variation on ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, with a sprinkling of other Kneale homages – most specifically ‘The Stone Tape’ and ‘The Road’ – thrown in to intriguing effect.
On another level, ‘Prince of Darkness’ is also pure Carpenter, from Gary B. Kibbe’s geometrical cinematography which evokes Dean Cundey’s previous work for the director, to the incessant rhythms of the Carpenter/Howarth score; from the presence of Donald Pleasance (‘Halloween’, ‘Escape from New York’) to the narrative conflation of supernatural (‘The Fog’ etc) and siege (‘Assault on Precinct 13’) elements.
In an opening credit sequence that runs a couple of seconds shy of ten minutes, an elderly priest dies and the key to a dilapidated church passes into the hands of his colleague (Donald Pleasance); Professor Birack (Victor Wong), a lecturer at Kneale University, engages his students in sub-atomic theory; two unlikely-to-hook-up members of the student body – mustachioed He-man type Brian (Jameson Parker) and earnest intellectual Catherine (Lisa Blount) – find themselves on course towards hooking up; and the priest contacts Birack with a view to a scientific investigation of the McGuffin his predecessor – a member of the so-called Brotherhood of Sleep – was hiding in the church basement.
Intrigued, Birack corrals a group of his colleagues and his students into helping out. They haul their apparatus into the old church and set up shop there. Meanwhile, news broadcasts are full of the new discovery of a supernova, insects are multiplying and swarming everywhere and a group of homeless people suddenly turn all zombie-like and lay siege to the church. The McGuffin in the cellar turns out to be a huge glass vial full of swirling green fluid that looks like some weird version of a slushy maker that’s been filled with crème de menthe instead of orange juice. It’s secured by a seemingly impenetrable locking mechanism that, as one of the students discovers, can only be opened from the inside.
It contains something very ancient, very dangerous and very ready to embark on its comeback tour.
For its first hour, ‘Prince of Darkness’ moves and grooves quite nicely, getting its science vs superstition funk on in fine stylee. Carpenter keeps the tension on the backburner, gradually bringing the atmosphere inside the church to boiling point. The homeless (and now, presumably, soulless) amass outside to sinister effect and an early sequence that veers into outright horror boasts the genuinely unsettling image of a crucified bird followed by the almost-funny-but-not-quite image of a secondary character buying the farm in a bizarre death-by-unicycle set-piece.
Aye, for virtually two-thirds of the running time, Carpenter pulls off a virtuoso high-wire act between white-knuckle genre thrills and thinking man’s extrapolation of the age-old good vs evil conflict filtered through the logical perameters of scientific enquiry.
At which point Carpenter remembers he’s supposed to be making a horror film and it’s balls to the wall Satanic zombies from hereon in. Heads lopped off, see you at end. This, coupled with the functionality of the characters (for the most part they exist as expositional/theoretical mouthpieces rather than as fully rounded people whom we might actually give a shit about), pretty much boots ‘Prince of Darkness’ out of the first tier of John Carpenter’s filmography. And there are those who would kick it down even lower.
Still, for all that the acting performances range from bland (Parker) to phoned-in (Pleasance) to doing what she can with the material (Blount), ‘Prince of Darkness’ retains enough of the intelligence and intrigue of its first hour – particularly with regard to the authentically creepy dream sequences – to compensate for the slightly ropy pay-off. It’s given short shrift in the Carpenter canon, but it deserves better.