Poor John Carpenter. Like nearly all of the truly great horror filmmakers, his movies are destined to be misunderstood in their time, only finding the proper appreciation several years after the fact when the rest of the world is finally able to catch up to what he’s doing. It’s not always the case, of course, as he has had a handful of commercial hits; for many years, his breakthrough movie Halloween was the most successful independent film ever made. It was the rare instance in which audiences were tuned in to what Carpenter was doing at the time he was doing it. Most of his other great films—and he has more great films than almost any other director working in the genre—took years to connect with the public. Don’t blame Carpenter for that. He’s a man ahead of his time.
It has been 30 years since Carpenter made Prince of Darkness, the middle chapter in his self-described “Apocalypse Trilogy” (which also includes The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness), and only in recent years has the movie been reevaluated as another John Carpenter masterpiece. This one, more than maybe any of his other films, held the title of most misunderstood/underrated Carpenter film for the longest amount of time. Why it took this long for the film to get the respect and attention it richly deserves, I cannot say, except to confess that I, too, was part of the problem.
I liked the movie back when I saw it on video as a kid, mostly for the creeping sense of dread it conveys and the Alice Cooper cameo, but much of the dialogue about metaphysics and the nature of evil went over my head. It seemed, at the time, like a movie in which Carpenter (who wrote the script under the pseudonymous Martin Quatermass) had a lot of ideas but no clear sense of how to express those ideas visually, resulting in a movie in which characters mostly stood around explaining things to one another. As the years went by, though, it was one of the Carpenter movies to which I was most drawn, revisiting it at least once a year (if not more) and eventually realizing it’s one of my very favorites of his work.
It’s also his most challenging film. Having already scared us with masked boogeymen and shape-shifting aliens and killer cars, Carpenter moves beyond these corporeal monsters to explore the very essence of evil in Prince of Darkness. And though the evil in the movie does take physical shape—mostly in the form of a green liquid trapped in a cylinder, said to be the embodiment of the devil Himself—most of Carpenter’s script is given over to conversations of what this kind of evil really is and what might happen should it be allowed to escape its prison and infect the rest of the world.
The majority of the film’s characters are scientists gathered together to study the discovery, but because Donald Pleasence’s character is on hand as a priest, it affords Carpenter the opportunity to explore these concerns from both a religious and secular perspective. That’s something new for the director, whose previous and subsequent work tends to express a kind of faithlessness in institutions, in governments, and in the notion of design by a higher power. That’s not to say that Prince of Darkness is an especially religious movie, nor one that really acknowledges the presence of a God despite its focus on the existence of Satan. It’s no less bleak than his other work. I mean, there’s a reason it’s part of what he calls the Apocalypse Trilogy.
In some ways, Prince of Darkness plays like a mash-up of so many elements we’ve come to love about Carpenter’s filmography. It stars several members of his pseudo-repertory company, including Donald Pleasence from Halloween and Escape from New York, Victor Wong and Dennis Dun from Big Trouble in Little China, and Peter Jason in the first of many collaborations with the director. It is, in many ways, a siege movie like Assault on Precinct 13, with a group of people trapped in a building while a growing number of would-be attackers gather outside. It features a favorite trope of Carpenter, which is the idea of something foreign taking over a human form and hiding in plain sight. Think of his adaptation of The Thing or They Live or even Starman, in which an alien comes to Earth and takes the shape of sweet, sensitive Jeff Bridges. Prince of Darkness once again finds a group of human characters controlled from within by an outside force—in this case, liquid evil that transfers from person to person, possessing them and turning them, more or less, into an extension of a singular “hive” mind, just as we saw in They Live and The Thing.
But it’s not the familiar Carpenter elements that make Prince of Darkness one of the director’s best movies. It’s the nightmarish sense of dread he cultivates, set to a pulsing, haunting score composed, as usual, by Carpenter himself (alongside regular collaborator Alan Howarth). As with many of the great Carpenter movies, Gary Kibbe’s widescreen compositions are scary because of their use of negative space—those empty parts of the frame we fear will soon be filled with the sight of something terrifying. The movie is host to some of the scariest sequences Carpenter has ever committed to film, whether it’s the horrible transformation of Susan Blanchard’s character as she sleeps (the shot of her newly-disfigured self sitting up in bed will forever be burned into my brain) or Dennis Dun screaming for help as a couple of possessed characters attempt to break into the closet where he’s hiding. Prince of Darkness only gets more relentless as it unfolds; after a slow(ish) start and some big exposition dumps, the shit really hits and never lets up.
1987 was maybe the last truly great year for genre films in the best decade ever for genre films. Prince of Darkness stands out as one of its best even 30 years later—like so many Carpenter greats, it’s a movie that has only gotten better with time. Once unfairly overlooked as “that one with the liquid devil,” Prince of Darkness is now considered alongside his many other masterworks as another brilliant horror film from a man who is arguably the greatest horror filmmaker of all time. As far as this horror fan is concerned, The Thing remains his best movie; Escape from New York his coolest; Halloween his most influential. But three decades later, Prince of Darkness is still his scariest.
This retrospective is part of our Class of 1987 special features celebrating a wide range of genre films that were first released thirty years ago. Stay tuned to Daily Dead in the coming days for more pieces celebrating one of the most exciting graduating classes in horror and sci-fi, and check here for the latest Class of ’87 retrospectives.