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A heady sci-fi mystery with big ideas, John Carpenter’s underrated “Prince of Darkness” isn’t easy to digest but is well worth the effort.

Prince of Darkness

In honor of legendary genre filmmaker John Carpenter’s appearance at Texas Frightmare Weekend in Dallas, Texas, May 26-28, 2023, we’re spending the week honoring some of the Master’s lesser-heralded films. Welcome to John Carpenter Tribute Week!

Prince of Darkness may be one of John Carpenter’s most underappreciated and narrative-driven films. In the shadow of classics like The Thing, Halloween, Christine, and Escape from New York, it might be hard to stand out. But much like the dark secret at the heart of the movie, Prince of Darkness’ time has come.

It would be worth genre fans’ time to dig deeper into John Carpenter’s filmography and discover this forgotten gem.

When a priest of a secret order dies, Donald Pleasence discovers an old church with a giant swirling urn of green in the basement. He assembles a team from the local university comprised of radiologists, philosophers, and mathematicians to help discover what is going on.

Talk of quantum mechanics, the proposed natural order of the universe, and ancient equations give the film a hard sci-fi slant.

Our two leads, Brian (Jameson Parker) and Catherine (Lisa Blount), slowly discover, along with their colleagues, that the urn in the church has a negative impact on all those around it and inverts the physics of our world.

Obviously, the matter in the basement is nothing good, and soon the adverse effects of proximity to the urn begin to take their toll.

Prince of Darkness

There is a good amount of dialogue exposition of the situation the team is in, so viewers expecting the suspense-driven chills of Halloween or the action of Escape from New York may be disappointed by the pace.

It is an intentionally slow spiral that draws you in. Things get progressively worse, and before long, there seems to be no escape.

Science fiction sits right alongside the horror in Prince of Darkness, the underrated second entry of Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy, but the atmosphere is all suspense.

Carpenter is a master at creating a terrific atmosphere for horror. He expertly did it before in The Thing, another film featuring a team trapped in a worsening situation, and he does it again here just as efficiently. Instead of the ramping tension of fear and paranoia in The Thing, however, there is a tightening noose of suspense and dread.

The abstract situation draws the viewer in, and the unraveling of the mystery of the thing in the church basement is a great exercise in keeping the viewer guessing.

The dialogue is a bit science-heavy at times, so the film does require an attentive mind and attention to detail. To be honest, the first time I watched Prince of Darkness, I was bored and didn’t enjoy it at all. It is a departure from the regular momentum of Carpenter’s other films; there are no genuine hard-hitting shocks until the final reel.

But the thrill is in the suspense and slow discovery of the origin of evil.

Whereas the university students discover the church’s evil by scientific deductions, Pleasence’s priest character discovers it through his theological background, and it truly is interesting how the two counterpoints interact.

Evil is scientifically described as anti-God since all matter has an equal but opposite counterpart. The use of mirrors as gateways and some of the team turning into demonic versions of themselves add to this theme of positive and negative counterparts.

If scientific conjecture and the heavy atmosphere aren’t enough to interest you, then the last 45 minutes of the film are where the true horror is.

Demonic possessions, killer derelicts (including rocker Alice Cooper), broken laws of physics, subconscious messages from the future, and even the arrival of the devil himself are all thrown into the mix.

With so many variable and abstract concepts, does the film succeed and sit alongside the rest of John Carpenter’s work?

Yes, it overwhelmingly does.

Carpenter is an expert at taking a simple concept (a killer, an alien, a dystopian future) and surrounding it with an impressive atmosphere and characters.

He takes an extraordinary event and surrounds it with believable lifelike characters in an appropriate atmosphere.

The real drive of any good horror story is the characters involved, not the actual threat.

Pleasence is the only real name in the film, but the rest of the actors bring a lot to the film and are not just cannon fodder to be dismembered one by one. Victor Wong (Big Trouble in Little China) is especially effective as the professor who brings the scientific analysis to correlate with Pleasence’s theory of ultimate evil.

It is the discussions between these two men about the strange goings-on that really carry and explain the story.

Prince of Darkness is not an easy film to explain or fit into Carpenter’s filmography.

Prince of Darkness

He hadn’t made a film like this before and certainly hasn’t made one like this since. It is abstract, challenging, and not a straightforward, easy-to-follow storyline.

Many of the details reside in the dialogue, which usually goes against the rule of “show, don’t tell” in filmmaking, but here it works to the film’s advantage. Some of the best and most horrifying moments of The Thing are when the characters are pondering their impossible situation.

Prince perfectly balances horror and science fiction and somehow makes the two genres work perfectly together in ways that made the first Alien so successful.

It may have been a step out of his comfort zone to offer theatergoers something they were not expecting, but Carpenter delivers. And much like many of his other films, it was not appreciated until recently.

Many of Carpenter’s films are dismissed upon release and then rediscovered and pronounced as classics later, and this is yet another example of that.

Prince of Darkness absolutely deserves to sit alongside Halloween and The Fog, and it should be seen by any Carpenter fan who is looking for something not offered by him before.

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