I love the feeling of discovering a new favorite, and I had that feeling in a big way with this one. Prince of Darkness sees Carpenter striking off into the jungle of independent film production. Coming in hot off the much more expensive Big Trouble in Little China, he was looking for a return to horror, and a way to take full creative control over his films.
That way, for better or for worse, was utilizing a production budget somewhere in the neighborhood of a fifth of what Big Trouble costs. Fortunately, John Carpenter the filmmaker is way up to the task of doing a lot with a little.
Actually, it’s more like he was up to the task of making one of his best movies, period.
Basically, the movie revolves around a mysterious discovery in the basement of an abandoned church. The clergy, it seems, have been hiding a canister that contains a green substance. This weird green substance appears to be some sort of innate negative energy. It just might be the “anti-God.” Weird things start happening around town, and the notion that the end of the world might be just around the corner becomes more and more legitimate a concern as the story wears on.
In other words, an average weekend in LA.
Prince of Darkness is a masterclass in low-budget, high-concept filmmaking. This is a really freakin’ big story to tackle on a tiny budget! Usually when a movie costs less than three million dollars you get a Reservoir Dogs, or even a Halloween. Something where you can put folks in a couple of simple costumes and then just write your way to a good movie. Prince of Darkness, despite mainly occupying single location of the church, is way more ambitious. Subject matter-wise, this is much closer to The Thing than to Halloween.
Still, Carpenter’s filmmaking muscle wouldn’t be much more than a curiosity if the movie wasn’t, y’know, GOOD. It’s that and more.
Some Carpenter regulars and a few unknowns put faces on the story’s characters — they do a solid job if you don’t expect an acting showcase. This, like most of his movies, is a feat of direction above all else. Carpenter’s iconic thriftiness informs every frame of the movie. No shot, edit, or sound effect is needless, or a second longer than it needs to be. The lean approach even extends to the movie’s relentless, seething musical score. More than simply being good, Prince of Darkness might just be the last great film of John Carpenter’s career.
(His next picture, They Live, only really satisfies on a “cult classic” level, and sadly marks the slow decline of the master’s… um… mastery, I suppose.)
Some have accused Prince of Darkness of goofiness and messiness. Both of these are perfectly reasonable, as the movie has its fair share of inexplicable plot developments and evil green goop. Hell, John Carpenter himself has admitted to not knowing exactly what certain plot turns mean. Still, these criticisms only judge the movie’s sorta surface-level cool/ick factor. It definitely shows its age and budget, but what lies underneath transcends both of those. In fact, it almost becomes more effective the less it makes perfect sense.
Make no mistake: This is a scary movie. Not in the traditional sense, maybe; its premise of an evil that defies the understanding of both religion and science alike is more existentially unnerving than outright terrifying. This isn’t a movie that thrills and chills in the same way as The Thing or Halloween, but it’ll really gnaw at you if you’re willing to get on its wavelength. It’s horror at the subatomic level.
Because really, what you get the sense of as this movie goes on is that no matter what your particular view of the universe, no matter what you think makes the world tick… if that canister opens, we’re all screwed.
That’s really what it comes down to, that growing ache of dread that can manifest as you engage with this flick. While it’s a bit trippy on the surface, what bubbles just below is as potent a horror concept as any I’ve seen. If you just let this movie do its thing, you’ll have found an underrated gem from one of the greatest we ever had.
Man, I know pre-90s Carpenter still gets a lot of love — especially for The Thing — but it still bears repeating: Guy makes a damn good movie.
Anybody else out there a fan of this one?