Then and Now: Revisiting Prince of Darkness

Prince of Darkness

Welcome to Then and Now, a recurring column where one of us revisits a movie we haven’t seen in a long, long time and then writes about how the film’s effect on us today differs from the place it holds in our memory.

The movie: Prince of Darkness (d. John Carpenter, 1987)

When I last watched it: At least 15 years ago. Possibly 20.

What I remembered about it pre-rewatch: That it scared the shit out of teenaged me. Like many children of the early and mid-70s, I worshiped at the alter of Carpenter from Halloween up until at least In the Mouth of Madness. And while there was never any doubt that The Thing and Escape From New York were better films (and that They Live was a much more fun watch), Prince of Darkness always scored points with me for being (a) scary as hell and (b) weird as fuck.

The imagery from the film that sticks with me the most is that goddamn dream, which we learn over the course of the movie is actually a transmission from the future. I remember it being a neck-hair-raising nightmare featuring a static-filled recorded message and a terrifying hooded figure slowly emerging from a church doorway. I’m pretty sure we see more and more of the dream as the film progresses.

I also remember the generalities of the story, namely that Pleasence is a priest who brings in a physics professor (Victor Wong) and a team of students to study a cylinder of liquid green goo that’s discovered in the basement of a church. The goo ends up somehow being, uh, the Antichrist, determined to break free and rule the Earth or something. I forget the particulars. I was a teenaged metalhead, so of course I remember Alice Cooper as some sort of creepy homeless person. (Aren’t homeless people congregating to attack the church or something?) And I know there’s a great jump scare at the end when someone rolls over in bed.

That’s basically it, other than the fact that when I watched Prince of Darkness as a teen, it always felt dark and dingy and it imbued me with a deep sense of dread.

Post-rewatch thoughts: As is often the case, the movie’s not nearly as scary as I remember. That “future transmission” dream, which left such a mark on me, isn’t nearly as effective now. That’s partly because 16-year-old me was just easier to terrify. But Prince of Darkness also likely worked better when viewed in its era. That dream (sent back from 1999!) was probably far creepier when viewed in the middle of the night on a small, square standard-definition television than when blown-up on one of today’s giant flat-screen HD rigs.

That’s not to say it wasn’t an enjoyable experience revisiting the film all these years later. Prince of Darkness is Carpenter’s “kitchen sink” movie, where he takes a shit ton of different ideas and jams then into what’s otherwise a pretty straight-forward horror movie. At various points, the movie touches upon Christian theology, some kind of predestined celestial event, occult symbology, demonic possession and quantum physics. There are crucified pigeons and lots of bugs and other creepy-crawlies. There’s an entire debate about the Schrödinger’s Cat paradox jammed in there, for crying out loud. You get the sense that Carpenter was doing a lot of reading while he was writing this — perhaps while, uh, medicated — and, whenever he came across something he thought was cool, he worked it into the script (which was credited to his pseudonym, Martin Quartermass). It never gels into a cohesive whole, but it does at least create the illusion that the movie has more on its mind than scares and gore.

There are other ways Prince of Darkness stands out from its 80s horror-film brethren. Whereas Carpenter’s Halloween inspired a tsunami of slasher flicks in the early and mid 80s, by 1987 we’d already had six Friday the 13ths and three Nightmare on Elm Streets. Some filmmakers were looking to do different things with the genre, such as Clive Barker, who put out Hellraiser that same year. Carpenter had already strayed from horror into dark sci-fi and fantasy with Escape From New York and Big Trouble in Little China. When he returned to the genre with Prince of Darkness, he obviously had no interest in going the slasher route (though the film does have characters getting picked off one by one).

To wit, Prince of Darkness features not teenagers or undergrads, but adult students working on their PhDs. The only couple to have sex in the movie does so within the first 10 minutes and without a trace of nudity. There are no jocks or alpha males here, just lots of brainiacs trying to solve an ancient riddle. It’s actually refreshing. Slasher movies often will have the token nerd. Prince of Darkness features nothing but nerds, yet hardly any of them are of the stereotypical variety. The size of the cast here is somewhat staggering. Even during the rewatch, by the time the movie gets down to the final four students not dead or possessed, I had completely forgotten who one of them was. (And Carpenter seems to forget about Alice Cooper. He’s so prominent at the beginning of the film, and the he’s just … gone.)

The movie is also not paced like a slasher movie … or, some might say, a good movie. It takes a long time to get going. Nothing violent happens until 35 minutes in, with the time before that mostly devoted to setting the story up. Then, after a burst of mayhem, Carpenter devotes a large portion of the film’s final act to people barricaded in rooms not doing much of anything. So, at best, the pacing is odd, though I think you can argue it adds to the film’s dreamlike quality, as does yet another excellent Carpenter synth score.

The rewatch makes clear what I had forgotten about the Antichrist’s plan. He needs to escape from his green tub of goo and find a human host so he can proceed to rescue dear old dad from some dimension of darkness that’s only accessible through mirrors. And dad is a very literal Satan. When you briefly see his arm at the end of the movie, it’s big and red and looks exactly how your church-going grandma imagines it to be. Had the Antichrist not been foiled, I half expect that it would have been Tim Curry’s Lord of Darkness from Legend pulled through the mirror and into the land of the living. The mirror bit doesn’t make much sense, but it does allow for some cool visual flourishes, especially a supremely creepy shot when we see one of our heroes fading into the darkness on the wrong side of the glass.

The jump scare at the end still made me jump, even though I remembered it was coming. It’s an all-timer.

So, ultimately, Prince of Darkness is a weird and solid piece of horror filmmaking from the 80s but not the nonstop nightmare I remember terrifying the crap out of me two decades ago. I’d likely classify it as a non-essential piece of Carpenter’s filmography but worth the time of anyone wanting to sample some of the man’s deeper cuts.