Paranormal & Supernatural in Review: Prince of Darkness (1987)
Directed By: John Carpenter (Halloween, Escape from New York)
Starring: Donald Pleasence (Halloween Franchise, Phenomena), Victor Wong (Tremors, Big Trouble in Little China), Dennis Dun (Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Emperor), Lisa Blount (Chrystal, An Officer and a Gentleman), and Jameson Parker (The Bell Jar, Jackals)
Written By: John Carpenter (They Live, The Fog)
Release Year: 1987
Review By: Andy Taylor
As the son of a preacher-man, it should surprise no one that I’ve always had a strong interest in religion. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and so many others have long fascinated me, ever since I found reading the Bible, the only reading material available during church, to be more interesting than listening to the sermons. I might not prescribe to any particular one, though what my beliefs are remain immaterial to this review, but I’ve read most of the different religion’s main holy books to sate my curiosity, finding each one to be a fascinating look at how early humans tried to explain the world around them. Another big interest of mine is science. I might not understand a lot of it, but I love how science continues to delve the depths of our universe for answers we’ve been asking as a species for thousands of years. In some cases, both science and religion can be blended together, though many times the two are diametrically opposed, and this can make blending them effectively a difficult task. Thankfully, John Carpenter seems to have those same interests, and being the talented writer that he is, did a good job mixing the two into a strange, but fascinating tale, even if it does suffer from a couple of issues. Before we get to that, let’s look at the weird tale of Liquid Satan.
When an old priest slips into a coma while awaiting his meeting with the Cardinal, Father Loomis (the amazingly talented Donald Pleasence playing a character with a familiar name) is brought in to inspect the one thing the man had on him, a skeleton key in an old bronze chest. Knowing the priest lived as a recluse in the old Saint Godard’s Cathedral, Loomis discovers the key leads to a room holding a two-thousand-year-old book and a strange green liquid the book proclaims is the body of Satan. Loomis decides to call an old friend, theoretical physics professor Howard Birack, to help investigate the strange basement. Together with a group of students from the university, the professor and the priest begin to study both the book and the liquid, to which they discover extraordinary things about both. The book, written in a confusing mix of different languages, is over 2000 years old and full of mathematical equations and scientific facts that were only recently discovered while the corrosion on the liquid’s container marks it at over seven million years old. The mysteries only deepen when a partial translation of the book discusses an ancient evil that buried the container before being banished and an alien race that tried to warn humanity of the danger it would one day face. Worse yet, dreams from the then future year 1999 warn that a great evil will exit Saint Godard’s, setting up an unknown calamity that threatens the entire planet. As the force within the green liquid begins to posses both the homeless outside (including a deranged Alice Cooper) and the students inside, those left with their facilities must figure out a way to destroy Liquid Satan or face the “anti-god”, a being determined to reclaim its place in our universe.
If there is anyone that can take an intriguing mix of science and religion and make a fantastic story out of it, it’s John Carpenter. Sure, you know he’s going to add some very strange things because strange and John Carpenter go together like peanut butter and jelly, but it’s going to be a beautiful kind of strange. Jesus was an alien, Christianity was a way to prepare the world for advanced mathematics, and Satan is the creation of an antimatter super being are just a few of the strange things you’ll run into here, and trust me, there’s plenty more weirdness to be had. Carpenter, who always had an interest in both religion and theoretical physics, used his love of opposing fields and the nightmare of frequent collaborator Debra Hill, who had a recurring dream of a dark figure exiting a church, to create Prince of Darkness. Unfortunately, he may have gotten too excited during the writing process because the film’s biggest problems were extraneous bits of story that go nowhere and a group of characters who occasionally seem to have been hit in the head one too many times, leading me to consider this one of Carpenter’s worst films. Not to worry though, Carpenter’s worst is many a filmmaker’s best, so I still enjoyed it, just not as much as I would have had he tightened up the story.
There was so much that didn’t need to be in the film, even if some of it was extraordinarily intriguing. When falling asleep, for example, each person in the church has a reoccurring dream of a dark figure exiting Saint Godard’s (the basis of Debra Hill’s nightmare), but the dream isn’t really a dream. It’s a future message from the year 1999 where humanity has developed the ability to send messages back through time, but only to an unconscious mind. While I adored the idea, it doesn’t do much for the plot. It’s just a dream they keep having, one which only lasts for a few seconds at a time, and one which doesn’t motivate the people inside the church any further. They’re already accepting of the fact that they must stop Liquid Satan and the antigod, which was another issue I’ll get to in a second, so the dream was just there, an interesting idea that didn’t go anywhere in the end. There’s also a romance between two of the characters that adds nothing to the film except to give it an unnecessary romantic subplot. Worst of all though, in explaining what Liquid Satan is and why parts of the Catholic church, specifically a sect known as The Brotherhood of Sleep, where watching over it, the entire films becomes unnecessary.
I don’t think I’ll be spoiling anything here, but if you don’t want too much info, you might want to skip ahead to the next section. There are two gods, or universal minds as they’re referred to here, the one in our universe and one in a universe of antimatter. 7 million years ago, the antimatter god buried his son, Liquid Satan, deep in the Earth before someone, implied to be either a group of powerful aliens or possibly our universe’s god, banished it back to its own realm where the being could wait for its son to bring it back. Knowing that the being would one day return, a group of aliens sent their representative, whom we know as Jesus Christ, to Earth so we’d be prepared.
Unfortunately, our science wasn’t very good, and we couldn’t understand what he was talking about, so we crucified him. The Catholic church knew he was right though, so they saved his teachings, reinterpreting them for the world as they knew it until humanity’s science had advanced enough to prove what he was saying to be true. It’s all very interesting, and I found it to be fascinating stuff, but it renders the entire film pointless. If these aliens knew what was going to happen, why didn’t they take care of it long before it became a problem? Imagine we went to Mars next year, and at the core of the planet, we discovered a nuclear weapon that would one day destroy that world. Instead of doing anything about it, we just left it there for some reason. Now imagine we went back a few thousand or even millions of years later and discovered a primitive people had evolved on Mars since we’d been gone. We have the technology to remove this bomb and save the entire world, but instead of doing anything about it, we sent some guy to explain it to them in terms we knew they’d never be able to understand and just kind of hoped for the best. That’s essentially what happened here. These aliens had 7 million years to do something about it and the only thing that seemed prudent to them was sending some guy to explain it to us in terms we couldn’t understand. It doesn’t make any sense.
What also doesn’t make much sense are the actions of many of the people inside the church. Maybe it’s just me, but if someone took me down to the bottom of a church and showed me a green, glowing jar full of slime, you’d be hard pressed to convince me it was Liquid Satan. Nor would I immediately assume a strange book said to be over two thousand years old yet full of mathematical equations impossible for people of that time was anything but a hoax, yet that’s what most everyone brought to the church immediately does. Even Professor Birack, a man of science, is immediately convinced of the authenticity of what he’s been told. Walter, one of Birack’s students played by the wonderful Dennis Dun, is treated like a jerk simply because he has the audacity to question the insane things he’s been told. Everyone else is almost immediately on board with Liquid Satan, Alien Jesus, and a battle between opposing deities like it’s the most normal thing they’ve ever heard. Beyond that, there’s also the fact that people don’t seem to think through anything, often acting in silly or ridiculous ways. I understand it’s a horror movie, a genre not known for intelligent characters (let’s go investigate that strange noise by ourselves even though half of us have already been slaughtered by an unknown menace), but this goes above and beyond.
Here are people who believe they’re fighting Liquid Satan, and they never seem to mind members of the group disappearing, nor do they seem to understand the notion of urgency. At one point in the film, the survivors get separated into three groups, the priest in a boiler room, Walter in some kind of confessional room, and the rest in a room right next to Walter. Deciding that they should break through the wall so Walter can join up with them, they begin digging, all while Walter complains and mostly does nothing, just occasionally checking on a mutating fellow classmate that’s unconscious. After a significant amount of time, the situation breaks down, and Walter finally begins digging through the wall himself, managing to break through and do in seconds what the others couldn’t do in hours. Why wasn’t he doing that in the first place? Why wait so long? It just doesn’t make sense for the people to act the way they do, and it kept becoming very distracting.
I know I haven’t painted a pretty picture of Prince of Darkness, and I’m sure some might be wondering why they should waste their time watching it, but I promise you, despite all the problems, it is a good movie that’s well worth the watch. Yes, it’s got some unnecessary plot points, the characters don’t always make sense, and you really need to pay attention because there are a lot of blink and you’ll miss it moments (and you will be lost if you miss them), but overall, I still very much enjoyed watching it. That’s because despite what it does wrong, it does a lot right as well, and one of the things it does right is something that Carpenter always does right, the music. The score for Prince of Darkness is amazing, and it always fits exactly with what’s happening onscreen. It adds to the mood and helps to create a greater sense of tension and unease as well. I own many of the scores from his films just because of how fantastic they are, and I intend to try and hunt this one down as well. You always know you’re in for a musical treat when you put on a John Carpenter flick.
Another thing you know you’re going to get when you watch a Carpenter film is a cast of interesting characters, and that’s much the case here, even if some of them aren’t the brightest. Better still, Carpenter got a great set of actors to play these characters, and he knew what he was doing. The parts of Father Loomis (who is only ever referred to as “Priest” in the film, but I watch everything with subtitles, and that named him), Professor Howard Birack, and Walter were written specifically for Donald Pleasence, Victor Wong, and Dennis Dun respectively. Not only did he trust their ability to portray his characters, but he loved working with such wonderful people, and I loved seeing them. Donald Pleasence is one of the best actors to ever grace the screen, and I don’t say that just because he’s a favorite of mine. The man had such a powerful presence onscreen, carrying himself with both dignity and a mystique that only deepened his impact on a film. He was such a fantastic actor, and it shows here. When he has a crisis of faith later in the film, his coming to terms with it is a heartbreaking thing, and I really felt for the old priest. Victor Wong is fantastic as the professor. Of course, he does a fantastic job with any part he plays.
I could have easily believed that the man had been teaching college all his life, even if I didn’t understand how a professor would be so quick to believe something so outrageous. Dennis Dun’s Walter was one of my favorites in the film. Not only does he remain the only person who is skeptical of the whole thing, but he has such a genial manner about him, managing to add some humor where it was needed. They weren’t the only characters or actors I liked though because we haven’t even gotten to Alice Cooper yet.
The people they got to play the homeless surrounding the church, murdering anyone that tries to escape, all do a fantastic job with their parts. Some are stoic, staring blankly ahead as if their minds are no longer their own, while others are outright insane, giggling manically and making twisted faces that reflected the battles they were fighting within. Alice Cooper, famed musician and perfect guy for any creepy part, stays just between the two. They all are very eerie, and I would be terrified to see them surrounding any building I was in, but Alice Cooper takes the cake. He doesn’t have a huge part, but each time he pops up, he has a huge impact. Apparently, he wasn’t even originally supposed to have a part, but he showed up on set one day because his manager was a producer on the film, and John Carpenter asked if he’d like to play a role. Cooper was so thrilled with the prospect, he even figured out a way to use one of his stage props in the film, to great effect might I add.
One of the best actors in the film was another character who had a small part but did a fantastic job, and that was Jesse Lawrence Ferguson who plays Calder, one of Birack’s students. Though his credits list a few movies of his I’ve seen (Darkman, Neon Maniacs), the only thing I can really remember him being in previously was one of the worst episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (Code of Honor), but judging from his performance here, he should have really been in more. As one of the possessed, he fluctuates between giggling like a maniac and crying over his lost humanity. It made for an amazing and unsettling performance. Lisa Blount, who plays one of Birack’s smartest students, did a wonderful job as well. In fact, the end of the film is disturbing, tragic, and horrifying mainly because of her performance. I don’t want to ruin it, but it is seriously disturbing. Really, there was only one character I couldn’t stand and that was Jameson Parker’s Brian Marsh. Not because the actor did a bad job, but because the character was such a jerk, he kept getting on my nerves.
Yet another John Carpenter staple is the ridiculous amount of tension and suspense the man can squeeze into a film. He knows how to build a tense atmosphere that drags the viewer into an uncomfortable but amazing watch which is exactly what he did with Prince of Darkness. Though the already mentioned complaints bothered me, sometimes a great deal, the tense atmosphere managed to effectively distract me enough that I couldn’t focus on the problems for long periods of time. What effects are here are amazing as well. There aren’t a whole lot as the story doesn’t require much gore or FX work, but what’s there looks fantastic. One of the better examples, and not just for this film but from Carpenter’s entire filmography, was a man made of beetles and chunks of what used to be his flesh slowly falling apart into his insect components. It was a very unnerving thing to see, and it wasn’t even the only great effect. While most of the possessed don’t look any different than a normal person, minus the dead eyed stare they generally had, one of the students is completely overtaken by Liquid Satan, beginning a mutation that leaves her looking like a half-rotted corpse, and the makeup work for her is terrific. There’s also a mirror that doubles as a portal to the antigod’s antimatter universe, something they created using mercury, and it looks bizarre, unnatural, and somewhat hypnotizing.
In the end, Prince of Darkness, ranks toward the bottom of Carpenter’s films. It definitely ranks better than Ghosts of Mars, Vampires, or Memoirs of an Invisible Man, but that’s not saying much. Still, it’s not a terrible movie. If I had a five-star rating system, Prince of Darkness would receive a solid three stars, not great, but good. Give it a watch, you might not be blown away, but I think you’ll enjoy it.
Andrew Willis Taylor lives in St. Louis, MO with his wonderful girlfriend who doesn’t mind his lengthy diatribes on why Benjamin Sisko was the greatest captain. When he isn’t writing or turning old junk into usable household items, you’ll find him exploring new areas, volunteering downtown, or plopped in front of a television watching Doctor Who and Star Trek. He also has a weird aversion to writing short bios that leaves him unable to figure out what to put down. I think he likes puppies or something too.