Friday, November 27, 2015

Prince of Darkness (1987): A Review

Mild spoilers follow.

Prince of Darkness (1987) is a guilty pleasure of mine, an odd, surreal horror film directed by John Carpenter and reuniting the director with actors, Dennis Dunn and the late Victor Wong, both of which also appeared in Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China released the year before. The late, great Donald Pleasance also reunited with Carpenter for Prince of Darkness, the two having first worked together on the set of Halloween (1978). Shock rocker, Alice Cooper, even makes an appearance as a possessed homeless person.

Though the premise of the film is intriguing, the film itself is deeply flawed. In the opening scenes, Professor Howard Birack (Wong) looks into the daytime sky to watch the moon and the sun come together for an eclipse. That night, student Brian Marsh (Jameson Parker), looks up at the full moon. This scene is actually repeated during the film. Not astronomically possible.

We are supposed to believe that Jameson Parker’s character as well as his love interest are college students even though both were 30 years old at the time and show their age.

Donald Pleasance, playing a Roman Catholic priest, types out a letter and his hands are clearly not on the keyboard.

When Pleasance's Father Loomis (he is named only in the script) and Professor Birack enter the crypt under the church, there are candles burning…hundreds of them and yet the church has been deserted for days if not weeks. The film is full of these fun little flaws.

Donald Pleasance brings a presence that without him would just be a silly little movie
But what I like about this film is that it is one that can honestly be placed solidly in the canon of Lovecraftian fiction. Lovecraftian elements of the film are:
  1. The premise of the film solidly embraces the sheer materialism of H.P. Lovecraft in that all metaphysical and supernatural phenomenons are nothing more than science taking place on a quantum level where it can be analyzed and understood. Satan has a physical reality. Jesus was nothing more than a physical being from another planet or dimension who tried to warn Earth about Satan. 
  2. Satan's father was "a god who once walked the earth before Man that was somehow banished to the dark side," a description very similar to the gods of Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos.
  3. The Brotherhood of Sleep, a secret Roman Catholic order that has the job of overlooking the incarnation of Satan (a large eerie crystal tube of swirling green liquid). 
  4. The Brotherhood has a big weird book written in Latin, Coptic, Greek, and “numbers” reminiscent of Lovecraft’s famous Necronomicon. 
  5. The universe is not a safe place for humans or logic. From a lecture by Professor Birack: "Say goodbye to classical reality because our logic collapses on the subatomic level into ghosts and shadows... While order does exist in the universe, it is not at all what we had in mind."
  6. Dreams are a gateway to other realities. When asleep, characters receive messages from the year 1999 via “tachyon transmissions” warning them of the impending global disaster coming from within the church itself. 
  7. And the atmosphere of the film with its increasing dread where a team of professionals (like Lovecraft's professors at his Miskatonic University) fight a malignant force.
This is Satan. Really.
As I said, the film is flawed. Most of the characters are there simply to die in interesting and graphic manners, but there are some scenes that are incredibly powerful, such as the first time Father Loomis and Professor Birack encounter the huge cylinder of swirling green liquid. In fact, I believe that it is Pleasance and Wong who carry the film in its entirety. If not for those two actors and their powerful ability to put a grave atmosphere on a flawed film, nobody would ever remember the movie. Whenever they are in camera, the movie shines.

All in all, I cannot recommend the film, but for some people like me, spotting the rare gem amongst the gravel makes the movie an interesting momentary diversion.
Out of 13 characters, guess which four live to see the end of the film.


  1. I remember getting to rent this one from a local library a few months ago. It has some good moments but a lot of it is just 'meh' to me. There seemed like a really unnecessary and mean-spirited rant at one point how "all Christianity is based on a lie" and was all about money grubbing. A comment doubtless very convincing to anyone who knows nothing about history. No remarks about the "absurdity of reason and science" or any such a thing, even though they find at least one and possibly three(!) physically existing gods in the film.

    And that last scene with the full dream from the future is either going to make you laugh or groan in how obvious it feels.

    1. I entertain the possibility that the secret behind the canister (devil in a glass) is from an unreliable narrator and that a legend has sprung up around it, but the truth actually has nothing to do with Christianity.

      Actually, in my view, one of the spawn of the Cthulhu Mythos is trying to bring its procreator into our world now that "the stars are right."

    2. I'd say that your idea works far better that the one they used.

    3. Well, it has to simply because there is no logic to the supposition. If an advanced alien civilization sent us one messianic figure to warn us about an odd glass cylinder buried in the sands of Arabia, they could have sent several ships full of ambassadors or, even better, they could have taken the cylinder themselves and shot it into a black hole.

      Therefore, the mythology of the film that Jesus was a representative of an alien civilization sent to warn us about Satan in a jar and we killed him for his troubles is rather an odd hypothesis.

    4. It does technically "work" if one of your goals to take a (badly done) swing at Christian belief.