Prince of Darkness Is John Carpenter’s Most Unsettling Movie

Credit: Alive Films
Credit: Alive Films
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John Carpenter notoriously hates studio involvement in his work. It’s part of why he effectively retired from directing, which is an endless source of heartbreak for fans. But that disdain did once have an upside.

After dealing with studios for his four previous films (The Thing, Christine, Starman, and Big Trouble in Little China), Carpenter went back to his independent roots for his next movie, and it’s arguably one of the director’s finest works.

Prince of Darkness was released in 1987, and saw Carpenter not only going independent again, but also return to horror after a four-year absence from the genre. It’s a cosmic horror in the same fitting manner as its Apocalypse trilogy brethren, The Thing and In The Mouth of Madness, filled with the same dread and heavy atmosphere.

It saw the return of previous Carpenter alum Donald Pleasence, Victor Wong, and Dennis Dun. But it also has an interesting addition in the form of Alice Cooper, who had met Carpenter at Wrestlemania before finally getting work with him here.

Prince of Darkness’ story is one of religion and technology. It was born from the dream of Carpenter’s long-time producer and screenwriter Debra Hill. Hill had seen a figure emerging from a church in her dream and felt horribly unsettled by it. Carpenter wanted to expand on that and make a film that captured that feeling.

The story sees a group of researchers called in to investigate a mysterious cylinder filled with a green swirling liquid. As their investigations deepen, they discover the cylinder contains Satan, the Son of the Anti-God. But Satan isn’t satisfied with a liquid form, as he seeks to bring about the return of the Anti-God, and the poor researchers who got signed up for this are in for a bad time. The’re also having a strange collective dream, that appears to be a warning of sorts. One by one, Satan possesses the group, and the remaining few unaffected must try to escape this nightmare, and hopefully stop Satan bringing the Anti-God back to our world.

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Credit: Alive Films
Credit: Alive Films

Much like The Thing, Prince of Darkness very calmly and coldly builds up to its invasive threat, giving it more power as the runtime goes on. There are a lot of structural similarities between the two films, which is a part of the reason Prince of Darkness feels so much like ”pure” Carpenter, but really, Prince of Darkness is the pinnacle of Carpenter’s vision that had been built over 13 years and 11 movies.

It’s little surprise that Carpenter himself stated this was his most visually-controlled film to date, citing the tighter budget as great motivation. “It’s one of my most controlled films visually,” said Carpenter. “Every shot I can see, every shot is basically set to a purpose, where in some films I will let things go. I will let it be more loose; I’ll let actors improvise. Every shot in here is specifically designed to communicate something.”

Carpenter’s fascination with religion and science were key components for fleshing out this great ancient evil that’s almost never seen except through possession of others and a visually arresting sequence late on involving a mirror. There’s a lot of chatter in Prince of Darkness, especially about science and religion, but instead of feeling like a lecture, the intersection of the two makes for a fascinating discussion, espeacilly in the context of some great and ancient evil.

Key to the atmosphere in Prince of Darkness is just how isolated and decaying Carpenter makes a building only situated two blocks from Los Angeles City Hall. The interior basement set that holds the sinsiter goo was filmed elsewhere at an abandoned ballroom on Long Beach, but that old church in L.A. simply feels apocalyptic inside and out.

Fittingly for the movie’s late reveal, there’s a dreamlike quality to Prince of Darkness. The building just feels like a box of nightmares. There’s flesh-eating demonic pregnancy, bicycle impalement, blunt vicious violence, and the gurgling mockery of a man assembled from dead skin and cockroaches. Witnessing these hard-working students torn apart mentally and physically by the forces of evil is disturbing, especially whenever people come back as a mocking possesses husk of themselves.

Carpenter has made some of the greatest horror moments in history, but I don’t believe there’s anything as unsettling in his library as Prince of Darkness.

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