After the laconically witty, good-natured “wait, how much money are they giving me?” spurt of Big Trouble in Little China, John Carpenter decided his steadily encroaching ascent into mainstream fluff required a course correct. His 1987 feature, Prince of Darkness, reflects a homecoming of sorts, a rejection of the more-is-more pomp and circumstance of the 1980s for the merciless fringe-dwelling independent malevolence of Carpenter’s upbringing in the 1970s and his time being reared on the works of Val Lewton, Samuel Fuller, and Nicholas Ray. Antithetical to good cheer, the fluctuating energy levels of Prince of Darkness occupy a secluded spectrum from poison-cloud malevolence to throat-grabbing holocaust of horror. If Big Trouble was escapism, Prince of Darkness feels like it cannot be escaped.
Yet Carpenter never cracks and diffuses the tension by rushing in for the easy kill. His camera lingers, taking in the decrepit geometry of modern life as if searching the corners of the frame for exits, and finding none. A hybrid of the searching terror and waiting horror, it feels at once indescribable and unavoidable, with the oppressive, baleful mood and probing awareness of the world’s uncertainty even infecting Carpenter’s otherwise-overbearing downward spiral of histrionic musings on the nature of knowledge, religion, science, space, and time. Perhaps because the film’s overriding thesis is that knowledge is but a mask we apply to keep our souls from withering on the vine, the exposition feels less like an answer and more like a cracked-mirror glimpse into the perturbed minds of the film’s protagonists, a fractured release valve for the terror they face. As one character remarks, self-implicating themselves as well as any film that attempts to explain away the bogeyman in the night, “our logic collapses on the subatomic level into ghosts and shadows”.
A phrase that also neatly sums up Carpenter’s fairly robust toolkit for sacrilegious imagery that somehow still displays a profound piety even as Donald Pleasence adds an ax to God’s repertoire. Carpenter hones in on a group of students locked-up in a seemingly antediluvian church – the benefactor of many a ghoulish, omnipotent shots of domineering eldritch architecture – hoping to research and scientifically prove the nature of a corporeal manifestation of green liquid, be it heretical or saintly. His film begins with a credits sequence that doubles as a masterclass in opaque, disjunctive atmosphere, setting up the dominoes of a comparison between the dreadfully impersonal white halls of the modern scientific community and the diffuse clergy, architecturally personified, and mummified, in the autumnal vestiges of the church that serves as a hollow totem to past glories.
Yet wider, more unknowable forces totally level human contrasts between science and religion in Carpenter’s vision. The disturbed disgrace of Donald Pleasence’s clergyman – ashamed that he hadn’t realized his church was the summer home of Satan itself – is parried by the inchoate ramblings of welterweight scientific youths just realizing they are tampering in domains beyond their recognition. Carpenter, not a sadist but a watchful waiter for oblivion, gathers all these people and gives the rapture a kick-start in the pant-seat. As a maestro, he pays both the humming down-tune note of discord, in the form of quasi-expressionistic shadows and slowly mounting dread, and the sweating, slantwise cymbal crash, via tempestuous and wickedly sinister moments of chiaroscuro surrealism (an upright suit where a body had once been, now engulfed in darkness and falling to bits piece by piece, is the standout). And ultimately, no one, neither religion nor science, is able to cope with, let alone fathom, the terrors lurking below.
Mostly, though, Prince is a return to Carpenter’s Angel of Death status, using black-cloud visuals to conspicuously envelop none-the-wiser humans in trepidatious fates beyond their comprehension. Despite the high-minded nobility of the film’s religious subject matter, Prince is a surprisingly lean, merciless work. Its most noble conviction is its restraint, its commitment to the stalking fear of hallways sculpted in darkness, both the external variety bestowed by a pathological lack of sun and the internal kind imbued with grief, guilt, and self-doubt that burrows much more deeply. This is a film made by a man granted a Hollywood card who decided to detoxify himself in the fires of minimalism. Gifted shiny toys a plenty, this director felt that his movies – Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Thing – were at their most subterranean in their ability to sneak up on you when his Carpenter’s tool-belt consisted of only his eye, his hands, and maybe just a syllable of sunlight. All the better to keep the demons at bay, but not too far away.