FILM REVIEW: Prince of Darkness (1987)

Prince of Darkness (USA, 1987)
Directed by John Carpenter

Starring Donald Pleasance, Jameson Parker, Victor Wong, Lisa Blount

With any kind of film surrounding the supernatural there is a very fine line between profound and preposterous, between the sublime and the ridiculous. Prince of Darkness desperately wants to be taken seriously, but it ends up every bit as laughable and stupid as Exorcist II: The Heretic. While not John Carpenter's worst film (that honour is reserved for Ghosts of Mars), it remains one of his most obvious and embarrassing failures.Prince of Darkness is the middle instalment of Carpenter's 'apocalypse trilogy', three films which share the premise of a deadly force which could destroy humanity if fully unleashed (the others being The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness). For all the pretentions and incoherence of the latter, Prince of Darkness is by far and away the weakest of the trilogy. What should have been an interesting take on an age-old battle between good and evil ended up as a higgledy-piggledy hotchpotch of incongruent ideas, resulting in a rubbish horror movie which neither scares nor thrills.

To be fair, Prince of Darkness is at least trying to explore a number of interesting ideas. Its central thesis is that evil is something physical, something which can be studied scientifically rather than being confined to ethics and theology. Good and evil are characterised as matter and anti-matter, and just as God came to Earth in human form to save Mankind, so evil has to inhabit the physical to unleash its full potential. There is also within the classic fear of the unknown, which Carpenter had previously explored in both Hallowe'en and The Thing. There are some fairly standard discussions about quantum theory, Schrodinger's Cat, and how logic breaks down at a sub-atomic level.But apart from the last five minutes, and scraps of expository dialogue throughout, these themes are barely addressed in a head-on way. The film is a mishmash of horror clichés, assembled and directed in a shambolic manner which you would not normally associate with John Carpenter. The screenplay seems to have enough ideas for three or four very different films. But rather than elaborate on any particular one, Carpenter decides to throw them altogether in the hope that all the pieces would fit.The plot of Prince of Darkness starts out relatively straightforward: there is a green canister in an abandoned church which has sentience and intelligence, and may or may not be the Devil. But then we have to believe that this liquid has the ability to move objects through telekinetic power, and that people can become possessed by having the liquid squirted into their mouths. And then, we have the twist involving a world behind mirrors, which probably served as the inspiration for Into the Mirror over 20 years later. And then, there's a whole caboodle about shared dreaming caused by tachyon beams from the future. The film keeps piling one badly executed plot point on top of another until all credibility has evaporated.

This overburdening of the plot also causes a disturbing number of plot holes, some of them amusing, some of them annoying. For instance, if the canister containing the green liquid is supposed to be impregnable, how come is it leaking out and collecting on the ceiling? Come to think of it, why is it defying gravity by leaking upward? And why, oh why, do the people just stand there, open-mouthed, so the liquid can be sprayed straight at them?Then there are all sorts of questions raised by the concept of shared dreams. The dreams are supposedly a message from the future, warning against the return of Satan. But if Satan did return, bringing the 'anti-God' with him, surely the universe would have been destroyed and there would be no way to send the message? Alternatively, if our heroes succeed in stopping him, surely the messages wouldn't exist in the first place, and therefore the dreams would stop at the end of the film? And why do the dreams change after Danforth has gone through the mirror?The film is also sub-standard on a visual level. There are several half-decent locations, like the abandoned church and the university campus which resembles the quiet suburbia of Hallowe'en. And some of the special effects are okay, like the swirling canister or the decaying flesh make-up on the 'chosen one'. Beyond that, it's just another haunted house, populated by characters who deliver cheesy lines about the church being abandoned and how "this place gives me the creeps". Carpenter is a great low-budget filmmaker, but he simply doesn't do anything interesting with the location, using very conventional architecture as the main sort of threat.Much of Prince of Darkness is completely ridiculous, being hugely derivative of other, better horrors. The motley bunch of devil worshippers outside the church, including rock legend Alice Cooper, are a straight lift from both Rosemary's Baby and George Romero's zombie films, due to their silence and unified motion. There have been dozens of films about demonic possession, but the use of water as diabolical ectoplasm is a total rip-off of The Exorcist. The regenerating flesh of the 'chosen one' is second-rate H. P. Lovecraft, and Donald Pleasance's seemingly mad priest is pinched from Patrick Troughton's character in The Omen.

But the biggest debt owed by Prince of Darkness is to the Quatermass series. Carpenter was a big fan of Nigel Kneale to the extent that he credited his screenplay to 'Martin Quatermass'. Ironically, Kneale was irritated by this association, due to his bad experience as the original screenwriter of Hallowe'en III: Season of the Witch. The idea of an ancient evil being something physical (or at least quantifiable) was handled superbly in The Quatermass Experiment, which took a ghostly story about possessed astronauts and turned this into a physical threat every bit as terrifying as the Thing. Prince of Darkness is like a poorly scripted, badly made version of that story, with all the true terror taken out.We then come to the small matter of characters. Even when Carpenter was soft-peddling, he could always be relied upon for interesting, offbeat characters who would rise to the challenge. In Prince of Darkness, the acting is wooden, the characters are bland, and the character development is almost non-existent. Brian and Danforth go straight from meeting for coffee to sleeping together, and even though there is only one kiss between them for the rest of the film, we have to believe that they are passionately in love.

For all its great ambitions, the film is effectively a slasher by proxy. There are so many characters running around that we don't have enough time to form proper emotional bonds. Hence when people start getting picked off, we just don't care - even the sight of Alice Cooper stabbing someone with a bicycle is dull. We aren't all that sorry for Danforth when she gets dragged into the other world, before the mirror is smashed by a conveniently-placed axe, trapping her forever. If a film about pure evil can't make us connect with the good guys, then something has gone terribly wrong.As if that wasn't enough, we also have to put up with some out-of-place comedy. One character, played by Dennis Dun, makes all kinds of stupid verbal faux pas which are badly written and out of context. While being hunted down by the possessed women, he makes jokes about a Jewish woman marrying a African doctor, and remarks that "he's not used to being dominated by women". Such comments are every bit as stupid as the jokes in Big Trouble in Little China and add nothing at all to the story.Prince of Darkness is ripe, silly, cheesy trash and one of the low points of Carpenter's career. It's not as depressing a failure as Ghosts of Mars, but it fails on just about every level, both as a horror film and as pure entertainment. The experience is made all the more frustrating by Carpenter's record and the great potential hidden in its ideas. It should have been good, it could have been great - but instead it's a total stinker.

Rating: 1/5

Verdict: Ripe, ridiculous and utter rubbish


Post a Comment