Collins’ Crypt: Thoughts On PRINCE OF DARKNESS

Collins on Carpenter. 

It's been said, and often, that John Carpenter's films are always a bit before their time; they are theatrically released and seen mainly by his devoted fans and few others, only to be discovered as gems several years later. Indeed, even Ghosts of Mars (his low point, based on my one viewing) is starting to get some appreciation, leading me to consider a long overdue revisit. That said, I was a bit disheartened to see that Prince of Darkness (a rare theatrical success for Carpenter, oddly enough) was sort of beat up in Fangoria's recent tribute issue that covered all of his films in detail. Even Memoirs of an Invisible Man was defended, but Prince's "flaws" were mentioned often, with the author going so far as to say that the homeless people subplot was a waste of time.

Obviously not everyone's going to see every movie the same way, but with several writers contributing to the issue, perhaps Prince could have been assigned to someone with a higher opinion of it (as opposed to a single author, whose thoughts would be expected to differ from each reader's)? Personally I think it's one of his last great films; In The Mouth of Madness is probably the closest, but the third act never felt like it lived up to what came before, in my opinion. Prince, on the other hand, starts off ominous and strange and just keeps building to all out madness. Sure, the budget limitations kept the action in check (a lengthy portion of the 3rd act is devoted to merely getting a character out of a closet), but in terms of impending dread, it actually rivals The Thing with regards to how Carpenter is able to keep ramping up the idea that we're all fucked, as our cast - even bigger than Thing's at the top of the film - is whittled down with terrifying speed.

It's not an accident that I mention those two films alongside this one; the three make up Carpenter's unofficial (and, obviously, otherwise unrelated) "Apocalypse Trilogy", as all of them deal with the impending end of the world as we know it. This one (spoiler!) is probably the least pessimistic of the three; the evil has seemingly been stopped (unlike The Thing, where the heroes' success is left ambiguous, and Mouth, which ends with the human race either dead or insane) and there are a few more survivors than usual (four, by my count). To me, this is great - Carpenter has tried to end the world three times, and had a different outcome with each one.

And his chosen method of destruction is one of his most intriguing villains - often referred to as the devil, but it's actually the son of the Anti-God, which is more interesting (though admittedly somewhat underdeveloped in the film). It's also got a more unique set of protagonists - unlike The Thing's vague scientist types, here we have physics majors and their professor, a priest, and a language expert - it's almost like a proto-Crichton scenario. The Anti-God, seen as a swirling mass in a container, sends out complicated equations that the students need to decipher in order to figure out what it wants and/or how to contain it, which of course doesn't go all too well. It's the rare Carpenter film that lends itself to both sequels AND a prequel - I'd love to get a full backstory on the (rather badass) idea of a series of priests going back thousands of years being chosen to guard this thing from within the basement of a church, making sure it doesn't escape. There's next to no exposition about it in the film - I've basically just told you everything that the movie does - and with a chunk of the movie devoted to what amounts to standard zombie movie attack scenes (including the baffling bit where Jameson Parker sees that both sides of the alley are blocked, jumps out the window, and then jumps back inside), I can't help but wonder if the movie would be held in even higher regard if Carpenter spent a little more time on his cooler ideas and less on the trailer-ready action sequences.

He spent the exact right amount of time on his score, however. As he points out in the commentary, it's not something you can hum like Halloween, but it's one of his best - the lengthy opening bit (set to the very spaced out credits - it's 10 minutes in by the time his director credit appears!) is fantastic, and probably triples the uneasy feeling the movie gives you before they even arrive at the church. It's not all clear on a first view as to what is going on, but you know it's not good - swarms of ants are seen everywhere (even on a guy's TV), a priest is dead, and it goes without saying that anytime Donald Pleasence is concerned, you know some shit's about to go down. The passage of time in this opener is also a bit fuzzy; if you don't notice the frequent costume changes you might assume hero Jameson Parker has bedded the lovely Lisa Blount on the day they met (which was the day after he saw her with another man). It's basically just a lot of things to set up that don't really matter in the long run (one could argue that Parker/Blount could have met/romanced at the church, rather than before), setting up the big cast and unique plot and getting them into the church so the fun could begin. If you haven't seen the movie yet and find yourself getting a bit confused/put off by the first reel, stick with it! It all falls into place the second the first student is attacked by the green liquid, and from there on out it rarely slows down.

But if you don't fully get the specifics by the end, don't go to Carpenter's commentary for help - he can't remember. Recorded in 2001, Carpenter clearly didn't revisit the film beforehand, and despite a valiant effort by frequent co-star Peter Jason (this being the first of their 5-6 films together) to jog his memory on the story details, most of the track is just the two of them busting each others' balls, Jason offering up anecdotes (such as the one time he's ever seen the master get upset on the set), and Carpenter's usual fascination with lights and shooting locations. In short, not a bad track, but hardly an essential one. Some folks might have heard it already as it's been available in other regions for a decade or so, but everything else on Scream Factory's new Blu-ray is brand new. Carpenter offers a new interview where he's a little more forthcoming on the story (which he wrote himself, under the pseudonym Martin Quatermass), and they also recruited Alice Cooper and co-star/VFX supervisor Robert Grasmere (he played Wyndham, the guy who turned into bugs) to offer up their recollections as well, with the latter going into how a few of the makeup gags were pulled off in camera.

There's also an alternate opening for the film, taken from some TV broadcast (the station logo noticeably blurred out) and edited in a way to make it seem like Brian is dreaming the entire movie - not sure what the point of that ever was, but it's an interesting thing to see, how just a few re-edits can change the focus of a film. A new episode of Horror's Hallowed Grounds shows us what the church and school locations look like today (since the film is contained, it's much shorter than the other episodes), and a still gallery proves that Carpenter's hair went from a dark grey to almost pure white over the span of a year (if you compare it to the stills seen on their They Live release). Finally, you might notice a cross on the special features menu - highlight it to be treated to a Q&A from last year's Screamfest screening, featuring Carpenter and a guy who bears a striking resemblance to yours truly. It's shot from editor Marc Pilvinsky's iPhone, who was sitting in the front row, which means it's clear and close enough to see me fidgeting and scratching my neck, but the audio isn't the best - it's hard to hear the audience's questions when they come up. Still, as an Easter Egg, it's a pretty nice inclusion, and I can't deny I'm stoked to make a little cameo on what will be the definitive release for this film.

It's a shame Carpenter never dove into such geeky material again; as with Lifeforce, I think the idea of doing Quatermass style movies with a modern touch would be an awesome one, but apart from some elements in movies like Event Horizon and Sunshine, anytime horror and sci-fi are blended it's usually just some Alien ripoff, with the space (and thus "sci-fi") setting just being an excuse to throw in some cool shots of a big spaceship floating past Jupiter or whatever - the film's PLOTS could just as easily be set in an underground bunker or something. I want more legit "Sci-Horror" films, dammit! But if we don't get any more, at least the ones we got are pretty good, with this being the best of the batch as far as I'm concerned.