There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.
The sixty-fifth entry into this unbroken backlog is the second entry in John Carpenter's "apocalypse trilogy", Prince of Darkness...
John Carpenter’s filmography is, for the most part, essential - especially when discussing his horror output. In a genre that doesn’t exactly lend itself to auteurism (though there are certainly exceptions to that rule), Carpenter created a singular style, one that even his lesser works bore the distinct mark of. Halloween ('78) wasn’t the first “slasher” (that honor arguably goes to Bob Clark’s Black Christmas ['74]), but it helped kickstart one of the most widely recognized subgenres and inspired a slew of imitators, none of which came close to replicating the class Carpenter’s film exuded (a recent revisit to the Friday the 13th ['80] series confirms this fact). To this day, The Thing ('82) is held up one of the prime examples (along with David Cronenberg’s The Fly ['86]) of the “correct” way to execute a remake. In his prime, the director was the consummate stylist, a master of utilizing widescreen photography to create stunningly detailed compositions.
To call Prince of Darkness ('87) a “lesser” work seems, at first, like a dismissive classification. Though the truth is, Carpenter’s blend of science and religion lends the picture a ponderous air when held up against the simplistic conceits of suburban terror and claustrophobic alien horror. As his camera lazily drifts about the hallways of a drab inner-city church, the story taking its time to arrive at a gory, surreal climax, Prince of Darkness might feel like a slight disappointment, stuck on the tail end of the director’s monumental run (Carpenter’s last indisputably great film, They Live ['88], would come next). However, upon closer inspection, one discovers a masterclass in formalistic approach, complete with what might be Carpenter’s greatest “harbinger of doom” ending. Combined with the same siege staging as Assault on Precinct 13 ('76), Prince of Darkness becomes a "greatest hits" compilation, revolving around a terrifying tale of the Antichrist come to Earth. Yes, the movie never reaches the dizzying heights of the most famous entries in his storied oeuvre, but there is plenty wonderful to enjoy.
On the outskirts of Los Angeles, a group of grad students are gathered by their professor (Victor Wong) and a priest (Donald Pleasence) to study an unearthed canister that's been carbon dated as being thousands of years old. Inside the container is a swirling, gravity-defying green goo, with a silent, sinister voice that summons the destitute (include a pale, hypnotized Alice Cooper) to do its bidding. What begins as a science project ends as a last stand for humanity, with this group of eggheads and their ordained leader being the only entities stopping the Devil from gaining complete dominion over earth.
Much like Halloween, Carpenter establishes the mood of Prince of Darkness from the opening frames. Using an overly extended credits sequence, the director intercuts seemingly disparate imagery. A priest lies on his deathbed, a tiny chest balanced on his stomach. A sunny college campus is populated by students and their professors. Ants scurry and bunch on a mound of dirt in the grass. Sunlight streaks through the clouds, basting them in a urine yellow. Scoring it all with Alan Howarth is the auteur's usual mix of throbbing synths, as Carpenter yet again finds the mundane to be menacing, only instead of a residential street in Illinois, a college classroom suddenly feels filled with nefarious elements. However, it isn’t until we’re introduced to Pleasence’s disgraced priest that we know just how hopeless Prince of Darkness is about to become.
Using his shifty eyes to maximum effect, Pleasence gives a performance that's essentially the antithesis of every other character he helped create for Carpenter. Where Dr. Loomis (Halloween) and the President (Escape From New York ['81]) were live wires, their paranoia and anger boiling over, the nameless priest is in a constant state of muted horror, knowing that he has failed in his role as a religious leader. He confesses the clergy’s role in concealing the worst evil the world has ever known in a moment of self-disgust, but even then he seems so exhausted from keeping the diabolical secret for so long that he just can’t be brought to express anything beyond sheer repugnance. It’s an incredible piece of acting, and arguably one of the last great roles of the iconic thespian’s career.
The film’s lethargic pacing is going to test the patience of most horror fans. While Carpenter is so busy establishing the tone of Prince of Darkness, he seemingly forgets to actually fill its narrative with any kind of meaningful events (writer's note: I'd bet dollars to donuts that Ti West is a HUGE fan of this film). The external conflict (to boil it down to bullshit Syd Field terms) isn't incited until roughly 40 minutes in, and really consists of nothing more than a stream of green liquid landing in the mouth of one of the conspicuously aged grad students. Even after this bit of fluid-based horror occurs, Prince of Darkness relies on the atmosphere of the musty cathedral to do most of the heavy lifting. Meanwhile, a homeless army gathers outside of its walls, staring dead-eyed and covered in beetles as they trudge on in service of a master we haven’t yet glimpsed.
A solid point of reference would probably be Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (a/k/a Gates of Hell ['80]), as both movies rely on creeping dread and bursts of gore instead of a traditionally forward-moving plot. Only where most of Fulci’s compositions were off-kilter and filled with the output of a fog machine, Carpenter continues to play with the edges of his frame. Much like how Michael Myers would randomly appear in the distance, hidden by a line of sheets flapping in the wind or some perfectly trimmed hedges on Laurie Strode’s street, Carpenter yet again has evil observe from afar. The zombies - heeding the call of the Antichrist - line the alleys and lurk at the end of hallways, just out of focus. Once Carpenter lets loose completely, there are moments of body horror that rival the tearing flesh of The Thing. Faces are peeled away from skulls, and limbs are hacked with a fire axe, as the grad students become possessed and attacked from inside instead of having their door beaten down. It’s a slick bit of bait-and-switch, as Carpenter pulls the rug out from under an audience expecting George Romero inspired zombie carnage.
The finale - in which Pleasence’s priest helps the terrified grad students hold off an evil being summoned from another dimension - displays Carpenter’s greatest strengths while also feeling decidedly anti-climactic. Where the dreams that signify the Antichrist’s coming are definitely the most disturbing moments of the movie (they feel like scrambled transmissions from a malevolent, mirror world), the climax abruptly ends after introducing some of the most nightmarishly simplistic imagery of the director’s career (mirrors dissolving into a watery blackness of Hell). The set piece is decidedly clean, but also (like the rest of the film), executed with an idiosyncratic rhythm. If it weren’t for the incredible, ambiguous coda, it would be hard to view Prince of Darkness as anything but a noble failure. Instead, it’s probably one of the most distinctive works of a decidedly unified body.
Prince of Darkness is available now on Blu-ray and DVD from Scream Factory.