John Carpenter: The Collection: Prince Of Darkness Review
Come the death of a priest, responsibility for his church and its contents falls to Father Loomis (Donald Pleasence). In amongst the religious memorabilia normally associated with a church, albeit one that, in parts, is in a state of disrepair, Loomis finds a book written in a jumble of ancient languages and a mysterious cylinder, within which a green liquid is constantly swirling around. Troubled by both Loomis invites Professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong) and a group of his students in to analyse them. Philosophers, physicists, engineers and linguists move into dormitories in the church and begin work. Each one, though, is troubled by what they find as well as the crowd that seems to be gathering outside.
It doesn't take long for these students to discover something of the two objects. The book explains that the cylinder contains a great evil, Satan himself. It also reveals that Satan is not the embodiment of absolute evil. Instead, Satan is the means in our world to bring forth an even more powerful evil from another. Possessing each of the students, Satan intends opening a gateway to allow this spirit to pass through. Meanwhile, those students not possessed dream of seeing a figure stepping out of the church, something that they believe can be stopped. But facing danger both inside and outside the church, the students have very little time.
Most of the good ideas in Prince Of Darkness are contained in those paragraphs above. The cylinder is a perfectly good idea on its own but Carpenter dresses a good setting for it, that of the basement in an abandoned church. The book of secrets is another, its translation and meaning giving this the notion of a piece of detective fiction in which the students must crack both the code and a great evil. Donald Pleasence and Victor Wong urge their charges to take great care in the work, muttering about prophecies, omens and of the apocalypse. But what is most effective about Prince Of Darkness is, for this viewer, the videotaped sequence of a figure emerging from the shadows in the doorway of the church. It is revealed that this is a televised sequence from the future, carried back in time on a tachyon stream showing this great evil after emerging into this world. It can, however, be avoided but only if the students can prevent Satan from opening a portal between worlds.
These are the good things about Prince Of Darkness but there's a lot of really terrible ideas in it as well. Carpenter certainly lost his way with a cast in this film. Where he had previously written films with strong female characters in mind, no one outside of Catherine Danforth (Lisa Blount) does anything of interest. Everyone else, both men and women, stand aimlessly around in the basement while Satan leaks out of his cylinder to take possession of them. That he drips upwards seems to imply something wicked is at work but rather than do anything explicitly supernatural, Satan simply directs a stream of green goo at them not unlike the gunge of children's television. That this is all that Satan manages doesn't instil much confidence in which his father, this figure of supreme evil, might do, particularly when all we see of its future efforts is not a scorched earth but his standing with arms outstretched in the doorway of the church.
The biggest problem with Prince Of Darkness is that it's just very dull. Pleasence is good, as is Victor Wong and Lisa Blount's character isn't unappealing but the rest of the studios are forgettable. The bums that loiter outside of the church, led by Alice Cooper carrying what I'm sure are pretty threatening bicycle handlebars, are even worse, their shambling being a far cry from the savage gang members that circle the police station in Assault On Precinct 13. The lowest point, though, must come in seeing what Carpenter, who once led the field in horror, is reduced to doing to get scares. No longer are there vicious murders, ghouls in the fog or alien creatures but only the cliches of horror that Carpenter has sprinkled over his film, including bugs, snakes and so on.
Carpenter implies that Nigel Kneale has influenced this work, not only in his Martin Quatermass writing credit but in the similarity it bears to Kneale's The Stone Tape. It is, frankly, not a patch on Kneale's 1972 ghost story for Christmas, being neither as clever, as atmospheric nor as frightening. It also shows real cheek by Carpenter after the experience Kneale had on Halloween III: Season Of The Witch, which led to the writer taking his name off the credits. One suspects that Kneale would have managed the story of science in the face of evil much better than does Carpenter. All that said, though, it's not a complete failure. It's certainly a minor work amongst all Carpenter's films but there are still moments to enjoy. The pity, though, is that this was one patchy film amongst many more than Carpenter would deliver over the next two decades, all the while showing flashes of the brilliance that made him a name in horror but never again capturing the highs of his early films.
Like the other releases in this set, Prince Of Darkness looks fine but isn't going to set the DVD world alight. It comes after John Carpenter's string of really good-looking films - Halloween, The Thing, The Fog and so on - and settles into a run of (for the most part) cheap sets, a bland university campus and some barely-dressed accommodation. The only redeeming factor in how the film looks is in its design of the church in which the evil resides. And, of course, Satan itself doesn't look at all bad, with Carpenter framing the swirling green canister nicely against the background of a church altar.
The quality of the picture on this DVD is reasonable. Granted, there aren't many moments that will actually test it but the picture is fairly sharp, the colours are good when the film is in the frame of mind to show them off and while there's some artefacts in the darker scenes later in the film, it's nothing that ought to trouble the viewer. Unlike some of the other films, the source print is in good shape with there being only a few faults to the picture. Otherwise, there is a choice of soundtracks, DD5.1 and DD2.0 mixes. There's not much between them. The DD2.0 is quieter but sounds warmer and less harsh. The DD5.1, on the other hand, is obviously louder but the boosting of the track sounds too forced as though the increase in bass and treble has reduced the middle range of the audio. Finally, there are no subtitles on this release.
The only extra on this disc is a Trailer (1m58s).