Worth A Look: 46.3%
Pretty Bad: 24.07%
Total Crap: 11.11%
4 reviews, 30 user ratings
|Prince of Darkness
by David Hollands
When one looks at a synopsis for John Carpenterís 1987 film Prince of Darkness, it is impossible not to chuckle. Any movie concerning the discovery that Satan -- in green liquid form -- is trapped in a big glass beaker can elicit many unintentional laughs. I was quite afraid that Carpenter wouldnít be able to pull off this rather unusual premise. I had relatively little to fear, as it turned out; this film is definitely one of Carpenterís most underrated works.Prince of Darkness tells the story of a priest who discovers that a sect called the Brotherhood of Sleep has been keeping a huge glass beaker in the basement of a rundown church. He calls upon the services of Howard Birack and his class of paranormal investigators to study the beaker, and find out what is inside. It turns out that they may be in for more than they bargained for, as said beaker appears to hold the Antichrist himself.
"An underrated Carpenter gem: dark, scary, and wonderfully intense."
Now, as mentioned earlier, this film could have easily dissolved into an oblivion of unintentional hilarity. I mean, letís face it, the idea of Satan as a green gooey liquid isnít exactly the most frightening ever. In fact, itís downright stupid. Yet somehow, Carpenter makes it work. His script masterfully plays the entire film extremely straight. Now, playing a story like this completely straight is risky, because again, this could have dissolved into ridiculousness. Yet Carpenter's screenplay somehow successfully evokes a profoundly frightening sense of mystery behind the beaker and its content. We actually find ourselves wondering along with the characters what is inside the thing.
This mystery is established through a fantastic opening. Carpenter has the characters converge, and yet, like a master storyteller, he also inserts a number of strange shots that have no real explanation. Despite this, they give the film an extreme amount of menace. These shots include ants gathering together in odd places, an extremely odd angle looking up at an irregular planetary formation in the sky, or the cityís homeless population gathering together in front of the church. Carpenter edits and paces these shots perfectly, which bring the audience smoothly and effectively into the supernatural aspects of the story.
Also refreshing is that the characters are extremely well drawn out. Carpenter writes them as everyday normal individuals. The dialogue that seems completely natural, so we can identify with these characters and their situation on a certain level. We thus come to fear for their safety. These arenít characters we want to see die, and although some of them can be a tad clichťd (like the glasses-wearing loner who nobody seems to remember), thereís just enough connection between the audience and the characters to keep us interested.
Even more refreshing is the fact that pretty much every character is smart in this movie. There aren't many moments when a character wanders off into darkness for no good reason. When such a moment does occur, Carpenter proves very wise in handling it effectively. For one thing, the first instance in which a character wanders off is when heís trying to find someone else. Plus, at this point no one is yet aware that something is amiss. Although most of them feel a strange presence, they still donít know that something seriously wrong is occuring. And once the supernatural occurrences start, the characters never do anything that would warrant a head examination.
When the main conflict is established, Carpenterís script suddenly moves at an extremely leisurely pace. And thatís not a problem at all, since the slow pace builds the tension admirably. Also, Carpenterís script deals with some extremely interesting subject matter in addition to the awakening devil storyline. The theories put forth in this flick are never boring or too outlandish -- they never enter the realm of ludicrousness. I was constantly interested in every scientific explanation in the movie, even though it really makes no sense at all to me. Somehow, using a scientific angle makes the film more realistic, more believable, more probable...and also very eerily possible.
Prince of Darkness features a number of different things going on. The green substance escapes its beaker at one point and starts possessing people. Homeless people block the exits of the church. A plot to resurrect Satan becomes clear at some point. Then, the green stuff fully possesses somebody and tries to bring Satanís father through an alternate dimension behind a mirror to unleash terror upon the world. With all these different things going on, itís amazing that the film comes together as well as it does. Carpenterís script never seems bloated or unfocused.
Now, people may consider elements of the script to be poorly conceived. The homeless people surrounding the church does seem a little like an afterthought, or a larger idea that had to be cut down. Still, I think this works in the film's favour. We never understand exactly why the homeless are obeying the will of Satan, though it somehow seems integral to the film. Itís an excellent (but yeah, ever so slightly contrived) way for Carpenter to trap his protagonists inside the church.
A complaint that seems to have been shot at this film is that the conclusion is rather underwhelming. Some, including film critic Roger Ebert, complained that there should have been more in this film, and that Prince of Darkness ultimately fails to deliver on its promise. I donít quite agree. This film is pretty much almost perfect because of its simplicity. Carpenter knows that keeping things in the shadows or unexplained in spots is much better than going crazy and introducing huge special effects into the story. All we see of the Antichrist is a creepy hand floating in another world reaching out towards a mirror. The shot is backlight by a light flowing through the water, appearing to come from nowhere. It works ten times better than any elaborate special effect would.
Unfortunately, Carpenterís screenplay uses a bit of poorly timed comedy near the conclusion which unfortunately intrudes on the relentlessly terrifying atmosphere. Most of this comes from one of the characters who cracks jokes often in many situations. I can understand that Carpenter probably wanted to give the audience a break from the tension, but it just doesnít work very well. It seems irregular that this sudden comedy would appear in a scene with such a serious weight. Sadly, the comedy starts to degrade some of the suspense. The conclusion heads into some pretty outlandish territory, and this unnecessary comedy starts to make one realise the ridiculousness of the situation. As a result of that, the last act of Prince of Darkness is hardly as terrifying as it could have been.
Carpenterís direction is fantastic. Always able to create amazing and yet oddly simplistic visuals, Carpenter just about outdoes himself here. His shots are wonderfully gothic and menacing. Using the entire 2.35:1 widescreen frame, he creates looming and menacing images that fully take advantage of the churchís dark interiors. Hallways almost seem to go on forever, spiralling down into never-ending abysses -- many rooms look unnaturally large, which in a strange way adds to the intense claustrophobia; there could be anything hiding in the shadows of those rooms. Carpenter never indulges in any over the top camera movements ŗ la Dario Argento or Michele Soavi (who also made a horror film about an evil church that was very low on the quality metre). Instead, he uses shots that just are almost implicitly frightening; there's just something off about them that works to terrify the audience subconciously.
Here are some examples: close-ups of insects roaming about, one moment when a homeless person speaks to one of the main characters while her face is covered in bugs, muddy globs covering the church windows, and of course, those ever-present looming shots of an odd planetary pattern forming in the sky. These shots are all extremely effective, especially because Carpenter has the content of said shots taking place when the cinematography still indicates that the story takes place in the real world. That adds to the feeling that this situation, no matter how crazy or insane, could actually happen and IS actually happening in real life.
Cinematographer Gary Kibbe offers up shot after shot of excellent lighting. There are shadows everywhere -- where darkness can be hiding just about anything. This gives the film an atmosphere that looks and feels utterly cinematic. Perhaps the best thing that Kibbe does occurs during the brief moments of gore and violence. Kibbe and Carpenter are both knowledgeable enough to realise that what isnít shown is best. When characters are stabbed or sliced, the cuts are extremely quick. This makes audience members think theyíve seen something far more terrible than whatís actually there.
Before I continue with the other aspects, I just have to mention Carpenterís incredible technique with widescreen framing. In many of the suspense sequences, Carpenter will have a completely empty space on either sides of the frame where anything can just pop up. And that happens many times. Characters who have been modified into Satanic zombies appear out of shadows in effectively creepy moments. One shot shows a zombified character appear at the end of a hallway, simply staring at her eventual victim. Another moment has a zombie suddenly appear behind a victim in one of the film's best jump scares. The coup de gras moment, though, has a zombie reach into a shot from behind a victim -- the victim is oblivious, but starts turning around ever so slowly. The suspense is unbelievable here, right up until the moment when the zombie quickly breaks the victim's neck. The timing is everything in these sequences...and yes, Carpenter is an absolute master at that..
Carpenterís score, composed with Alan Howarth, is masterful stuff. It perfectly compliments the eeriness of the church and the events in the story to maximum effect. The score never goes over the top, instead staying relatively restrained throughout. Plus, there are also effective moments when Carpenter doesnít use music at all, instead relying on silence for maximum effect. One of my favourite moments in this fantastic score is when characters Father Loomis and Howard Birack, for the first time, approach the beaker which holds the green substance. The music incorporates synthesized gothic chanting thatís just incredible. This sequence REALLY gets those goosebumps growing. And as I mentioned before, Carpenter is also a master of the jump scare, and particularly the jump scare musical stinger. I lept out of my chair several times during Prince of Darkness.
One of the weaker aspects of this picture are some of the cast members. Jameson Parker as hero Brain Marsh just isnít a very good actor. He makes for a boring hero, not possessive of much life. This is something that, yeah, bores the audience just a little bit. Lisa Blount isnít much better, turning in a somnabulist-style performance. And perhaps the biggest surprise here is that Donald Pleasance as Father Loomis is extremely bland. Pleasance proved a great performer in many of the Halloween films. Here however, he just seems unable to emote very well. Perhaps the problem is that his role is slightly underwritten -- or maybe itís just that Pleasance was getting a little up in his years, and couldnít quite deliver the same kind of life as before. His performance is perhaps one of the most disappointing aspects of this film. Mind you, most of the other performers do a pretty good job. The great Victor Wong as Howard Birack turns in a typically entertaining performance. So while the acting is generally pretty mixed here -- and that does degrade the overall quality of the film -- itís not enough to bring the entirety of Prince of Darkness down.In the end, John Carpenterís Prince of Darkness is a great film in a rather short line of great Carpenter movies. It features excellent direction, an interesting and scary story, great music, a few pretty good performances, and a fantastic chair-jumper of an ending. John Carpenter may not be on his A-game at all times, yet this movie clearly demonstrates that it sure as Hell is a tasty treat when he is.
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originally posted: 04/18/08 07:17:05