John Carpenter’s always been a very meat and potatoes auteur, content to have his concepts laid out in an easy to digest way thanks to his deceptively simple set ups. That’s not to say the his visuals were simplistic or unsophisticated – far from it, no one uses negative space and a 2.35:1 aspect ratio quite like our Johnny – but usually he likes present his movies with easy to follow plots laced with complex commentary; no one discussed how Michael Myers managed to shrug off more bullets than 50 Cent during the climax of Halloween or took time to explain on a molecular level how Christine could reform herself from scrap or even exactly why everyone thought Snake Plissken was dead – but the actual story and pace itself rarely left things in doubt.
And then there’s Prince Of Darkness… a low budget, John Carpenter romp that saw the great man plow his frustrations about big-budget, studio filmmaking into a bizarre little frightener after Big Trouble In Little China tanked by making a movie that flipped all of his usual rules like a coin.
A priest dies of old age in a closed down old Los Angeles monastery and his successor invites Quantum physicist Professor Howard Birack and a slew of his students to spend their weekend investigating a mysterious cylinder that contains a swirling emerald liquid that apparently is dated a being seven million years old. As the various science folk have varying attitudes to the task at hand that has them working through the night, soon strange occurrences start to happen on the outskirts of of their vision starting with the local homeless community starting to converge on the building with a glassy look on their faces that has nothing to do with cheap liquor and insects start to swarm around the windows.
Soon the cat is out of the bag, and the group learn that not only is the liquid in the container is actually what we would term “the devil” but everything we know about organised religion has essentially been cooked up by a people scientifically unable to truly explain what laid before them. However, as world changing as this all is, the world might change a whole lot faster thanks to the fact that the Bannister is leaking and the liquid starts to possess various members of the group who start working to put a plan in place to open a doorway to somewhere else so that Satan’s dermatologically-challenged host can bring its father, the Anti-God into being.
Unable to leave thanks to the army of brainwashed tramps keeping them contained, the only thing this disparate group of brain boxes have to help them is sunlight and the weird dreams they’ve all been collectively having that offers a grainy image of a silhouetted figure leaving the very church they’re all trapped in. Still, Satan obviously doesn’t rate their chances very much thanks to the ominous message: You will not be saved by the holy ghost. You will not be saved by the God plutonium. In fact, you will not be saved! Not much of a pep-talker is Satan, apparently…
Earlier I mentioned that Carpenter is a filmmaker that knows how to tell a good, solid story while being smart enough to let the mysteries continue to be mysterious – however, with Prince Of Darkness he tries something new to beguiling effect. You see, with this tale of evil running amok in a dilapidated church, the whole gag is that the gaggle of scientists and students involved are actively trying to find out the actual scientific explanations for the eldritch evil that takes the form of a noxious green goop that may or may not be the son of the anti-god. When I first saw it many years ago, I confess the whole thing went right over my head as I simply didn’t get the genius level of trippy batshit Carpenter was gleefully selling. Loaded with crazy concepts that attempts to ballsily mate science and religion into one like some kind of weird breeding program, the actual funtional parts of the movie (acting, characters, actual plot) are cast aside in favour our large group of egg heads stumbling upon what the battle between good and evil would look like on a purely scientific level. The devil is actual a vat of green slime that not only possesses its victims but also galvanises all the “lower” beings such as insects and the homeless (led by a cameoing Alice Cooper who at one point impales a guy with a frickin’ bicycle) to surround the church with a perimeter of evil.
Cue an onslaught of scientific mumbo jumbo that weves in chatter of tachyons and molecules to explain away what we think is the devil as it tries to escape from its jar-like prison that should have the effect of a bunch of tension killing bollocks, but instead somehow make the whole thing creepier than a cockroach jacuzzi. All religion is a lie? The devil is liquid evil? Jesus was an alien? People from 1999 can send warning messages back into the past via beaming a signal into our dreams? Every inch of it utter poppycock, every inch of it genuinely gripping.
In comparison, the rest of the film feels wildly unscripted as the cardboard cutout characters wander aimlessly around the church as more of their number fall under the thrall of the Satanic slime. Again, it shouldn’t work, but the sheer uncoordinated nature of our sheep-like heroes instead makes them feel all the more vunerable and completely unprepared to thwart the malevolence growing in their midst.
While I mentioned the cast being almost deliberately vanilla (the lead actor’s only defining attribute literally only seems to his hefty moustache), thankfully both Donald Pleasance and Big Trouble In Little China’s Victor Wong are at hand to chew the scenery and verbalize Carpenters majestically crackpot ideas in a way you totally accept cheig because it’s coming from the mouths from previous Carpenter heroes, Dr. Sam Loomis and Egg Shen as they eagerly and wildly theorize abstract concepts as they happen.
That sence of dread that Carpenter is so good at is in full force here and despite its oddly casual and breezy nature (Dennis Dun isn’t short of a wisecrack or two even in the bleakest of situations) the movie is chock full of legitimately creepy images like the blank eyed vagrants, the sight of the evil liquid pouring into the facial orrifices of a hapless victim or, most haunting of all, the climatic sight of on of our heroes trapped in the watery nether world dimension on the other side of a mirror once the doorway splutters shut.
Not all of it works as sometimes the movie tilts dangerously into silliness and the film is in desperate need of an actual lead; but this is Carpenter at his most freewheeling and experimental, recklessly diving into the deep waters of the far-out and the strange to give us the rollicking second installment of his Apocalypse Trilogy (along with The Thing and In The Mouth Of Madness) and a movie that comes from the tangled mind just as it does from the churning gut.