Prince of Darkness has been on my “To Watch” list for a long time. This is the second film in John Carpenter's “Apocalypse Trilogy” which starts with The Thing and ends with In The Mouth of Madness. I have mentioned before my love-him-when-he's-good, Politely-look-away-when-he's-bad relationship with John Carpenter, and am eager to continue this terrifying cinematic odyssey with his next work. Let's journey into the shadows with 1987's Prince of Darkness.
Our movie opens with the credits, interspersed with a montage of seemingly unrelated events: An old man dying in bed, a priest portrayed by Donald Pleasence inspecting the body and taking a mysterious box from his hands, a bright young mustache eyeballing up a redheaded girl and attending a physics class while attached to Jameson Parker, and his teacher Professor Birack (Played by the always awesome Victor Wong) getting a message from the Priest asking for consult on something.
Wong has a pretty impressive speech that sets the tone for the rest of the movie as he speaks to his class: essentially, everything we know about logic, cause and effect and the basic laws of reality, utterly collapse on the subatomic level. We as a species only know so much about the world around us because we have managed to name that which we can grasp. Step a toe outside of that little bubble of comprehension and you are lost.
Pleasence and Birack meet up, discussing the diary that the old man was holding on to. It seems that he died the night before he was going to meet with a cardinal, and that he was the last of an ancient agency known as The Brotherhood of The Sleep. They head to an old church in the middle of the city, supposedly built on order of the Spanish government back in the 1500's. Whatever they were trying to hide here was too dangerous to exist in Europe, and so was transferred to the new world. Father Pleasence (He's never actually given a name) reveals that the box contained a key to the basement, which seems much older than the building above. Pleasence is essentially the same character as Dr. Loomis in Halloween; A doom saying authority figure that exists to murmur out vague threats and provide a shaky fact base for the other characters, then do something cool near the end.
Down in the cross-adorned cellar, they find an altar holding a huge green canister of some sinister goo. This early attempt at a lava lamp seems to be what The Brotherhood was protecting, but with since it was such a closely guarded secret, it's actual purpose is unknown. Ain't it always the way? You make your organization a big secret and hide it from even the people who commissioned it, and then when the last of you finally dies, nobody knows what the hell is going on. The only clue that the Professor and the Priest have to the details of the canister or what it contains is a large tome of jumbled latin that is beyond the both of them. Professor Birack promises to look into it.
We cut back to campus, and Moustache has finally gotten somewhere with Redhead. Their names are are Brian and Catherine respectively, and they are discussing the basics of Shrodenger's cat. You'd think that would be something that University level theoretical physicists would be familiar with by now. Catherine explains that physics to her is about getting the clockwork of reality to fit inside of a box, while Brian is just trying to talk her up. He fumbles his smooth talking and happily claims to be a confirmed sexist, and that would cause anyone to take a step back. We cut back to Birack arguing with Father Loomis and the strength of this movie's script starts to shine through. Both characters are preaching the values of their methods, with the priest explaining that scientific doubt weakens the strength of God and supplies power to the darkness, while Birack demands scientific understanding and the ability to touch the world and forces around him. The biggest theme of this movie is the scientific quantification of theology and the supernatural, and the scenes between Wong and Pleasence really sell it.
Meanwhile, Brian and Catherine get a call from Birack to join him on a project at the church and goodness, does Brian work fast, already pulling Catherine out of the bed that they've been sharing. The dorks move in to the church while a congregation of pee-smelling hobos start to line the alleyways surrounding the church, mumbling at the sun, which looks as though it is about to go through a solar eclipse, though this never actually happens. The group of students and colleagues all set up their equipment downstairs, finally getting a look at Satan's thermos. One of the theologians takes the book upstairs and starts to translate the pages, and Catherine starts to work on the odd latin numerals scrawled throughout it. The priest says that the air and earth is changing, and that whatever is going to happen, is going to happen very soon. All manner of insects start to swarm around the church, such as soldier ants, beetles and even a few very determined earthworms that are crawling up the windows somehow. Catherine realizes that the translated numerals are actually differential equations spelling out a rough mathematical approximation of whatever the jar contains. Walter, another student, mentions that differential equations did not exist 2000 years ago when the original book was written. Ancient algebra is a neat idea, but like the impending eclipse, not much comes from it.
By now, a growing percentage of the scientists believe that the canister contains Satan in some form or another, a distilled presence that can exist even on the subatomic level. We are LITERALLY dealing with Sealed Evil In A Can. Meanwhile, the vagrants are still gathering outside and I'm fairly sure one of them is being played by Alice Cooper. Neat? The scientists notice this and Kelly, one of the physics students, believes them all to be schizophrenics suffering from some sort of grand compulsion to flock around the church. They don't seem to think that this is dangerous until one of the wormier guys leaves and runs into a crucified pigeon corpse. He gets boxed in by hobos, then Alice Cooper stabs him with half a bicycle. Yikes. And all while he's listening to an Alice Cooper song. Did he get that tape from the same dimensional rift that is responsible for all of this?
Brian confronts Birack, telling him that the readings they are getting off of the fluid tell them that it is not coming to a rest or stuck in a pattern, but rather, self organizing. It's becoming something, but exactly what, they cannot say. This isn't helped when the group radiologist, Sarah gets back from a carbon dating and tells them that not only is the corrosion on the lid almost seven million years old, the locking mechanism keeping it shut can only be opened from the inside...
The Priest comes clean with the findings from the book, explaining them as best he can. So settle in, here's where it starts to get a little nutty. Apparently, yes, the container is some sort of container for Satan, who was buried in it by his father some eons ago. The canister was found in the middle east, and then Christ, who was actually an extraterrestrial, showed up and started warning people about it. Yep, Jesus was an alien. Maybe he helped build the pyramids too. Christ started gathering followers and was eventually executed, but not before his teachings were spread. Apparently all of Christianity centered around how to deal with this evil can. Since then it has been corrupted into the whole “Do as I say or you're going to hell” racket that we all know and love today.
During this little lecture, Sarah gets a bit to close to the Satan Can and sees it open up, just enough for some of the fluid to drip up onto the ceiling, and then squirt her right in the mouth. Gross.
Even as this is happening, the scientists upstairs are detecting concentrated lines of energy shooting off the devil fluid. They theorize that it means whatever is down there might be capable of actual telekinesis, but decide not to let on that it might be conscious.
Much of the paranormal activity is explained scientifically in this movie, or at least hypothesized on. It creates an atmosphere of inquisitiveness and a struggle to wrap one's head around the unknown that I always appreciate in fantasy stories. Not EVERYTHING is spelled out for the audience, but not everything has to be. If the point of a story is the protagonists trying to make sense and rationalize the insanity around them, then it is okay if a few things are left unexplained, to show that no body has all of the answers. This movie has a very slow burn, with more discussion than actual occurrences filling the front half of the story. I actually quite like it, with the dialogue and signature Carpenter widescreen cinematography keeping me interested.
Things start to pop off as the readings downstairs go crazy and a now presumably-possessed Sarah kills another physicist who was poking around. A bunch of scientists head outside for a smoke, discussing the possibility of finding the devil, before dispersing. One Miami Vice looking guy sticks around, and gets stabbed to death by another vagrant, who just wind sprints up to him across an entire wide shot with a pair of scissors over her head.
Inside, Birack and The Priest talk about the possibility of an actual omnipotent god. Birack wonders that if there really was some grand intelligence controlling every single particle in the universe, then there is an equal chance that we have never been able to quantify it because it does not exist on our plane. He thinks that if there is such a thing as anti-matter, then there must be such a thing as an Anti-God. Whatever force we call God is not a bringer of light, but a bringer of darkness. It's all spooky, high-minded stuff and dips into the cosmic horror of man's insignificance in the universe.
The chance of this all being controlled by some higher power starts to gain more relevance as people throughout the building all start to have the same dream: some sort of broadcast depicting the front of the church and a shadowy figure emerging from within. A voice tells them over and over that this is NOT a dream, that it is a message, but everybody gets irritatingly startled into wakefulness before the message can be completed.
Meanwhile, the possessed Sarah sneaks into Lisa the theologian's room and super soakers her in the face with evil juice. In the meantime, Catherine notices that the bruise on Lisa's arm is starting to look more and more like a mark she saw in the book, denoting some manner of “Chosen One”. Another one of the students finds Lisa in her room, typing out lines of insane mantra, before putting down a particularly chilling line:
“The Holy Ghost will not save you. Your god, Plutonium, will not save you. YOU WILL NOT BE SAVED”
And then Collier, the guy who saw all this, also gets mouth geysered by Sarah and Lisa.
Downstairs, the gang is debating to seal the basement in concrete or launch the canister into space, when Birak talks about the dreams that everyone has been having. He says that there is something about it that seems pre-recorded, as though someone is sending them a looping message from another time. Someone then notices the corpse of Miami Vice standing outside. It tells them simply to pray for death, then pretty horrifically falls apart, getting eaten by beetles. Birack begins to think that whatever force is provoking them is also controlling the insects around the building, and affecting the more mentally-pliable like the homeless people surrounding the building.
Things are officially at their worst as Collier limps upstairs, resisting his looming possession by slashing his own throat with a piece of a chair. Some of the group try to run, but have been barricaded inside by a quickly erected wall of garbage. The Sarah and Lisa drones bring the container of goo upstairs and into Kelly's room, where it starts to pour outwards and gather on the ceiling. Walter arrives just in time to see it start to flow en masse into Kelly, seemingly the one chosen to take the form of the destroyer.
The ecto-cooler zombies descend on the crowd, and this whole “Projectile vomiting possession” thing starts to get old. I am not sure if these guys are trying to enslave humanity, or discipline an unruly pet with the little squirts of water that they're shooting off. Even the dead bodies get in on the action, with Collier and the snapped neck guy from downstairs arriving on the scene. Walter locks himself in the closet to get away from the possessed in Kelly's room, as he watches her body distend to engulf all of the fluid. She looks as though she is going to give birth to something...
As the sun rises, the remaining survivors have barricaded themselves in the break room and are speaking to Walter through a wall, planning to tunnel through and get him out through the back wall of his closet. They don't have much of an escape plan after that, given that crawling through the windows will only drop them down onto the hobo armies below. Walter sees Kelly's body begin to decompose as the Satan Juice diffuses itself through her body, and they realize that she is being converted into a physical form for the Prince of Darkness himself. The Priest meanwhile is chased into a side room by an alternatively giggling and sobbing Collier and prays for help from a god that will not answer as the Kelly-Devil awakens.
Deciding that they need to do something, Brian and Birack open the door with a plan to attack one of the zombies with a can of Sprite and a stick that goes nowhere and just gets some Steve Gutenberg looking dude across the room puked on. They finally manage to get to Walter, hauling him to safety as Sarah and Lisa finally break through the closet door and the gang is on the move, beating Lisa with bricks before hurling her through the window.
Meanwhile, a pretty mangled Satan-Kelly picks up a compact mirror and freaks out about sticking her fingers into it, seemingly turning the reflective glass into a portal that is too small to pull anything through. Kelly is attracted to the room with the Collier drone and finds a much bigger mirror to use, filling the room with light as she opens up a portal into the beyond. This is the only thing that they never attempt to explain. Why does she need a mirror? How is this done? I have no idea.
The Priest charges in with an axe, hacking away at a seemingly unkillable Kelly as it laughs at him and sticks her hand back into the portal, finally finding the hand of her “Father” on the other side. She starts to pull it through, and from the look of it's hand, the supreme Anti-God, the lord of all darkness made flesh, is gonna look like an enemy from DOOM. This is arguably a weaker point of the film, and I kind of wish we never got to see that hand. It would have made this whole “anti-god” thing a lot scarier and more mysterious.
We are fortunately spared from having to see the rest of that thing when Catherine charges in, carrying Kelly and herself through the mirror portal and into the oblivion on the other side. Father Pleasence capitalizes on her sacrifice by shattering the mirror, despite Brian's pleas. The portal closes and the threat is over. The zombies collapse, the fragments now useless without the whole and the vagrants disperse to whatever bridge undersides they came from.
That night, Brian finally has the complete dream, that of a panicked transmission form the distant year of 1999. The unknown broadcaster has been sending subconscious messages back in time, depicting an unchanged Catherine walking out of the church. He begs the past not to let this future come about before Brian awakens. He rolls over, and we get our only real jump scare of the movie when he comes face to face with Catherine's rotting corpse, and damn, is it effective. Or it would be, it hadn't been giffed to high hell by now and one of the oldest internet memes I've ever been privy to.
The film ends with a disturbed Brian approaching his mirror, his hand outstretched...cutting to black before he makes contact.
Prince of Darkness is another Carpenter movie that tackles very complicated and borderline philosophical concepts and frames a horror movie out of them. The idea of religion and science being different ways of explaining the same thing, whether God or The Devil is something that can be charted on paper, and exactly how much we THINK we understand the world around us all come into play here. The third act suffers a little bit, when it sort of turns into a bit of a zombie movie meets Assault on Precinct 13, which Carpenter is very fond of dipping back into, in films like this, The Fog and (ugh) Ghosts of Mars. The parts of movie I really enjoyed were actually the discussions and metaphysical hypothesizing about the nature of evil, mankind and the subatomic universe. This might seen a little dull to some, but it is pulled off quite well with the imagery in the film and the downright oppressive synthesized soundtrack, also done by Carpenter. I actually found the bleak theories of an antimatter universe and the dread of it's quest to burst into ours a lot scarier than any of the monsters in this film.
Prince of Darkness may not be for everyone, but if you're a fan of Jon Carpenter or just like your horror on a cosmic scale, this movie can be recommended.