Ed. note– PRINCE OF DARKNESS is the middle piece in John Carpenter’s “end of the world” trilogy, that started with THE THING and concluded with IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS. It’s also the “end of Carpenter putting out great films.” If you can make any sense of this flick, you are a better horror fan than I.–P.F.
It’s funny that John Carpenter is on a career revival. The acknowledged master of horror is currently enjoying playing music from his film scores on a sold out tour. While it’s great to see he’s at top form in the musical venue, it’s a sad reminder that he stopped being a great filmmaker a long time ago. For many horror fans, PRINCE OF DARKNESS began the decline of his career. Though many of his greatest artistic successes after HALLOWEEN, including THE THING, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and CHRISTINE were far from blockbusters, PRINCE OF DARKNESS is different in that it is an artistic failure.
From the Land of Ridiculous Premises, Carpenter brings us this: the devil is in a jar. Okay, so it’s a large jar, and he’s a swirling mess of green light, but yeah, old Scratch is in a glorified Ball jar. I’ve seen Satan take many forms over hundreds of years of entertainment, but this is the most ludicrous, and least scary, I’ve ever come across. So what’s the big deal if Satan himself is trapped in glass? Well, he wants to get out. And who has Carpenter sent to strike him down? Donald Pleasence and a bunch of physics students. I couldn’t make this up if I tried, folks. Pleasence plays a priest from a holy order assigned to… well, keep the devil in the jar. But he can’t do it alone. No, he needs the help of post graduate nerds.
From there, this flick only gets confusing. Carpenter is working from a muddled script, which he wrote under the pseudonym Martin Quatermass, and the end result makes little to no sense. Some of the many questions I found myself asking as I watched: Just exactly how are a bunch of science geeks supposed to stop Satan? Is the message that technology can conquer religion and evil? And if so, why do so many of these students end up getting slaughtered? Why are there zombies shambling around outside the church? Is the devil possessing people at points? Into what category do the monsters fall? What exactly will happen if somebody takes the lid off the jar? None of this is clear at the end of the movie, unfortunately. And why on earth would Carpenter, the same writer who crafted some classic lines in some of his earlier scripts, have a character say “This is caca,” perhaps the worst line of dialogue I’ve heard in a serious horror movie? (Good choice on Carpenter’s part to go with that pseudonym) This movie wants to be high concept and heady, but instead, it jumbles a bunch of ideas and never brings any cohesion or sense to any of them. Where the director could have built a really scary movie about the devil trapped under a church and trying to escape, instead he’s created a nonsensical pile of celluloid that does plenty of bewildering and almost zero frightening. Even with music’s Prince of Darkness Alice Cooper playing a homeless zombie, PRINCE OF DARKNESS can’t deliver the devilish goods.
And there we are back to music again. After BIG TROUBLE IN CHINA, Carpenter would direct a number of films before falling off in the millennium (he’s only directed GHOSTS OF MARS and THE WARD in the last 16 years, both of which are pretty awful). Some are decent, some are awful, but none would ever reach the greatness of his earlier stuff. Carpenter’s music has brought him back into the spotlight, but as for his films, PRINCE OF DARKNESS was the beginning of the downfall of a master of horror.