Prince of Darkness
Although John Carpenter will be forever remembered as the man who brought us the masked serial killer Michael Myers, when you look over his body of work it’s clear that the notions of “evil” extend far further than inside the minds of men. For John Carpenter, evil is eternal, something that exists and fills the form of its vessel. That idea is manifested most literally in The Thing, where an alien entity hops from body to body taking on the form of its victim, and in They Live, Vampires, Ghosts of Mars and Village of the Damned, evil is similarly hid by human normalcy. In The Fog, evil is personified by a weather condition, in Christine it’s in a car, in Dark Star it’s a beach ball…hell, even his non-horror stuff like Memoires of an Invisible Man go on to question whether people are defined by their physical shape (or should I say The Shape?). Big deal, some might say, Carpenter’s a horror director and these are central themes to alien invasion, vampire or Stephen King stories. But for the naysayers to this theory, there’s Prince of Darkness, perhaps John Carpenter’s most probing film into the nature of evil, and it’s got a brand new Blu-ray from Scream Factory.
An old priest lies on his deathbed. In his possession is a small chest with a key. He guards it with his life, but when his life leaves him, his understudy (played by Donald Pleasance, not far removed from his character in Halloween) takes the reigns and seizes the key. It turns out the key opens the basement to a decaying church in the heart of Los Angeles. Within the church is a mysterious cylinder of swirling green ooze with an almost sentient ability to transmit mathematical formulae and electromagnetic power. With all this outside of his realm of expertise, Pleasance (who is only called “Priest” in the credits) enlists in the help of physics professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong, who worked with Carpenter the year prior on Big Trouble in Little China and was also memorably in Tremors). Birack brings in a bunch of his graduate students, including our lead, Brian Marsh (Jameson Parker, White Dog, who always looked to me like a poor man’s Tom Atkins). They setup shop in the church, but soon find out they’re dealing with more than just a little science experiment.
The green vat has such power that it has possessed the vagrants and street people around the inner-city area, including the cult leader, played by Alice “The Man Behind the Mask” Cooper. Their souls and individuality seem to have been pulled from their bodies, leaving them a mass of zombie-like beings. When one of the researchers heads outside he’s stabbed in the heart by an old bicycle (something old that suddenly finds new use as something sinister, a common theme in the film). Meanwhile, the people inside work diligently to decipher the code emitted from the slime and others work to transcribe ancient manuscripts that can help to define the truth about the substance. According to text, the substance is the Prince of Darkness, an anti-God that contains the essence of evil. The vessel eventually opens and the green substance begins to possess and transfer itself from researcher to researcher.
The anti-God settles primarily into the heavenly-looking Kelly (Susan Blanchard, who’d go on to play in They Live with Carpenter the next year), turning her into a rotting demon who now has the ability to bring forward the anti-God’s father, Satan himself. Satan can only manifest himself on Earth through mirrors, and once Kelly finds a mirror big enough she grabs his hand and attempts to bring him through. Brian’s girlfriend, Catherine (Lisa Blount, Cut and Run, Dead & Buried, who died suddenly in 2010) tries to stop her, but both get pulled into the portal to the netherworld. What transpires is an iconic ending where reality and the afterlife end up looking right back at our protagonist as he battles with his own understanding.
Prince of Darkness is often a film sloughed off in the Carpenter oeuvre – it was Carpenter’s first low budget picture after his string of successes from Halloween in 1978 to Big Trouble in Little China in 1986, his first film after parting with the recurring visual stylings of Dean Cundey, and a film that’s had a relatively quiet life on home video. It had a no-extras release from Universal back in 1998 and despite some packaging changes that essentially remained the way to watch the film in North America up until this new Scream Factory special edition. I can say, at the very least, this is a film that’s certainly worthy of further analysis and deconstruction. It’s not the most accessible of Carpenter’s films, but in many ways it is one of his most interesting. You can see right there on the screen a man battling with his faith and his understanding of science and reality. Carpenter had been motivated to make the film after reading what he called a life changing article on quantum mechanics. The script reflects the heady subject matter with a very talky first act and a lot of dense dialogue that can often leave viewers lost if they go in looking for a gory romp.
While Carpenter’s script is certainly his most obtuse, his exploration of these undeniably complex themes about physics, theology and religion is still always fascinating. The elongated opening, infuriating to some and methodically tense to others (I’m the latter most days, but when I’m tired this one definitely doesn’t get popped in either), is without gore, death or violence, instead setting up the story with a number of lecture and dialogue sequences interspersed with Carpenter’s trademark white-on-black credits. It’s a pretty ballsy opening for a man known for shock, but then again this entire picture is made with a sensibility that reaches beyond the regular horror tropes. The other thing I’ve always liked about the picture is the cast of characters that really appear as if they’d be graduate students. While many are attractive, all of them present in a blasé sort of way, a rag tag group of bookish nerds – some balding, some of a different nationality and all of a more mature sensibility. It’s refreshing to see these kind of people in a horror movie, and it’s especially refreshing to see actors who look just as mature as the material they’re conveying. With Jameson Parker we’re certainly a far way from the Hollywood sheen of a Kurt Russell or a Jeff Bridges, but he proves the perfect everyman to guide us to look within ourselves.
Although he himself has directed actors to Oscar-nominated performances (Bridges in Starman), Carpenter isn’t really known as an actors’ director – he proves his chops here however, with a cast of characters that exude realism (he even cast some non-actors for this purpose, like Robert Grasmere) and avoid the histrionics you’d akin to see in a horror film. Even the deaths in this film, and there sure are a lot by the time the third act ramps up, are done in a more cerebral way, where these intellectual characters seem to really consider their deaths rather than scream in revulsion as they meet their maker. Throughout Carpenter has a very tight control over the picture, probably tighter than ever before seeing as this was a return to low budget and less hands in the cookie jar. Carpenter keeps the themes of the picture at the forefront, and like he talks about in the commentary here, the rest of the aspects, from the performances and the wardrobe, all fall into place to reflect that. It truly is masterful the way he guides this little picture, making what by almost any other filmmaker would be an intellectual slog into a menacing look into our being.
That aforementioned title sequence, and much of the film after, is buoyed again by Carpenter’s astute sense of pacing. The credits break up sequences, but the driving force is the palpitating score by Carpenter and longtime collaborator Alan Howarth. As someone in a supplement on this disc notes, this might just be Carpenter’s longest composition running almost a quarter of an hour before the film finally is without musical backing. Much like The Thing, which was the first of Carpenter’s now-dubbed “Apocalypse Trilogy” (which includes this and the later In the Mouth of Madness), the music notes are simple but repetitive, more like a heartbeat than it is a score. But it’s oh so effective. When the music finally comes to a swell for that masterful finale it’s like a feeling of transcendence. Slow, deliberate cuts, silent, muted performance and a throbbing musical pulse all combine to create one of the most memorable scenes in Carpenter’s body of work. It’s the perfect payoff for a film that demands you take your time in threshing through the theology.
Prince of Darkness is by no means my favorite Carpenter film, in terms of viewings it probably ranks in the bottom third by me, but it’s always a film I remember and one I’m happy to revisit in the right state of mind. It’s just great to see a director, who at this point had done it all, still moving forward and challenging himself, making a personal movie that asks tough questions. You look at the careers of some of his contemporaries of the time and you see them falling back on sequels or director-for-hire projects, but Carpenter still had a voice. Now, as Carpenter is content to watch his Laker games and play his video games in the comfort of his nice home that he more than earned, we have the luxury of time to revisit his works and try to transcribe them, much like the characters do with the scriptures in this film. I can say that the text is rich, and even if I’ll never penetrate the deep themes of Carpenter’s story, I certainly come out knowing a bit more about the film, and wider, my own understanding of existence. You can’t ask for more than that.
Prince of Darkness looks like a treat from the gods here in a beautiful 1080p transfer from Scream Factory. Watching the film again this time, I was stricken by just how colorful some of Gary B. Kibbe’s compositions are. The greens of the ooze really glow here, but even the orange candles or the red lights on the city buildings in the background (looking very much like some of Cundey’s work in Escape from New York) emanate a rich palette that before I’d never seen on VHS or DVD. I was also particularly impressed with the sharpness of the film, where edges, like all those silhouetted shots of the actors’ hair, standing out in great detail, and without any noticeable haloing. There’s only slight aliasing if you look close enough, but it’s a worthwhile byproduct of a film that looks as real as this. Never have I been more impressed with a Scream Factory transfer than I have here.
The sound on this release, presented with the all-pleasing options of either 5.1 or the original 2.0 in DTS-HD Master Audio, is every bit as impressive as the original. As I mentioned in my review, Carpenter’s score here is so important to retaining pace in this talky-at-times picture, and here it just seems to reverberate throughout the 5.1 soundspace of this track. I noticed, or rather felt, a few of the big stingers in the score come from different directions to really provide an enveloping atmosphere. Nothing was post-processed enough to seem forced or arbitrary, the score just really seemed to swirl and coagulate around the room as if it were that Satanic green slime. It was really easy to get so invested in this film when the image was so clear and the sound so rich. Fantastic job.
Firstly, I’ve long been a fan of Scream Factory’s custom covers, but I must say, their new Prince of Darkness art is my absolute favorite. Justin Osbourn's art really encapsulates the film and has such appealing soft strokes and a fitting green glow. Just perfect. Kudos. As always, there’s the reversible art with that classic bug-in-the-mouth poster art on the back too. Funny to note, the packaging only makes reference to four extras, although there are many more in the film. One of the extras listed is the theatrical trailer, but that’s nowhere on this disc. Given the simple presentation of a number of the Red Shirt interviews on this disc, I’d imagine much of these were rushed out to include on the disc after the artwork was already finalized. I’m happy they went the extra length, because there is a lot of great stuff here.
An audio commentary with John Carpenter and moderator Peter Jason (who played Dr. Paul Leahy in the movie) can be selected from the audio setup pop-up menu. The commentary is ported-over from the Region 2 DVD that came out back in 2002. The two guys are old friends, and similar to the Carpenter-Russell commentaries, they have a lot of fun laughing and joking through this track. Carpenter generally leads the track and does his usual good job of tying what’s happening on screen into relevant anecdotes or observations. Jason has his share of vivid memories from the set and he does a good job keeping things light and extending the conversation. Carpenter’s commentaries are often second to none, and this is yet another top-notch track.
The first video extra is an interview with The Horror Master himself, Sympathy for the Devil: An Interview with John Carpenter (10:29). Carpenter is a little more affable here than we’ve seen him in interviews lately, and he dishes his trademark no-shit honesty without fault. It’s not a lengthy interview, but he shares a lot of personal information about the film, like how they drained mercury from the crane for the hand-through-the-mirror shots. He talks liberally about who his influences were from the film (“I stole a little from this…”) and what he was trying to accomplish with his higher themes. Carpenter’s always such a straight shooter and such a legend, and this little pieces seems to capture him at his absolute best.
Alice at the Apocalypse (9:25) is a light, brisk chat with shock rocker Alice Cooper on how he got to be involved with Prince of Darkness (his manager was producing movies with Alive, the company that bankrolled back-to-back Carpenter films Prince and They Live, as well as Craven’s Shocker and The People Under the Stairs) and what he thought of the experience and the finished film. Like with Robert Grasmere below, Cooper found himself quickly upgraded on set, coming initially to watch one of the effects sequences and then later becoming the lead bad guy in the outside mob. You can see that he liked his time and that he has a lot of appreciation for John Carpenter. He also really likes old horror movies and spends a few minutes recalling his old favorites. Despite writing “Teenage Frankenstein”, Cooper seems instead to be more of a Dracula fan.
The Messenger (12:41) with Actor & Special Visual Effects Supervisor Robert Grasmere provides a unique look into two different facets of the production. Grasmere talks about how all the effects were created “analog” in camera and then he also talks about his performance as an actor. He still has some of his teeth and facial molds used for the film, and has a real jovial time recalling his unlikely ascension from effects man to principal actor in the picture. He talks about how the accomplished some of the effects, like the beetle sequence, as well as the challenge it was to do a murder sequence with a frail, old lady.
Carpenter’s longtime audio accomplice, Alan Howarth, sits down for a tell-all Hell on Earth (10:15). This was of particular interest to me, since I’ve always wondered how much of the scores on which they collaborated were Carpenter’s and how much were Howarth’s. Turns out it’s a pretty even blend of both, with Howart calling himself first the technician – responsible for setting up all the technology and dealing with all the processing and finessing of the sound, and then later also the painter, taking Carpenter’s brush strokes and making art out of them. Carpenter would sit in and would usually play the notes in real-time, and then the two of them would start to layer the track based primarily on Carpenter’s input. Even today, Howarth sounds very gracious for his relationship with Carpenter, and it’s a pretty fascinating window into one of the great musical collaborations in the history of horror.
There’s an alternate cut of the intro of the film that was originally featured on TV. As the opening title card states, this version compresses the infamously drawn-out credit sequence, not only with the length of Carpenter’s traditional white-on-black credits, but also with the structure of some of the scenes between. In this, the start runs 6:23 while in the finished film it’s a full 11-minutes. Interesting viewing, and also a reminder of just how badly Carpenter’s compositions are destroyed when going from 2.35 to 1.33:1.
I’m a huge fan of what Sean Clark does in tracking down and immortalizing these many forgotten film locations for his show, “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds”, and his episode for Prince of Darkness (13:44) is included here in all its glory. Longtime show and horror supplement DP Buz Danger Wallick always goes to great lengths to reconstruct framings from the original film, and Prince of Darkness fans will be pleased to know many of the locations used in the film, from the classroom to the monastery, are all virtually unchanged over 25 years later. The cute attention to detail in the presentation here, from the super-elongated credit sequence (the last credit is at 7:30 here) to the nearly frame-for-frame recreation of that common cloaked dream, is a real nice touch. I wish more special editions would incorporate these well-made virtual tours to all the memorable locations in horror film history.
Promo material is covered with a Photo Gallery (4:27) and a collection of TV and Radio Spots (2:48) that play back to back. There’s one TV spot and two radio spots. Sadly, the theatrical trailer is nowhere to be found on this release.
Lastly, there’s a 12-minute easter egg of a John Carpenter Q&A before the Screamfest 2012 screening. The camera is of poor quality and the sound is just picking up right from camera so there’s some echo, but the content within is more than worth the quality strain.
It is very difficult to make a film that’s both intellectually challenging and viscerally fantastic, but The Horror Master was certainly up to task here with Prince of Darkness. This might just be Carpenter’s most challenging work, and for fans who’ve popped in Halloween or The Thing more times than they can count, this new Blu-ray presents the perfect opportunity to explore something equally as interesting. Scream Factory’s work here is glorious, with a new transfer that really breathes life into this low-budget picture and an audio mix that truly brings the throbbing dread into your living room. All the extras, many unadvertised on the packaging, combine for a great window into a film interested in looking out those windows into the great beyond. You’ll find yourself looking, much like the lead character, into a screen so real and interesting, you’ll want to reach out and touch it to find out if it’s all just a dream. You’ll be happy to know it’s not, but it’s just as fulfilling.
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Carpenter's greatest film. Will stick with my overseas Blu.
Love the film but always hated that one scene where the Asian guy is trapped in that room and starts making jokes and acting kind of slapstick. It throws the flow of the film off slightly. I really hate that bit. Apart from that the film is chilling and a must see. It still creeps the hell out of me.
These stills must not be doing the transfer justice: it looks like there's a veil of chalky mist coating some and the rest just look gray and awful.
I hated this movie the first time but I did buy it and I'm rewatching it next week.
The tough thing with taking snaps for computer viewing is that not every computer is calibrated to display proper blacks, so usually I like to keep the levels uncorrected from studio to computer RGB in order for the caps to be viewed clearly by all. When I take caps for my next review I'll do versions of both studio and computer gamma and we'll see what displays best for most people here.
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