The thing that John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness excels the most at is implementing an incredibly captivating sense of impending doom and suspense that effortlessly manages to both give you chills down to your spine as well as keep you at the edge of your seat through almost the entire running time of the movie. It simply does not let go of you from its grasp for a second once it has its cold, scaly, demonic claws on you. The tension is almost tangible, the air is thick with it. It’s amazing how well Carpenter is able to construct the subtle sensation of something going very wrong, as if the world itself is being slowly corrupted, without really giving you anything concrete to focus on. You only get vague hints of something potentially of malicious nature happening around you, such as with the number of homeless people (who appear to be as if possessed by some kind of higher power) exponentially increasing as they begin to converge around the church where most of the movie takes places, or when the camera occasionally closes in on random gatherings of bugs and ants that always appear in disturbing quantities for no decipherable reason. There is no need to do jump scares, that modern horror movies tend to rely too much, because the atmosphere makes the viewing experience spooky on its own. It’s very similar to Halloween in that regard, Carpenter builds the menace for a long time and lets your imagination fill-in all the details, which always makes it scarier. And then there’s the soundtrack. Dear God, the music in this picture. Without the musical score, the movie simply would not work as well as it does. From the opening onwards it’s Carpenter’s music that carries the movie by giving you this eerie sensation that some indescribable horror was lurking right around the corner of your eye, keeping you at your toes and not allowing you feel safe or comfortable until the movie is finally finished.
Although I’ve only emphasized the atmospheric brilliance of Prince of Darkness so far, the plot itself is also rather interesting. In essence, the story revolves around a priest discovering a secret room hidden in the basement of an abandoned Los Angeles church, and within that room he finds a strange looking cylinder containing mysterious liquid that is to be later revealed as the possible corporeal embodiment of Satan itself. To study this strange object, the priest recruits a local college professor and his students to help him investigate the origin of the cylinder and the liquid more scientifically. As this is a horror picture, just as the team starts to learn the horrible truth behind the cylinder, the evil entity trapped inside escapes its containment and begins horribly murdering the people inside the church one by one, before ultimately setting out to bring for the apocalypse by summoning the anti-God, which in this scientifically inclined picture is interpreted to mean literally anti-matter. Suffice to say, your run of the mill spooky movie about the possible end of days, this is not.
Its only a pity that once the forces of darkness are finally unleashed on the unsuspecting world the movie loses much of its former edge. At least as far as my own tastes are concerned. It’s bad enough that the most of the people who fall victims to Satan end up having very limited make up to signify their demonic possession, but the process of possession is also very disappointing. The liquid that is sprouted into the mouth of the victim in order to possess the body is so low key and mundane looking that these scenes lose all their creepiness. It’s basically like looking colored water being sprouted from a small garden hose. Where’s the spookiness in that? It ought to have been something closer to the puke scene from the Exorcist. Excessive, disgusting, filled with absolutely terrifying imagery. But instead you get something that might as well have been shot from a Super Soaker.
Even the climax of the story is a bit too pedestrian. On paper the climactic ending, which consists of Satan (now having manifesting itself properly with a horribly transformed, disfigured final host body) is trying to summon the Anti-God through a mirror that works as a dimensional portal, is a neat idea but in practice the execution didn’t really click with me. It’s a bit too small scale, to a point where you don’t even really realize at first it’s meant to be the big finish until the scene is over. The mirror working as a portal has some cool looking visuals, but the dramatic weight is very nonexistent. It’s a shame because had they managed to amp it up a little to give it more gravitas, it could have easily salvaged the movie from being a bit of a disappointment after a spectacular first half.
All that said, though the second half feels a bit weak to me, overall I still found the movie very entertaining. If anything, I keep thinking that I really ought to like this a lot more, and maybe if I saw it again and could adjust my expectations, this could actually go over a lot better the second time, because there is so much that I enjoyed about it from a technical and storytelling perspective. There is no denying that the scary atmosphere with the picture is phenomenal, and Carpenter really makes most of his three million dollar budget, even to a point where you find yourself trying to overlook the few aspects where it’s glaringly obvious that they had no money for bigger effects. It’s also very rare to find a horror movie that is able to feel this creepy throughout the entire story without having to depend on gore or jump scares, it’s just solid movie making and building of the ghastly vibe of evil slowly spreading and preparing to take over the world that does all the work for you.