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The Test of Time: Prince of Darkness (1987)

02.23.2017by: Jake Dee

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.

Director: John Carpenter

Starring: Donald Pleasance, Victor Wong, Jameson Parker, Lisa Blount and Dennis Dun

One halcyon horror joint I recall randomly stumbling upon late night as a kid – and subsequently scarified by - is John Carpenter’s PRINCE OF DARKNESS. A movie that, while certainly recognized as lower case Carpenter not quite on the iconically ascendant level of HALLOWEEN and THE THING, still has more than its fair share of defenders and devotees. Actually, when cornering a Carpenter completist and nailing him or her to the wall for an opinion, more times than not, they’re bound to submit that PRINCE OF DARKNESS deservedly ranks among the feted filmmaker’s best. Or at least his most unheralded. What do you think? Is that a viewpoint you condone or condemn?

Well, in keeping with our ToT anniversary retrospectives, this is precisely what we intend to find out below. PRINCE OF DARKNESS turns 30 years old this October, and we want to know how the passing of time has, if at all, tarnished the movie’s legacy. We’ll determine if the flick still, if it ever did, warrants being considered one of Carpenter’s masterfully built edifices. You down with that? Good. Join us below as we finally put PRINCE OF DARKNESS to The Test of Time!

UNDER EXAMINATION: PRINCE OF DARKNESS

THE STORY: According to Carpenter himself, the idea of PRINCE OF DARKNESS came to him when his longtime writing partner, Debra Hill (HALLOWEEN), told him about a dream she had one night. Evidently, Hill had an ominous vision of a dark figure exiting a church steeple (below). And thus, the origin of PRINCE OF DARKNESS was germinated. What followed then, in Carpenter’s first sole screenplay since ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK in 1981 (though credited curiously as Martin Quartermass), is a story set in and around St. Goddard’s church (nice nod to the French auteur), a rundown place of prayer tucked away somewhere in Los Angeles. After a presiding priest falls ill and dies, he leaves behind an ornate key, which is soon discovered to open a door in the recesses of the church. We learn the dead priest had been serving as a sort of gatekeeper to the Brotherhood of Sleep, a sect devoted to the discovery of a large, cylindrical vessel full of viscid green slime.

The slime is said to be the substance of pure evil. But here’s where the story sets up a fascinating narrative. A priest (Donald Pleasance), a man of devout faith, actually enlists the help of a physicist, a man of sober science, in Professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong), as well as his undergraduates to help solve the problem. Among the students are budding romantics Brian (Jameson Parker) and Catherine (Lisa Blount), as well as previous Carpenter player Dennis Dun (along with Wong in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA). As the canister unseals and begins spewing zombie-inducing liquid, subsuming each student one by one, it’s up to all involved to redirect the curse and rid the ancient evil for good!

WHAT HOLDS UP: While actually loathe if not surprised to say it, time has not treated PRINCE OF DARKNESS very well. Certainly not the way it has for HALLOWEEN and THE THING, or more aptly, THE THING and IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (which, along with POD, make up Carpenter’s self-proclaimed “Apocalypse Trilogy”). Upon re-visitation, Carpenter’s attempted antidote of making something “atmospheric and dreadful” in response to what he dubbed a skein of derivative horror flicks, John more or less recycled his own past glories without offering anything terribly new. We’ll speak more on that below, but first highlight what does hold strong about PRINCE OF DARKNESS 30 years later.

And frankly, it’s the grisly fatalities and abundant gore therein. These are the things that, due to their practical nature independent of anachronistic VFX or CGI (that VHS dream sequence notwithstanding), hold up pretty well today. Not just the real life creepy crawly worms, maggots and beetles used, either. The bicycle impalement scene with Alice Cooper in the alley is still pretty gnarly, slyly punctuated with the rocker’s titular ditty played on the victim’s walkman. The repeated scissor-stabbing is still brutal as ever, redolent of Michael Myers, so too is the self neck-impalement one of the students suffers toward the end. Most impressively enduring though is the gory putrescence of Kelly’s façade, which a lot of screen time is dedicated to. Once subsumed by the Satanic energy, her face soon resembles the gruesomely vitiated sister of Freddy f*cking Krueger! These things, along with the intrinsically potentiated place to set a horror tale – an accursed church – are among the movie’s firmly planted roots.

WHAT BLOWS NOW: I sure hate to be the bearer of bad tidings (or ill-opining), but the PRINCE OF DARKNESS has suffered a lot of wear and tear over the past three decades. Either that, or it was never really that good to begin with, which, could easily be the case having formulated an opinion on the movie at the impressionable age of 10 or so. Still, there’s a sense of perfunctory indolence on the part of Carpenter when revisiting the flick. Remember, POD was made right after the wildly imaginative, highly original BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA bombed at the box-office. Returning to his indie roots, Carpenter would then go on to pen the script, perhaps ashamedly, under the nom de plume Martin Quartermass. Why? Did he know from jump-street this wasn’t his strongest work?

Here are a few examples of this rote, uninspired retreading we’re talking about. First, many scenes in the flick were shot on the campus of USC, the same school Carpenter from which he graduated in the film department. No biggie, right? Well, then there’s recurrent casting of not just Donald Pleasance, and also BIG TROUBLE actors Victor Wong and Dennis Dun as well. Wong, to be fair, plays a vital role in POD, and does it well, but Dun’s role could have honestly been played by anyone. Worse, the nondescript band of “street people” feels like the same exact swath of mysterious ghouls from THE FOG: slow, silent, meandering zombie-like figures who lumber along en masse. It all feels so done before, and so beneath Carpenter’s talent. Hell, even the death scene of Wyndham is directly lifted from the 1961 Hammer horror flick CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF. We’re all for heartfelt homage, but grand larceny? Carpenter? What the hell?!

What’s even more damning though, especially when seen today? How about everything as fundamental as the acting, pacing, tone, droning wall-to-wall score and the lamely unfulfilling ending? Yeah, they’re all problematic when viewing PRINCE OF DARKNESS with fresh eyes in 2017. The acting? Look no further than Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount as your two leads. I mean, who? Even Pleasance, clearly the best actor of the lot, feels like he’s done one too many Carpenter movies at this point. He seems out of gas, out of energy, out of ideas. As for the pace, until the flick kicks into overdrive in the final third, the tempo of the film really does drag a bit. It’s almost completely opposite of the fun, fast-paced, flash-bang action seen in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA just a year prior. Perhaps that was by design, but looking back, the monotonous tone and tempo seems ill-conceived.

Correlating with all of this is the lack of humor in the film, which is often the death knell for most horror films. The tone is too serious, too grave for any fun to be had. Add to this the droning music in the film, co-created by Carpenter himself, which never pauses to give one a break. It’s constant droning, on and on, to the point where, as it swells to the highest crescendo in the end, you just want to rip off your shoe and fire it at the screen and bark “enough already!” It’s vexing!

Perhaps most perturbing though is the end of the film, which clearly leaves unanswered questions to be addressed in a sort of sequel. At the time, such an ending could be read as thought provoking and open to further exploration. Looking back, we know that was not the case. Although Alice Cooper has long been on record as saying he thinks the movie is ripe for a sequel, none such ever came about, likely due to the poor box-office business the flick generated. As a result, the ending as we have it now feels like a tantalizingly unfinished effort.

THE VERDICT: Feel free to weigh in below, but as we see it, PRINCE OF DARKNESS has not gone unscathed against the Test of Time. Shit, you might as well call it PRINCE OF PERSIA, because the SANDS OF TIME have kind of kicked this Prince’s ass into the ground. And while there’s bound to be a Carpenter apologist or two ready to defend the flick as a worthy staple in the horror legend’s film canon, no one can argue with a straight face that PRINCE OF DARKNESS stands as sturdily against the passing of time as HALLOWEEN or THE THING does. Don’t be silly. We can argue over the merits of the movie, whether it was good or not upon release, but through the prism of a 30-year rear view mirror, there’s a dated deterioration to the movie that’s hard to deny. The acting is suspect, the pacing slogs, the tonal gravity weighs the movie down, the unending music annoys throughout, and the final shot amounts to one giant let down. Most alarming though, this feels not only beneath the mighty Carpenter, it feels like an uninspired best-of from his own past, often better, more celebrated films. Face it, after a 30 year rein, the Prince is kind of a pauper indeed!

GET PRINCE OF DARKNESS ON DVD HERE

GET PRINCE OF DARKNESS ON BLU-RAY HERE

Extra Tidbit: Have you seen POD lately? How does it hold up in your opinion?
Source: AITH

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10:27AM on 02/25/2017

Terrible review

My god you don't half go one like an old woman and your 'what blows' section is horse sh*t quite frankly. Prince of Darkness holds up well, better than the overrated Halloween.
My god you don't half go one like an old woman and your 'what blows' section is horse sh*t quite frankly. Prince of Darkness holds up well, better than the overrated Halloween.
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5:49PM on 02/24/2017
Dang...all you guys are making me think I need to give it a fourth chance! I own the dvd...so why not!
Dang...all you guys are making me think I need to give it a fourth chance! I own the dvd...so why not!
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10:19PM on 02/23/2017
Nope. If anything this is one of Carpenters best film. Bad acting? It has better acting than Halloween.
POD is incredibly eerie, thought provoking and surreal.
Nope. If anything this is one of Carpenters best film. Bad acting? It has better acting than Halloween.
POD is incredibly eerie, thought provoking and surreal.
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9:57PM on 02/23/2017
I really have to disagree on the review. I feel POD is one of Carpenter's best films. It has an odd eerie feel to it. The special effects are great. Although I agree some of the acting is weak but still overall, a great film.
I really have to disagree on the review. I feel POD is one of Carpenter's best films. It has an odd eerie feel to it. The special effects are great. Although I agree some of the acting is weak but still overall, a great film.
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6:13PM on 02/23/2017
I would say you are right on the money with this article. When it was released, I remember watching it a few times on HBO or Cinemax, and catching it every now and then over the years. I was 10 when it was released, and it underwhelmed me then. I didn't find it scary or interesting like I did most other horror films. I decided to give it another shot a couple of years back after having read positive things about it online, thinking things were lost on me due to my youth. No such luck,
I would say you are right on the money with this article. When it was released, I remember watching it a few times on HBO or Cinemax, and catching it every now and then over the years. I was 10 when it was released, and it underwhelmed me then. I didn't find it scary or interesting like I did most other horror films. I decided to give it another shot a couple of years back after having read positive things about it online, thinking things were lost on me due to my youth. No such luck, unfortunately. I still could not get into, or appreciate this one. I love and adore John Carpenter and his films, but I found this one to be very basic and uninteresting. One of his very few missteps.
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2:37PM on 02/23/2017
I'd have to disagree, I think it's a pretty underrated film in Carpenter's resume and has very creepy tone and setting. The acting/characters are fairly weak but easy to overlook and I love the ambiguous ending
I'd have to disagree, I think it's a pretty underrated film in Carpenter's resume and has very creepy tone and setting. The acting/characters are fairly weak but easy to overlook and I love the ambiguous ending
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2:50PM on 02/23/2017
Agreed, I think this one is underrated. I don't think it is Carpenter's best but I think it is far from his worst as well.
Agreed, I think this one is underrated. I don't think it is Carpenter's best but I think it is far from his worst as well.
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