Prince of Darkness (1987)

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Prince of Darkness is the middle of John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy (with the other two being The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness). Since we’re professionals we figured we’d save the middle for last. The order actually doesn’t matter that much with this trilogy though because it’s more of a genre anthology than a narrative series. Presumably the connecting thread between the three is the stakes the characters are dealing with. Well, in PoD the stakes are Satan and Satan’s Papa taking over the planet, so they’re high enough to qualify for the trilogy. The movie follows Victor Wong and his gang of collegiate physics students as they try and understand and contain the essence of Lucifer in the basement of a church. How well does Carpenter do at explaining the science of Beelzebub? Well, read on to find out but know that it’s going to get spoilery.

Reviewed by: Mark

 
 

Plot Synopsis

Turns out, in the basement of this church there is a big ass vial of green ooze that may or may not contain the physical embodiment of Satan. His mojo, if you will. Why is this suddenly an issue now where it hasn’t been for the past two thousand years? Unclear. Anyway, Wong offers his students extra credit in his class to come and aide in the secret project over a weekend.

As the students setup a field lab they all seem remarkably blasé about the breakdown of the laws of physics that are occurring inside of this church.  As they begin studying the vial some strange things begin to happen. A pigeon gets crucified, the local homeless population spontaneously develops a herd schizophrenia, and people begin to turn into satan zombies after getting squirt gunned by the mysterious fluid.

 
 Image: Evil Incarnate. Also, future ninja turtles.

Image: Evil Incarnate. Also, future ninja turtles.

 

As the group uncovers that Satan is actually trying to bring about an even more evil presence (his dad, super Satan) things devolve fast as their numbers fall to the local vagrants and zombies. To make matters worse, Kelly’s skin falls off and she becomes impregnated by the remaining contents of the vial. Cue the sad trombone sounds.

Once Kelly goes full Satan (you should never go full Satan) she begins to try and pull Ultra Satan through a mirror portal from the realm of anti-matter. Try not to ask too many questions here or the plot will fall apart. As everyone is otherwise involved defending themselves from the zombie hordes, Catherine is forced to grab Kelly and throw herself through the portal to prevent the world from ending. The priest breaks the mirror to close the portal and sever the connection to our world.  Brian was totally smitten with Catherine and becomes a total mopey Milo because she was lost into a hell-realm. But you know what, Brian? Sometimes that’s just the way things go. You and your sexy moustache will be just fine.


What the Movie Does Right

Brian’s sexy moustache. Seriously. That thing is marvelous.

 
 Glorious.

Glorious.

 

Really though, the moustache is fun to talk about, but it is representative of a larger aspect of this movie. Prince of Darkness is a late 80s time capsule that simultaneously captures the weirdness of how Hollywood took itself seriously while making incredibly weird movies. The line readings aren’t great, the score is simple and goofy, and the casting decisions are questionable, but it all ultimately comes together in a package that is confusingly charming.

The film also brings some interesting narrative devices to the screen. Arguably the most interesting aspect of this movie is a dream sequence that is delivered to the characters from the future, warning them of what is to come should they fail. The dream sequence was supposedly filmed with a normal camera, played on a television, and the television was filmed with another camera in order to capture the surreal quality of a tachyon-fueled dream sequence. It works great from a world building standpoint, and also provides an interesting talking point about tachyons, but more on that later.

Finally, as is generally true with Carpenter’s work, the effects are great. They might not be on the same level as The Thing, but there’s still some pretty impressive practical going into the base molding of this movie. I mean, shit, just look at Kelly:

 
 She has a nasty case of "skin fell off"

She has a nasty case of "skin fell off"

 

What the Movie Does Wrong

Remember how I said I’d get back to the tachyon thing? Yeah. Mr. Carpenter should not be allowed to discuss science in any fashion. This thing is disastrous as far as the science angle goes. It’s worse than most episodes of The Big Bang Theory. The movie itself opens with a shot of the sky over USC with the sun and a crescent moon that is physically impossible. Why?  No reason. It’s completely unrelated to the plot. When they first get to the church there is fluid dripping upward out of the vial and the physics PhD students seem uninterested in the fact that gravity has ceased to be. There is a moment later on when they all seem floored by anachronistic differential equations. It’s all just so reminiscent of those college television commercials where you have a kid playing around in a science lab with some colored beakers and dry ice.

There’s also a significant amount of casual sexism, racism, and classism. Apparently all of the local homeless are schizophrenic Satan worshippers. Brian proclaims himself as “sexist and proud” as he is trying to woo Catherine, and then gets offended when she doesn’t find that charming. Walter says that one of the other coeds, Lisa, could pass for Asian when she is very clearly of Asian descent. The thing is I don’t understand what any of these things are trying to accomplish in the first place. I suppose the horde of homeless serves the plot to a small extent, but the other two are just meaningless exchanges that don’t serve a purpose. It’s regrettable at best, but that’s what you frequently get with time capsules.

 
 You'll notice that none of these fine satanists are business professionals, doctors, or lawyers. 

You'll notice that none of these fine satanists are business professionals, doctors, or lawyers. 

 

Ratings (1-10)

Story: 7 - There was a pretty big disparity between my score and Jack’s, so take this with a grain of salt. Overall, Prince of Darkness is a fun spin on a siege movie that includes some creative and unique twists.The story here is complex enough to keep you interested, but not so overly complex that it gets in your way.

World-Building / Immersion: 6 - Again, big disparity between myself and Jack on this one. I think ultimately if you buy into how goofy this movie is and can force yourself past the utterly nonsensical science, then you should be in for a good time. There are some pacing issues though, so watch out for a long boring stretch in the first half of the movie.

Scare-Factor: 4 - There’s not a lot of truly memorable scary scenes. It’s really more conceptually scary than anything else, though there are some interesting moments. In particular at one point one of the zombies is goofily laughing out of focus in the background of a shot, and it’s very unsettling. Outside of that, there isn’t much to discuss here.

Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 6.5 - Lots of practical on a high degree of difficulty. Things generally look good but not great, but at least you don’t have weird CG being thrown in. The dream sequences look good, and score is simplistic but effective.

Overall: 6 - I think the consensus was that this was the second best of the trilogy behind The Thing. In the Mouth of Madness might deliver better individual scenes, but Prince of Darkness is the better overall product. I actually rather liked this movie, and I’m surprised that it isn’t more frequently discussed.