Prince of Darkness (1987)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #371

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Number of Views: Three
Release Date: October 23, 1987
Sub-Genre: Supernatural
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $3,000,000
Box office: $14,182,492
Running Time: 101 minutes
Director: John Carpenter
Producer: Larry J. Franco
Screenplay: Martin Quatermass
Special Effects: Mark Shostrom (uncredited)
Visual Effects: Robert Grasmere
Cinematography: Gary B. Kibbe
Score: John Carpenter, Alan Howarth
Editing: Steve Mirkovich
Studio: Alive Films, Carolco Pictures, Larry Franco Productions
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Stars: Donald Pleasence, Jameson Parker, Victor Wong, Lisa Blount, Dennis Dun, Susan Blanchard, Anne Marie Howard, Ann Yen, Ken Wright, Dirk Blocker, Jessie Lawrence Ferguson, Peter Jason, Robert Grasmere, Thom Bray, Alice Cooper

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Suggested Audio Candy

John Carpenter & Alan Howarth “Prince of Darkness”

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After cutting his teeth with his first full-length feature, the hugely lovable Dark Star in 1974, the run of John Carpenter between 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13 and 1988’s They Live was absolutely second to none. No other director on the circuit was responsible for such a mercurial output during that period and, in particular, his formidable trio of Halloween, The Thing, and The Fog, cemented his place at the very top table of horror. However, by the second part of the decade, he had already began to grow frustrated with the studios. Indisputably marvellous as it was, Big Trouble in Little China started what would become a turbulent working relationship with executives and this involvement would largely taint his output throughout the nineties. Prince of Darkness arrived before that rot set in and he purposely set out to control the project from seed, through gestation.

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Often overlooked by fans and not particularly well received by critics either, this is often regarded as one of his weakest efforts from the epoch and, while not up to the impossibly high standards of his earlier works, it’s still a Carpenter film through and through, and bears all of the great director’s trademarks. He assumed total control of its conception and produced it independently so as to sidestep any meddling, as it was to offer an important bridge between The Thing and the third part of his Apocalypse Trilogy, the misunderstood In The Mouth of Madness. I can’t sit here and pull the wool over your eyes and neither do I wish to. Prince of Darkness wasn’t his proudest hour and may not have been one of the more memorable films he released during his heyday. However, I would urge you to take a look at its company as the staples of a great Carpenter movie are all present and correct.

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Writing under the pseudonym Martin Quartermass as a nod to Hammer, his tale involved a malevolent canister of garish green fluid which was under investigation by a group of graduate students, under the watchful eye of the priest tasked with guarding this ominous secret. Carpenter was so enamored by Donald Pleasence that he even named his clergyman Father Loomis, in an even clearer nod to Halloween. Indeed, there were no safer hands in the industry at that time to entrust with such a pivotal role and, predictably, the great man was more than up to the task. He was joined by Victor Wong as Professor Barrick, and his student body which included Jameson Parker, Lisa Blount, and Dennis Dun, as well as disposable others. All performed ably but it was Pleasence who lead the charge.

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There were vague parallels with Precinct 13 as the hapless group were incarcerated within similarly restrictive fixtures and fittings, in the form of a cathedral surrounded by all manner of spiteful nomads circling the exterior, including Alice Cooper no less. However, that is where Prince of Darkness deviated as the threat posed, and it was considerable, wasn’t exclusive to those proposing to attend communion. Within this sanctuary, this place of God, the ancient evil was more than capable of doing its own demonic bidding and, after the sickness was involuntarily ingested by one of the party, the shit really hit the stained glass with some force.

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The director’s hallmarks were here in abundance. His pulsing composition with Alan Howarth was ever-present, while the anamorphic frame which had been synonymous to his work for so long was used beautifully once more, with wide establishing shots really assisting in setting the mood. Tension was here in abundance also, particularly during a final third which ranks up there in the upper-middle echelons of his work. However, I can see why this frustrated his following and indeed still does to this very day, as something was clearly amiss elsewhere. Whereas The Thing played exquisitely on our uncertainty and comprised a stellar ensemble cast, each less secure than the last, here any tertiary characters seemed almost superfluous and only present to make up numbers and provide us with incident during the interim.

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Thankfully, the vat of nefarious ooze was every bit as suspect as suggested and our consolation for being vaguely swizzled was a number of impressively grisly set pieces. Carpenter was never pre-disposed with sickening his audience, even with The Thing, where grue was only ever-present to punctuate, not dictate. Here it was no different although this time admittedly often at the cost of bankable tension. Regardless of such hair-splitting, such messy effects combined well with the mystery provided by the canister’s airborne contents to remind us perpetually that we weren’t cut out for church. I was actually baptized a Christian of free will as I breached adolescence and intriguingly Prince of Darkness arrived a month after my thirteenth birthday. Consequently, I never returned and my bible remains untouched. However, to this very day, I keep it inside the top drawer of my bedside cabinet just in case my sleep is broken by an advancing green puddle of fluid. Go figure!

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That’s my whole point. Granted, this may not have been vintage Carpenter, at least, not in an all-encompassing manner. For me it nestles comfortably within his second tier and, when you consider that company it keeps, that’s no real negative. He had made his name by mastering his own destiny, shaping his own empire, following his own dream. This had already been compromised and, even a safe pair of hands like his couldn’t be expected not to shake just a little as studio involvement began to look increasingly necessary. Prince of Darkness ultimately couldn’t quite continue his run of fine form but, by the same token, Ladykillers was a bad day at the office for The Coen Brothers but that didn’t stop it being better than most other directors’ output on the year of its release.

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Contrary to horror slinking back into shadows towards the asshole-end of the eighties, 1987 was actually something of a vintage year, all things considered. Pinhead had arrived with Cenobites in tow, Ash suffered his second bout of cabin fever, The Lost Boys and Near Dark battled it out for which was the more eternal, Angel Heart was blowing head gaskets, and Arnold Schwarzenegger was encouraging audiences to stick around in his own inimitable Arnie way. In other news, Prince of Darkness provided refreshments courtesy of that portentous canister of toxic evil. I always liked green, it’s Keeper’s favorite color don’t ‘cha know? The more garish the better as far as I’m concerned. Look at the positives Grueheads, I never once had to reach into my pocket when the collection tray came around. Plus I got to masturbate without fear of reprisal so I feel duty bound to thank Carpenter for bringing the ooze. Just keep it where I can see it okay John.

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: Guzzle this bitches, how do you like your epidermis? Feels good doesn’t it? Real taut across your skulls. Now imagine having that callously ripped away like David Copperfield’s tablecloth after half a litre of Jamaican rum. Exactly… real nasty. Multiple stabbings were performed courtesy of our resident perimeter bag lady, a little wince-inducing injury detail added as seasoning, and enough blood to refill the canister as well as several surrounding pails tossed in with gay abandon. All things considered, Prince of Darkness came pretty good on the grue.

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Read The Thing Appraisal

Read The Fog Appraisal

Read Halloween (1978) Appraisal

Read The Ward Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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  1. I enjoyed the random, mouth-to-mouth water-fountain-spouting possessed demon-zombie madness.

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