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John’s Horror Corner: Prince of Darkness (1987), a John Carpenter film that is far more impressive than you remember if you look past its special effects.

November 3, 2019

MY CALL: Judge this movie by its special effects and you’d probably call it weak or hokey or typical average forgettable 80s-ness. But the special effects don’t help this film—not even a little. It’s the wowing set design, the solid writing, the performances and characters with substance, the compelling story and atmosphere, and the mood-building score that transcend this film beyond most horror of its era. MORE MOVIES LIKE Prince of Darkness: For more scientists getting too close to evil dimensions, try From Beyond (1986) or Event Horizon (1997).

Victor Wong (Tremors, The Golden Child) recaptures his lightning-in-a-bottle mysticism we came to love in Big Trouble in Little China (1986) as a zealous physics professor seeking to prove a metaphysical hypothesis. The Yin to Wong’s kooky Yang, Donald Pleasence (Phenomena, Halloween 1-2/4-6) emanates the all-too-familiar air of a priest who seems to know something is gravely amiss before his constituents of the cloth.

Together these unlikely two investigate an ancient cylinder of swirling green ectoplasm entombed by a secret religious faction beneath a time-condemned church. Professor Birack (Wong) assembles physics graduate students Catherine (Lisa Blount; Dead & Buried, Nightflyers, Needful Things), Mullins (Dirk Blocker; Poltergeist, Night of the Scarecrow, Cutting Class) and Walter (Dennis Dun; Big Trouble in Little China); a radiologist (Anne Marie Howard; The Collection), a microbiologist (Jessie Lawrence Ferguson; Darkman Neon Maniacs), a biochemist, Kelly (Susan Blanchard; They Live), Dr. Leahy (Peter Jason; In the Mouth of Madness, Congo, Alien Nation, Arachnophobia), an ancient scripture theologist (Ann Yen), along with members of other departments.

Unlike most horror that attempts and royally fails to make credible scientists of its protagonists (e.g., Nightwish and even Mimic), these students feel like thoughtful intellectual characters rather than horror movie victims. They have different backgrounds and specialties even within physics, instead of coming off as schlocky experts of “all things physics,” or worse, all things science.

Challenging their understanding of faith and science, preliminary tests of materials on the corroded cylinder suggest it predates man by millions of years and that the church had kept its secret for the last two thousand years. Translations of ancient texts identify the cylinder’s contents as the son of Satan. And contact with its contents corrupts absolutely to the whims of evil.

Judge this movie by its special effects and you’d probably call it weak or hokey or typical average forgettable 80s-ness. Alice Cooper (Dark Shadows, Monster Dog) leads a group of perhaps possessed, murderous homeless people that behave like cult fanatics. The murderous hobos provision unimpressive death scenes that will hardly raise a brow. Really, neither does the infectious measure of shooting streams of water from mouth-to-mouth to spread the infection of inherent evil.

The best of the effects are towards the end with the flayed woman hosting the Prince of Darkness. But the special effects don’t help this film—not even a little. It’s the set design with its wowing underground cathedral, the solid writing which kept me intrigued, the performances and characters with substance, the compelling story and the awesome atmosphere…

Written and directed by John Carpenter (John Carpenter; In the Mouth of Madness, They Live, Halloween, The Thing), the score casts the looming atmospheric shadow of The Thing (1982). And like The Thing (1982), the story unfolding between the special effects and death scenes is every bit as engaging (and more) as the horror itself—thus transcending most horror of its era.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. November 3, 2019 8:05 pm

    I remember the anticipation of wanting to seeing this one as soon as my friends and I saw the trailer that had the infamous “I have a message for you, and you’re not going to like it”. I also remember our disappointment when we finally made it to the theater and the special effects were dreadful and the plot wasn’t anything like we thought it was going to be. Years later I saw it again to give it a second try and it seemed a little better, I guess because I was following the plot that was laid out instead of what I was hoping it would be. There was a lot of potential with this one that went flop.

    • John Leavengood permalink
      November 3, 2019 8:16 pm

      I’m hoping you’d continue to enjoy it yet more on a subsequent viewing–just because that was the case for me at least. I was somewhere in that/your ballpark on my second viewing (over 10 years ago). This third time (for the review) was the first time I really appreciated it. But this time I was completely ignoring the SFX and taking in the characters (almost exclusively) and the infernal plot.

  2. November 4, 2019 7:36 am

    I loved this film… I thought this slow-burn of a movie had a great pay-off. When people would say to me it was only ‘Alright’ I kept thinking I might be missing something. I’d watch it again. I never found what I missed. IMO, a great film.

  3. November 4, 2019 11:01 am

    Great review! This is a masterpiece. Yes, it’s a low budget movie, but… the dialogues are so sharp! The story so intriguing! The direction so flawless! John Carpenter at his best!!!


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