Prince of Darkness (1987) | 31 Days of Horror: Oct 25

by Jovial Jay

Before man walked the earth… it slept for centuries. It is evil. It is real. It is awakening.

Prince of Darkness is a complicated film, dealing with theology, science and the space between them. Some viewers may find the film difficult to follow, while others may think it silly. However it’s undoubtedly a John Carpenter film and needs to be paid close attention to.

Before Viewing

The trailer for this film is super weird. There are shots of religious icons, homeless people, mirrors and bugs. The intertitles inform the viewer that “there is evil” and it’s real. It’s also made by John Carpenter and looks to be part The Exorcist, part The Thing with maybe some Halloween sprinkled in as well. It’s definitely not about Dracula! But it’s so vague, that it piques my interest!

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Spoiler Warning - Halloween

Prince of Darkness

Prince of Darkness title card.

After Viewing

A Catholic priest dies and the church uncovers a hidden sect called “The Brotherhood of Sleep,” who have operated out of a small church, Saint Godard’s, near Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. The priest in charge of the investigation, Father Loomis (Donald Pleasence) contacts Professor Birack (Victor Wong), a physicist, after he discovers a strange vessel filled with swirling green fluid in the basement of the church. Birack brings five of his brightest graduate students to help investigate, which include Brian (Jameson Parker), Catherine (Lisa Blount), Walter (Dennis Dun), Kelly (Susan Blanchard) and Mullins (Dirk Blocker).

Six other scientists with varied backgrounds also arrive to perform a variety of tests on the container, and other items found on site. Lisa (Ann Yen) is tasked with translating a book written in Latin and several other languages, while Susan (Anne Howard), a radiologist that wears glasses, carbon dates the lid of the tank at 7 million years old. Some of the team notice odd behavior surrounding the church, including swarms of ants and worms, and groups of homeless people standing and staring at the windows.

Prince of Darkness

Father Loomis is concerned why he has never heard about the “Brotherhood of Sleep” before.

Catherine looks at equations contained within the old book, and finds that it contains differential equations, something that hadn’t been invented 2,000 years ago. Other translations lead the team to conclude that the liquid contains the embodiment of Satan, having been trapped and guarded by The Brotherhood, but now it appears as if it’s trying to escape. The fluid is slowly leaking out and assembling on the roof of the church. While investigating this phenomena, Susan, the radiologist, is squirted by a stream of fluid directly into her mouth. Possessed, she snaps Mullins neck when he comes by to investigate the disturbance.

Other team members all notice they are having the exact same dream when they fall asleep. Imagery of a large shadowed figure is emerging from the front of the church. Narration accompanying the dream indicates that it’s a video message being relayed to them from the year 1999, using a tachyon pulse. Elsewhere, Birack and Loomis hypothesize that since in science each particle has an anti-particle, maybe an anti-God is living in a mirror universe, and the Brotherhood of Sleep was keeping the creature under wraps until science could explain the mysteries therein.

Prince of Darkness

Professor Birack, his students and Father Loomis look over the strange container containing the Prince of Darkness.

From there things devolve rapidly. Frank (Robert Grasmere) is killed by a homeless woman, controlled by the mysterious force. Susan infects Lisa and Calder ( Jessie Lawrence Ferguson), and then they bring the tank of fluid upstairs to infect Kelly. She will become and incubator for the demon, in order to bring the anti-God into this universe. Lomax (Ken Wright) and Leahy (Peter Jason) are also infected creating a small army of walking-possessed individuals that can’t be killed, thereby preventing the priest and the physicists from stopping the inevitable.

Kelly wakes up possessed and full of open sores on her skin. She finds a mirror and reaches through it, grabbing a cloven hand of some monstrous beast. While others look on in horror the beast begins to be brought through the mirror. Catherine sees her lover Brian being strangled by zombie-Calder, and makes the decision to tackle Kelly, knocking the two of them into the mirror. Father Loomis acts fast, tossing an axe and shattering the mirror, closing off the gateway. All the possessed people parish, leaving only the priest, Brian, Walter and Birack alive. Brian has a dream that night similar to the tachyon dream from before, except now it’s Catherine that comes out of the church in the future instead of a monstrous form. He awakens to find a gruesome Catherine is next to him in bed. He awakens again from that dream within a dream, startled, and reaches over towards his mirror very slowly. Cut to black.

He lives in the smallest parts of it. In the atoms… smaller… invisible… he lives in all of it. In the sum of its parts.” – Father Loomis

Prince of Darkness

Homeless people near the church (here portrayed in a cameo by rock star Alice Cooper) become affected by the strange effects of the container in the basement.

Prince of Darkness is a film that people either love or hate. For me, I’m drawn to the ambiguity and potential scientific explanation for the theological aspects of the entire thing. The title of the film comes from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, used to describe Satan, Lucifer, the greatest evil. Interestingly enough, Milton was mentioned in last night’s film, Don’t Look Now, as Venice was his favorite city. It’s a title that has been applied to Dracula as well (see the Hammer Films review from earlier this month) indicating he’s an ultimate evil. But in this case, it’s supposed to refer specifically to Satan. And whether the film is really dealing with the Devil or Satan or just some embodiment of evil, it has some interesting things to say.

As the quote above illustrates, Father Loomis is talking about the being living in the smallest of places. Quantum theory, chaos theory, and the space between the atoms is a big discussion topic in Prince of Darkness, and provides clues to what Carpenter is trying to illustrate. Whether it’s a sub-atomic particle that contains a piece of Satan, or a small piece of evil hidden inside an individual, the capacity for bad deeds is something that is everywhere, even in the best people. I think Carpenter is also trying to show that the monster of the film doesn’t need to be a big creature. Only the smallest particle of the fluid infects and affects the people that come into contact with it. In that aspect the horror seen here is very much like his take on The Thing. Small particles, or one cell is enough to take over a body.

This ties into the theme of belief which the film talks about. The movie opens with Professor Birack discussing quantum theory. With that theory he talks about classical reality breaking down on the subatomic level. Working with advanced physics destroys the classical belief structure that scientists have trained on. So too does the discovery of the anti-God shake the priests faith in the church. He can’t understand why the church would keep something like this shocking revelation from the public, let alone the other parts of the church. He believes that he understands the world and God, which gives him his faith, but upon closer examination he sees the holes and flaws in his belief. He uncovers a conspiracy in the church.

Prince of Darkness also features a lot of mirrors, which plays into some of the other films I’ve talked about this season (Candyman, The Shining, and A Nightmare on Elm Street for starters). As Birack hypothesizes, the mirror image, the anti-God, may exist in parallel universe, which is what a mirror seems to create. Kelly, under the power of the fluid, was able to reach into mirrors to connect to this other universe. The filmmakers also help to break down reality by changing the audience’s belief in how a mirror actually works. Carpenter also messes with audiences perceptions, having Brian wake up from a dream within a dream; reaching out for a mirror and not knowing what is real.

As I said before, this movie may not be for everyone, but it offers a number of interesting themes (even if they are a little overly complicated). It represents the middle of John Carpenter’s directorial career and presents a more mature and explorative portion of his work.

Prince of Darkness

The professors and students discuss the physics and philosophy of God, Satan and evil.

Assorted Musings

  • Features several actors that had been a part of other Carpenter films: Donald Pleasance, Victor Wong and Dennis Dun. It also marked his first time working with Peter Jason who would work in a number of other films with Carpenter.
  • Considered to be the second part of his “Apocalypse Trilogy,” including The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness.
  • One brief part of the film shows Brian watching the news about a new supernova that was discovered. Perhaps this a reference to the theory that the “star” that led the wisemen to Jesus was in fact a supernova. Yet another attempt at a scientific answer to a theological and faith based question.

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