Prince of Darkness (1987) a (very) belated review

Bear with me on this…

The first -and until yesterday- last time I ever saw the John Carpenter directed/written Prince of Darkness was in a theater with a friend back in 1987 during its initial theatrical run.  I remember both of us walking out of the theater in disgust at having wasted a perfectly good afternoon watching a perfectly wretched film.

Fast forward to last week, when I had to buy some stuff via Amazon and, to make the delivery free (I’m cheap that way! 😉 ), I added a few items to meet the minimal free shipping total.  For whatever reason I was thinking of the 1967 film Quatermass and the Pit (aka Five Million Years to Earth)…

…but had never seen the supposedly better TV show it was based on (this according to several people who had seen both), also titled Quatermass and the Pit, that aired nearly a full decade before in 1958.

So, being in an adventuresome/curious mood, I ordered the 1958 Quatermass and the Pit but still needed another order to make that all important free delivery (Yes, in order to save $5 in postage I was willing to spend another $20 for merchandise…never said I was logical!).  Anyway, I looked around the DVD/BluRay sections and, having been pleasantly surprised by SHOUT! Factory’s BluRay release of John Carpenter’s The Fog, a movie I didn’t think all that highly of but proved quite the revelation on BluRay, I decided to bite the bullet and, after 26 years (!!!) revisit Prince of Darkness.

The order arrived a few days ago and yesterday, finally, I had a chance to take a look at Prince of Darkness.  Watching those first few minutes of the film proved a pleasant surprise.  The establishing mood was good, almost deliciously Lovecraftian, and Jameson Parker, who I didn’t recall thinking all that much of when I originally watched the film ages ago, proved to be compelling…at least in those initial moments.

Without giving away too much of the plot, Prince of Darkness involves a fraternity of Catholic Priests who have been tasked for centuries to secretly guard a container of glowing green liquid that, they fear, holds a great evil.  The last of the Priests to oversee the material has passed away, and the Priest investigating this order (played by the always interesting Donald Pleasence) contacts Professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong) a teacher of high level theoretical physics at a University to assemble a team of students and professors to find out what this container actually holds.

Spoiler Alert: It isn’t anything good.

The students, teachers, and Priest hole up in the old rundown church hiding this liquid and soon experience odd sensations while noting an odd assortment of apparently homeless people surrounding the church, intent on keeping them there and, should they try to leave, doing them great harm.  The killings soon start and, yes, the film becomes a “siege” tale, something director/writer John Carpenter has worked on plenty of times before and since.

By the time the movie reached its climax and I realized Mr. Carpenter was using a familiar element from one of my favorite films, 1949’s Orpheus (the mirrors) and another familiar element related to the legend (the loss of Orpheus’ lover, Eurydice)…

…I abruptly came to another realization: Prince of Darkness was essentially a remake or reimagining of Quatermass and the Pit!  Basically, Mr. Carpenter (writing under the alias of –how could I miss this?!– Martin Quatermass) took all the main elements of Quatermass and the Pit -the strange object found in a run down area of the city, the impulses it creates in people around it, the world level threat, the bizarre “mind transmissions”, and, especially, the sacrifice of one of the major characters to end the threat- and added a few other elements (perhaps a pinch of the Exorcist) and, voila, he created Prince of Darkness!

What are the odds?!

I purchase Quatermass and the Pit (the TV version) and Prince of Darkness on the same day via Amazon and come to the stunning realization that one film very much influenced (or, if you’re less forgiving, was ripped off) the other!

Ok, now the big question: Is Prince of Darkness any good?

Before I get into that, let me state that many consider this movie John Carpenter’s last truly “great” film, even though he followed it up with They Live and a little later, Into the Mouth of Madness, both works which are considered “good,” if not “great” Carpenter.  There are others, however, who consider Prince of Darkness Mr. Carpenter’s first really big misstep and a harbinger of the lesser works that followed.

Myself?  Well, after watching the film once again I find myself in middle.  I have to admit I didn’t hate Prince of Darkness quite as much as I did when I first saw it in 1987.  On the other hand, I certainly didn’t walk away loving it.  The story features too many characters who are bland and ultimately unrealized.  The script really could have used some tightening and the direction, while decent, wasn’t quite as interesting as I’ve seen in other Carpenter works.  A good example of this is the attack of the green water.  Though it pains me to say this considering how much I admire so many of John Carpenter’s films, this proves to be quite laughable.  Unintentionally so, alas.

So in the end, I can only recommend this film for someone like me who has a fondness for Quatermass and the Pit and is curious to see John Carpenter’s reinterpretation of the themes/story.  SHOUT! Factory’s BluRay is a beauty and features razor sharp images and clarity probably not seen in the film since its initial release.  If you’re interested in seeing it, this is certainly the way to go.