The Religious Horror sub-genre rarely works for me. I usually don’t find it credible, much less scary (a strange stance, I know, for someone who loves supernatural Horror, but there it is). The religious aspect of the story needs to be presented in a unique way for it to hold my interest. In 1987, John Carpenter made a Religious Horror film that did it for me. More than that, it hooked me so completely that I have returned to the movie for several viewings every October. Consequently, PRINCE OF DARKNESS is my all-time favorite scary movie.
PRINCE OF DARKNESS imagines a scenario in which science and religion don‘t simply coexist, they are indistinguishable from each other. This is a film that takes the stance that both disciplines are right, but not at all in they ways they imagine. By accepting, then breaking down the basic tenets of both ideals, John Carpenter brilliantly answers the objections of audiences who demand realism in their Horror movies. At the very beginning of the film, theoretical physicist Howard Birack (Victor Wong) tells his students (and us) flat-out that accepted reality is simply not true - that on the sub-atomic level, everything is turned upside down so forget all you know. This is very wise advice from that character and from John Carpenter. It practically forces us to accept the following events at face value. A crucial necessity for any Horror film.
It helps, of course, that PRINCE OF DARKNESS is one of John Carpenter’s best made films. The thrills and chills in this one are achieved, as in all of his Horror films, through atmosphere and pacing. The whole film has a wonderfully oppressive, apocalyptic vibe. The build is so relentless, yet so subtle that when Hell finally breaks loose, this small, intimate film feels epic. I say ‘intimate’ because the vast majority of PRINCE OF DARKNESS takes place in one small location - an abandoned church nestled smack-dab in the heart of downtown L.A. Though only one tiny location serves as ground-zero for the apocalypse, John Carpenter uses good actors, moody, naturalistic lighting, and a carefully crafted soundscape to achieve the feeling that ‘this is it’. You can almost feel darkness descending over the whole world as this film progresses.
PRINCE OF DARKNESS also boasts John Carpenters best score, in which he and his co-composer Alan Howarth create a sonic intensity that is almost unbearable in its tension. The impending doom they create constitutes easily the most effective use of an all-synth score in the ‘80s. Today, the synth scores of that decade sound extremely dated - even some of the best examples sound ‘cheap’ somehow. Not this one. It still sounds great, and it’s still damned scary.
The key to the greatness of PRINCE OF DARKNESS, though, is its ending - the most effective twist ending I've ever seen. The reveal at the end stood the hair on my arms when I first witnessed it and is still chills me to the bone all these years later. It is a haunting, disturbing image that raises more questions than it answers - and that just makes it all the more creepy. PRINCE OF DARKNESS will stick with you for days. Indeed, it has stuck with me my whole life…
PRINCE OF DARKNESS fun facts - Father Loomis is played by Donald Pleasence and is named after the character he played in the Halloween movies.
The church used in this film is located in downtown Los Angeles and now houses the Union Center for the Arts. It is on the registry of historic places.
Broadcast voice - “This is not a dream… not a dream.”
Professor Birack - “…we've discovered something very surprising: while order does exist in the universe, it is not at all what we had in mind.”
Frank Wyndham - I've got a message for you. And you're not going to like it. “Pray for death”.