I have something of a hit-and-miss relationship with John Carpenter’s work. I adore The Thing. I like Big Trouble in Little China. Escape from New York is enjoyable enough, but ultimately, I liked Snake Plissken more than the actual movie itself. Halloween is a classic that I don’t love nearly as much as I’m supposed to, and The Fog, unfortunately, really didn’t much for me. All I remember about Vampires is that it was goddamn dreadful.
Today–as my first reward essay for the Clarion West Write-a-Thon–we’ll be discussing John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, which, I can tell you right now, is not destined to be one of my favorites. But there are aspects of this movie that I find really intriguing.
Let’s talk about them, shall we?
Sorry, my friends. This movie is over 30 years old. There will be SPOILERS aplenty here.
A mysterious dead priest and his mysterious little box lead Father Donald (Donald Pleasance) to recruit Professor Birack (Victor Wong) and a whole bunch of physics students, engineers, translators, radiologists, and more to investigate/prove what’s inside this super ominous cylinder in the basement of an abandoned church.
It’s Satan, everyone. Satan’s inside the cylinder, and he’s not even the Big Bad.
1. So, there’s a lot going on in this movie. More than you might expect from a 1980’s supernatural horror. Before we fully dive in, let’s just list some of the major plot points and other important story elements that Prince of Darkness has less than two hours to address:
The inciting mystery and the Brotherhood of Sleep
The introduction of a large cast of characters
A bullshit romantic subplot
The revelation that God is not the only god; there is, in the words of Yoda, another
The revelation that Satan, who is the Anti-God’s kid, is incubating in this creepy vat
The revelation that Jesus Christ was actually an alien, trying to warn everyone about Satan, and was murdered before he could do so
Just a shit ton of other theology and quantum mechanics
The team’s newfound shared dreams, which are actually warnings from the future
Satan’s deleterious psychic effects on the nearby problematic homeless people
Satan’s efforts to possess, kill, and reanimate everybody as weird zombie dudes in order to bring the Anti-God into our dimension
The ominous denouement
Like, that’s a lot. Some of it’s fascinating and some of it really isn’t, but if this film has a fatal flaw for me, it’s that there’s just not enough time to dedicate to any of the above. To examine this in more detail, we’ll take this movie piece by piece and look at what works, what could work, and what really, really doesn’t.
2. The Inciting Mystery and the Brotherhood of Sleep
My favorite part of this movie might be the first ten minutes. That probably sounds glib, but I really mean it: Prince of Darkness gets off to a strong start. Introductions to our main characters are interspersed with the opening credits, along with the setup of a mystery. Who is this dead priest? What is the significance of this box? What is the Brotherhood of Sleep, and what does “the sleeper awakens” even mean outside of the Dune universe? Is this 40-year-old college student watching Mullet Girl because he secretly loves her, or does he have more nefarious intent? And what does this priest (the living one) need the college professor’s help with, anyway? The score here really works, too, which admittedly, is the kind of thing you expect from a John Carpenter film.
Anyone who knows me at all knows what a huge mystery junkie I am, so yeah, this intro hooked me fast. Unfortunately, we then have to spend more time with Brian (Jameson Parker), the 40-year-old college student, henceforth known as Mustache or Mustache McDouche, and things sadly go downhill from there.
3. The Introduction of a Large Cast of Characters
We’ll get back to the Brotherhood of Sleep, I promise, but right now we’re going to talk about the living characters because, boy, are there a lot of them. Most of them, unfortunately, are red shirts, which–while not exactly surprising–is a little disappointing. On the upside, such a large cast means we get more than two women who actually have speaking lines, which is a big plus in my book. And hey! They’re not even all white! (Okay, they’re still mostly white. If memory serves, there’s only one WOC in the whole cast; also, none of the women make it out alive, at least, not in the conventional sense.) But on the downside, I barely know who any of these people are before they die, which means I really don’t give a shit about it when they do.
And worse, the characters we do get to know are meh at best. At worst, they’re downright insufferable.
Let’s begin with Father Donald. This is not his real name. He doesn’t actually have a real name in the movie or on IMDb, although apparently he’s referred to as “Father Loomis” in the DVD subtitles for presumably obvious reasons. He was Father Donald in my notes, though, so that’s what he’ll remain.
Father Donald is okay, I guess. Donald Pleasance is always Donald Pleasance to me, no matter what weird horror movie I’m watching him in. FD has kind of a character arc (that is to say, a crisis of faith) and it’s mildly interesting; unfortunately, it fizzles out in service of continuing the plot. (We’ll discuss this more in the Revelations section.) Also, he’s just sort of a jerk, one, because he sacrifices our lead heroine without a second thought, and two, because both he and Professor Birack refuse to explain why they’ve brought everyone to this creepy church. “In time,” Birack tells them, like that means anything, and look, I get why “we’re scientifically proving Satan is not only real, but down the block from your local 7-Eleven” might not go over well, but sweet Jesus, you are recklessly endangering these peoples’ lives. Give them something to work with.
I kinda-sorta wanted Professor Birack to survive, but that’s mostly because I grew up on Tremors and The Golden Child, and I like Victor Wong.
Similarly, there’s Walter, a character who’s only even remotely tolerable because he’s played by Dennis Dun, and honestly? It’s not enough. Walter is our film’s asshole comic relief: about 90% of his jokes are sexist or racist or homophobic, and the very few that aren’t still fail to be funny. I know, I know, the 80’s. I don’t care. It’s 2019 now, so you’re getting my 2019 commentary. The only time I actually like Walter is when he’s trapped in a closet with Satan just on the other side; appropriately, he flips his goddamn shit. I, too, would fail at stoicism here. Also, this is a legitimately amusing scene: while some people talk with their hands, Walter somehow freaks out with his arms.
That leaves us with our last two primary heroes: Mustache and Catherine (Lisa Blount). Which means it’s time to move onto our next section:
4. A Bullshit Romantic Subplot
Like I mentioned before, we’re first introduced to Mustache as he’s creepily spying on Catherine from afar. At least, that’s how it seemed to me, but I reminded myself to give the benefit of the doubt: maybe I was reading too much into Mustache’s mustache. Maybe his crush was sweet and innocent, and he wasn’t a possessive creeper after all.
Surprisingly, it turns out that Mustache actually isn’t a homicidal stalker; mostly, he’s just a gigantic tool. To examine this in more detail, let’s look at The Park Bench Conversation.
Mustache and Catherine tell each other their academic backgrounds (theoretical physics and applied physics, respectively) and have a pleasant conversation (she’s struggling to visualize abstract realities because she’s a by-the-numbers, hard science kind of girl) until he makes a lousy come-on (hey baby, there are some universal constants, like how no hot girls like you ever became theoretical physicists). Quickly, she becomes uncomfortable and annoyed. “That’s not true,” Catherine says, “and that’s an extremely sexist thing to say.”
Mustache’s response: “Confirmed sexist and proud of it.”
Obviously, they aren’t actually dating yet–this appears to be their first conversation, and there’s been nothing at all flirty about it from her side–but the sentiment remains.
Catherine looks away, clearly even more uncomfortable. Mustache is all, “Hey, I was just joking” in that super reasonable voice guys do to make you feel like you’re overreacting after they’ve said something shitty. Because seriously, even if he was just joking, there’s only one proper follow-up here: “Shit, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable.”
Instead, Mustache goes with this: “What happened? You talk numbers, you get romantic. You talk people, you clam up.”
Ugh. Mek and I both recoiled into the couch, all HELL no. Again, there’s been absolutely nothing signaling romantic intent from Catherine, unless you’re counting the fact that she knew his name before he formally introduced himself, and let me tell you, folks: I was not down to fuck every guy whose name I knew in college, nor was I interested in dating any of my fellow students just because I talked to them for five minutes about class. Mustache is such an asshole.
Unfortunately, this script was written by a man (Martin Quatermass, AKA, John Carpenter), and so Catherine says it’s not his fault; it was a miscue, and she’ll see him later. I suspect she’s supposed to sound regretful; mostly, she sounds like she’s trying to get away from this creep. Mustache, naturally, grabs her by the shoulder, all, let’s start over and maybe I can help you with theoretical physics over dinner, wink wink. Inexplicably, she’s charmed by this and agrees. “There are other things I need help with,” Catherine says. “Over dinner.” Yeah, sure. That’s what this conversation’s been leading.
Later that week, they go for coffee and end up having sex. The morning after, he’s all kissy-kissy; she’s all dude, let’s not, I need to sleep. Mustache wants to tell her something, but she begs him not to, clearly thinking, oh, Jesus, this guy’s gonna tell me he’s in love, isn’t he? And when he persists, Catherine sighs, aggrieved. “Tell me next time if there is one,” she says, “or the time after that, or two years from now.” Which only makes Mustache wonder who was this terrible man who broke her heart, like that can be the only possible reason a woman doesn’t want to hear “I love you” from a dude she’s known for roughly for 72 hours. (The actual line itself is a reference to To Have and Have Not, but given the context of the scene, I still find it grating.) The rest of the conversation goes like this:
Catherine: “I wouldn’t like it if either of us jumped to conclusions.”
Mustache: “How did you know I was going to say what you think I was going to say?”
Catherine: “Because if you don’t, I don’t want to know.”
And then they kiss. Honestly, I don’t even know what to do with that nonsense.
Much, much later, when things look bleak, Catherine reminds Mustache that he was going to tell her something the other day, and while he might not think it matters anymore, it does; it’s the only thing that matters. And then there’s more kissing.
Ugh. Can we get back to Satan, please?
5. A Shit Ton of Revelations, Theology, and Quantum Mechanics
We’ll now come back to the Brotherhood of Sleep. Turns out, they’re this super clandestine order of priests who’ve been formed to guard the truth about the Big Satan Lava Lamp, not to mention all the other revelations listed above. I guess they haven’t bothered to initiate any new members in a few decades because the last one dies at the beginning of the movie before he can tell the Church what’s going on, so, you know. Good going, Brotherhood.
The background history and theology are where the time constraints really become a problem for me. Because there’s so much to cover, the characters constantly have to make pretty big leaps in logic to “realize” what’s going on. And while things like “holy shit, Jesus was an alien” should feel like massive discoveries, they mostly come across as mumbled exposition, divorced from any real emotion. Like, Father Donald is pretty upset, as one might reasonably expect, and that’s cool. But honestly, I wish that went further: I want the movie to do something with his spiritual dilemma, and I never felt they really did. Moreover, I’m an agnostic who’s been to maybe three church services in my entire life, and even I would have some Pretty Big Feelings about learning that Jesus came from outer space. Or, shit, how about just the fact that Satan is real? Satan is real, he’s in the basement, and his daddy is coming to fuck us all up. That’s a pretty big mind trip for one weekend; do you remember how shook you were after you saw The Red Wedding, or when Clarke and Bellamy got married in real life?
But nobody in this movie has time to be shook; hell, the only person who even expresses basic doubt is Asshole Walter. Don’t get me wrong: it’s always a bit of a relief when your heroes don’t spend the entire movie coming to the obvious conclusion that It’s All Real. Still, the speed of which everyone is on board is ludicrous here. If I were writing a remake of this movie, I’d probably cut Space Jesus because I think he’s unnecessary, but it’s not Space Jesus himself that breaks my suspension of disbelief; it’s the characters’ reactions to him that do that.
I am all here for more supernatural horror with heavy doses of theology and quantum mechanics, but those discussions really need time to breathe, and they just don’t get that time in Prince of Darkness.
6. The Shared Dreams From The Future
In case there wasn’t enough weird shit going on, everyone at the church begins having the same dream. These dreams are actual news broadcasts from the future (from the year 1-9-9-9, HA), and show an ominous, shadowy figure coming out of the church. The people in the future are transmitting these dreams through tachyon emissions with the hope that our heroes will somehow prevent this reality from happening.
On one hand, this doesn’t totally work for me because it, like everything else, feels rushed. Father Donald is suddenly filling us in on secret exposition halfway through the movie, and it comes across as clunky writing. Likewise, the group deciding that these dreams must come from the future feels a little spoon-fed. I wish there was more, I don’t know, detective work to it?
OTOH, I do actually like this particular bit of blatant weirdness. Visions of the future don’t usually work like this in a horror film; normally, they come from mystical powers or innate psychic ability, not science. And science-fiction stories about changing the future usually focus on the time travelers themselves, but in this case, it’s only a message that’s sent back, and we don’t have any idea who actually sent it; that’s not part of the story. The shared dreams are an interesting bit of genre-blending, and I’m actually really into them. I just wished they balanced a little better overall with the rest of the movie.
7. The Nearby Problematic Homeless People
So, Satan-In-The-Lava-Lamp has been psychically influencing/possessing the homeless people who live around the church, presumably because they’re mentally ill and easier to take over? (I don’t see any other reason; after all, it takes more than psychic waves to possess all the scientists and students inside the house.) The first thing to know about this is that Alice Cooper is playing one of the homeless people; he’s credited as Street Schizo. The second thing to know is that he kills a dude by impaling him with a fucking bike. The third thing to know is that basically all of this needs to be rewritten. Except for the bike thing. That can stay.
Look, obviously, a lot of homeless people are mentally ill, but I’m not wild about the implication that anyone living on the streets is schizophrenic–an assumption one character seems to make–nor am I in love with the fact that being schizophrenic (or having a different mental illness) means that Satan can just easily take over your mind. Moreover, we don’t meet any of these homeless people prior to their possession. They have no names, no personalities. They’re completely dehumanized, and that’s not terribly surprising because none of these characters are characters; they’re just thinly veiled plot devices. The only reason the homeless people exist in Prince of Darkness is to make sure our heroes can’t escape the church, and it’s just lazy as shit. I’d be inclined to like this subplot a whole lot more if the homeless people were infected some other way, and if a couple of the non-infected homeless people were actual main characters who made it inside with the rest of our heroes.
8. Satan’s Efforts To Possess Everyone and Usher In the Anti-God
So, for nearly 3,000 words, we’ve mostly been discussing relationships and subplots and this movie’s weird ass backstory, but finally, we come to the actual plot.
Here is a very brief summary of what goes on in the Abandoned Church of Doom:
Everyone begins work on investigating the creepy vat in the basement and identifying what weird green shit is swirling around inside. Kelly, the blonde, bumps into a machine, which somehow marks her as Satan’s Chosen Vessel, or something. Susan, the radiologist, is the first possessed by Satan (she loses her glasses, naturally, for full Sexy Evil effect), and goes about possessing and/or murdering everyone else in classic slasher killer mode, which is to say, one-by-one. Eventually, the others realize what’s happening and fight to survive. Meanwhile, Possessed-Susan and Possessed-Lisa infects a napping Kelly with all of Satan’s Lava Lamp Juice. This makes Satan-Kelly super nasty looking; also, she grows an overnight pregnancy belly because of course she does. (It goes away, though.) Satan-Kelly tries to bring her dad, the Anti-God, into this dimension through a mirror.
However, Catherine tackles Satan-Kelly instead. They both go through, and Father Donald shatters the mirror, trapping them on the other side forever. All the possessed people die, and only Father Donald, Professor Birack, Asshole Walter, and Mustache McDouche survive.
To further break that down:
8A. These are the most disappointing survivor boys I’ve ever seen. Although, admittedly, the only person I was seriously rooting for was Lisa (Ann Yen), who obviously had no chance of survival. I’m still waiting for the Western horror film where an Asian woman makes it. (Although to be fair, it is a surprise that both Birack and Walter survive.)
8B. Kelly keeps insisting that the mark on her arm is just a normal bruise, even though it changes shape until you can see there’s a fucking raised cross at the center of it. (It’s actually the Astrologer’s Staff, I guess, but the point is, it stopped looking like a normal bruise a long fucking time ago.) I am Jack’s Eternal Facepalm GIF.
8C. The gender dynamics in this story are . . . interesting. The possessed zombie women are far more active in spreading Satan’s influence than the men. It’s kinda cool, actually, but it also has a weird Dracula’s Brides feel to it that I’m not sure I love? How men and women become possessed is different, too: for the most part, the men are just straight-up murdered before reanimating, whereas the women mostly get Satan’s Green Bile vomited at their faces. Oh, but Calder’s different: Possessed-Susan doesn’t so much vomit at him as French kiss him with Satan’s Green Bile. I’ll leave it up to somebody else to analyze the symbolism here.
8D. During all this madness, the sun comes up. The sun is often an ally in these kinds of movies, but Satan, like the honey badger, don’t give a shit about sunlight, so it matters not.
8E. The whole insta-pregnancy horror trope has never been one of my favorites, but it seems especially unnecessary here because Kelly’s only got the full belly thing going on for a couple of scenes. Then her belly shifts around some, and in the next scene, it’s gone. The idea, of course, is that she isn’t just a possessed corpse like all the others; she is now Satan-in-Human-Form. But I still feel like there were better ways to depict this.
9. The Ominous Denouement
The movie ends ambiguously: Mustache, having gone home, has another news-footage-from-the-future dream, only this time we can see that the creepy figure exiting the church is Catherine. Mustache wakes up and walks over to his mirror, hand outstretched. The movie ends before we see if his hand passes through, leaving the audience unsure if our heroes changed the future, only to lose anyway, or if nothing will happen and Mustache is just having a Sue Snell moment.
To my surprise, I actually quite like the ambiguity here. It’s a good shot to end on, and–for once–the potential “it’s not over” twist doesn’t feel like a cheap ploy for a sequel. I only wish that I gave a damn about Mustache and Catherine’s relationship (because that would make this ending so much more powerful), and that the dreams were handled a little better earlier in the film.
10. Random Notes
Finally, a few more things:
10A. I now know that Professor Birack teaches theoretical physics, but it did take a while to catch on; initially, it seemed like he was simply teaching Foreshadow and Movie Themes. These are, of course, both common subjects for teachers in film and television.
10B. Man, I’m glad none of these students have jobs or anything to interfere with this limited notice weekend extravaganza at the abandoned church. Asshole Walter supposedly had a date, but that’s it.
10C. I just finished watching Stranger Things, Season 3, a few weeks ago, and let me tell you, there is nothing funnier than looking at Supposed-to-be-80’s Fashion versus Actual 80’s Fashion. Like, Stranger Things is super colorful and super cute all the time; here, mostly, everything is just oversized and drab. (Lisa’s blazer is hilariously large.) Kelly’s outfit is easily the worst, though, unless she’s actually just wearing pajamas? I’ll totally applaud her if she’s just wearing her pajamas. But wait. Wait. Does that abomination of a sweater have shoulder pads? No, this cannot be borne.
10D. The Satan Looney Tunes are the height of subtlety.
10E. Oh my God. Dirk Blocker, AKA Hitchcock from Brooklyn 9-9, is in this movie! Hi, Hitchock! He seems like a surprisingly nice guy here; naturally, he doesn’t make it.
10F. Calder, meanwhile, is played by the late Jessie Lawrence Ferguson, notably from that terrible TNG episode “Code of Honor.” The actor’s fine in the role, but Calder’s kind of a problem for me; while the majority of the possessed people are all Silent Ominous Types, Possessed-Calder–and the only black character–is all sweaty and hysterical and singing “Amazing Grace” for no apparent reason. It feels like a poor choice.
10G. One of my favorite parts of the movie: Calder, very soon to be turned, finds an unresponsive Possessed-Lisa typing on the computer. When he gets close enough to see the screen, he sees she’s typing “I live!” over and over again, which is shortly replaced by the following lines:
You will not be saved by the Holy Ghost.
You will not be saved by the god Plutonium.
In fact, YOU WILL NOT BE SAVED!
Love it. Can I get this on a business card, too?
10H. I can’t help but notice that right before the Ominous Denouement, Father Donald goes very quickly from “we stopped it” to “I stopped it.” Meanwhile, Professor Birack comforts Mustache by telling him how Catherine’s sacrifice saved the world, although considering that we see her on the other side of the mirror, screaming while actively reaching for the shattered portal, like, perhaps this isn’t so much a “self-sacrifice” as a “sorry I had to sacrifice you for the greater cause, buddy” moment.
10I. Finally, there are a lot, a LOT, of bugs in this movie. My sister, who doesn’t approve of bugs in general and maggots specifically, would like to take this opportunity to say, “Thanks, Tom.”
Father Donald: “What were you dreaming?”
Professor Birack: “Your kingdom, Father, does not include my unconscious. It’s mine. I may abuse it any way I wish.”
Professor Birack (about Satan): “There could be a limit as to what he could do as a volume of liquid.”
Walter: “Something like this can really fuck up your weekend.”
This is totally watchable if you like 80’s gore or weird horror. I just kinda want to remake the shit out of it. You know, keep it weird AF, just rewrite the characters, cut some of the more problematic shit, and streamline a little to give the story more cohesion.
Dude. Secret societies need new members, and guarding the devil means having more than one old guardian priest on watch. I don’t care if Satan’s been sleeping for two thousand years now; he’s Satan. Maybe everything wouldn’t have gone to total shit if we had at least five guardian priests, hm?