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Prince of Darkness Is a Lesser-Known Horror Masterpiece from John Carpenter

Every year, horror fans and aficionados attempt to take on the daunting task of watching a horror movie for each day in the month of October. Aptly named 31 Days of Horror, the challenge usually consists of viewers watching a mixture of their favorite classics, recent releases, and popular genre staples that may be new to them. In celebration of the spooky season, we at MovieWeb have curated our own suggestions for the month, providing a plethora of favorites from our contributing writers and editors. Check out our 31 Days of Horror posts every day this October, and embrace all the freaky found footage, vicious vampires, and stalking slashers you could ever hope for. Today, we kick off Day 23 with one of horror master John Carpenter’s lesser-known films, that has a rare blend of science fiction and religious horror, titled Prince of Darkness.

John Carpenter is one of the most celebrated names in horror, and since the 1970s, he’s brought forth some truly creative, memorable, and important films to the genre, starting with possibly the most well-known slasher to ever grace the silver screen, with Halloween. Of course, Carpenter is also responsible for some fan-favorite genre-blending films over the years, like his 1982 remake of The Thing; his sci-fi commentary on consumerism, They Live; and the truly iconic martial arts comedy, Big Trouble in Little China.

In 1987, fresh off the heels of Kurt Russell-led comedy, and 36 years ago to this day, Carpenter released not only one of his scariest and most unique films, but also one of the least appreciated and seen, with Prince of Darkness. The film follows a small group of college students who major in physics, as they stay in an old church at the request of a worried priest, in hopes of understanding and studying a cylindrical relic that’s filled with a mysterious liquid. Little do they know, the cylinder is filled with the sentient liquid embodiment of Satan himself.

The Science of Satan

Universal Pictures

Much of the uniqueness of Prince of Darkness comes from Carpenter’s scientific approach to religious horror. In this film, the releasing of Satan is essentially a puzzle that this group of students accidentally solves. Each layer the team peels away from the story brings the Dark Lord back, little by little, starting with the release of his liquid form, which in turn, starts to infect the group like a virus, similarly to a zombie film. As members of the team slowly become infected, the dangers of releasing the all-powerful force of evil onto the world are realized by the remaining students, and along with the priest’s help, they must find a way to stop Satan’s eventual plan of world dominance from coming to fruition.

Though Carpenter’s writing was lauded for being creative and pretty terrifying, many critics and audience members initially saw the film as too convoluted, and weren’t sold on Carpenter’s attempts at getting back into the horror genre after Big Trouble in Little China and the Academy Award-nominated Starman. People felt Carpenter was headed back in the wrong direction in his filmmaking, when in reality, he just wanted to make a chilling movie, which has since become somewhat of a cult favorite among the horror community.

Related: The Best Religious Horror Movies of All Time

The Presence of Pleasence

Donald Pleasence and Victor Wong in Prince of Darkness
Universal Pictures

Donald Pleasence simply never got enough credit for his effect on the horror genre throughout the late ’70s and ’80s. Pleasence was an extremely well-known actor in Europe, and already had massive credits under his belt, in films like The Great Escape or as the villainous Blofeld in You Only Live Twice. When Pleasence collaborated with Carpenter for Halloween in 1977, it sent a ripple throughout the acting world, as horror no longer had to be viewed as a porn-adjacent genre, and that talented, classical actors could make waves, even in smaller-budget films.

After Pleasence joined Carpenter again in Escape from New York, he came back again as the priest in Prince of Darkness. His role was the perfect religious counterbalance to the group of science-minded students, and his faith and conviction in his beliefs help lead him to become one of the heroes of the film. Pleasence’s calm, serious demeanor was instrumental in the film’s tone, and without him, the chilling atmosphere wouldn’t have been nearly as driving. While his character isn’t as memorable as his portrayal of Dr. Loomis in the Halloween franchise, a lot of that can be attributed to his appearing in so many movies, as opposed to his one-off character here.

A Rare, Bleak Movie from Carpenter

Jessie Lawrence Ferguson stabbing himself in Prince of Darkness

Those familiar with Carpenter’s moviemaking know the director has a mind for comedy, and typically adds comedic segments, or at the very least, lines, to his movies. Even The Thing, which ranks among the bleakest endings in the horror genre, had its humorous moments – who could forget Kurt Russell pouring whiskey into the computer and calling it a “cheating bitch”? Or Michael Myers dressing up like a sheet ghost, and wearing glasses before a kill. Prince of Darkness doesn’t really have moments like this. In a rare Carpenter movie, the film is not only quite bleak from beginning to end, but it’s actually extremely unsettling as well.

Specifically, the scenes in which the students are infected/possessed by evil in attempts to further create the needed connection to bring Satan forth into our world, are deeply bothersome. Jessie Lawrence Ferguson in particular does an incredible job, as in his trance, he marches throughout the church, loudly singing “Amazing Grace” with a straight face, just before stabbing himself in the throat with a sharp piece of wood, right in front of the entire group. All the acting is tremendous in these scenes, as you can almost equally see the dual sides of their personalities projected through their performances: one side of the lost soul fighting for their body back, and one side that has already succumbed to forces of evil. All of this against the backdrop of Carpenter’s own chilling score, one of the best of his career, filled with ominous tones and choral dissonance that add to the story’s dreadfulness.

Also like The Thing, the ending is left ambiguous, leaving it to the viewer to interpret whether the evil was stopped, or simply postponed. There are no happy endings for the characters here… or are there?

Related: 13 Movies John Carpenter Almost Directed

Another Masterpiece in ’80s Horror Effects

Anne Marie Howard as Susan in Prince of Darkness

Carpenter is no stranger to having elite practical gore effects in his films. Obviously, The Thing takes the cake for having some of the most incredible practical effects in the entire horror genre, but Prince of Darkness is supremely underrated when it comes to this aspect. There’s plenty of flesh-melting, throat-stabbing, liquid-Satan-puking carnage in this one. And if you’ve never seen a street-dwelling Alice Cooper stab a man with half of a bicycle, we can safely say this is the only movie in history to do that.

The special effects team was overseen by Kevin Quibell, who has done masterful work throughout Hollywood, including working in movies like Twister, The Running Man, Speed, and Ridley Scott’s Black Rain. He doesn’t pull his punches with Prince of Darkness, as not only are the gore effects realistic and gross, but the effort that goes into the small glimpses of Satan makes these scenes haunting, all the way to the end.

Chances are, if you’re not an avid horror fan, you likely haven’t even heard of Prince of Darkness, but if you’re looking for something new to you, and perfectly fitting for both the spooky season and your 31 Days of Horror challenge, you simply can’t go wrong with this sinister, Satanic, spectacle.


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