The second in Carpenter’s iconic thematic ‘Apocalypse’ trilogy; alongside the great The Thing (1982) and the beautifully bizarre In The Mouth of Madness (1997), Prince of Darkness unfortunately fails to even come close to reaching the quality of either; sitting as both easily the weakest point of this cinematic triangle, and possibly John Carpenter’s worst film, by some considerable distance.
It is a damn shame as well, as the film boasts one of cinema’s more bizarre, unique and intriguing premises. Satan was buried by his father, a higher being, seven million years ago in a container. He is a form of anti-matter that can affect things around it on a subatomic level, as well as control minds via Telekenisis. An un-named Priest (Donald Pleasance), calls in Professor Howard Birack, who assembles a team of students to discover the truth, before Satan can call forth his father from the dark world, and bring an end to all things.
The problem with such a unique concept is that it becomes very important how exactly you deliver them, as there is a fine line between ‘cult classic’ and making an objectively poor B-Movie, and the screenplay is crucial. Unfortunately, here it fails miserably; as it flickers between poor and contrived dialogue and scientific jargon that may or may not be accurate. What begins in Interestingsville quickly takes a sharp turn down Generic Avenue, as the non-believers are quickly dispatched, whilst those who take the scenario more seriously are kept alive. Also, many of the dispatching comes courtesy of a band of odd homeless ‘zombies’, led by Alice Cooper in one of cinema’s most pointless A-List cameos. This zombie plot is, actually, a large part of what’s wrong with this film. The Thing knew what it was; an intelligent Sci-Fi thriller that plays on atmosphere, claustrophobia, and distrust. Prince of Darkness, however, never quite decides whether it wants to be intelligent Lovecraftian Sci-Fi, or a daft B-Movie. In reality it ends up in the worse sections of either.
The performances do nothing to help, and particular mention must be given to Dennis Dun who manages to put in a performance Tommy Wiseau would be proud of. He is, for lack of a better term, absolutely terrible. The rest of the cast of students aren’t much better, and in fact only Pleasance and Wong can come out of this mess with any dignity. Both are fine actors, and both are horrifically wasted here. It makes you wonder if they signed on for Carpenter’s name alone, and by the time they read the screenplay, it was too late to get out.
The fact that this was intended to sit alongside the good In The Mouths of Madness, and the masterpiece that is The Thing, makes it somehow even worse, and one wonders how somebody as talented as Carpenter, with a premise this unique, could have somehow messed things up so horrifically. This is B-movie film-making at its worst, saved merely by an intriguing premise and decent if unspectacular cinematography, and Carpenter should be ashamed of himself.