Can science defeat a bucket of green evil and Alice Cooper? Prince of Darkness uses the best of 1987’s technology in an attempt to find out.
This second instalment of Carpenter’s ‘Apocalypse trilogy’ (between 1982’s The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness (1995)) was almost universally panned on its release. “Cheesy”, “stinks” and “misfire” sum up the reviews. But despite its deliberate pacing, laugh-out-loud premise and bullshit science, this is a brainier and more interesting movie than I was expecting. Hell, Jim Emerson even saw shades of Un Chien Andalou in it.
An elderly priest dies in his sleep, clutching a small box containing a large key. He leaves behind a diary, but instead of fascinating insights like “got up early, had a bit of a pray”, it is filled with demented ravings: e.g. “I have felt the cold hellish blast”.
Meanwhile, on a leafy college campus, young people sporting mullet haircuts and polo shirts tucked into chinos dream of a world beyond green screen computers and wonder when Madonna’s 15 minutes of fame will end. Metaphysics professor Birwack (the late Victor Wong, a Carpenter stalwart) lectures on the nature of reality and unreality to a group of physics students looking for extra credit: “Say goodbye to classical reality, because our logic collapses on the sub-atomic level into ghosts and shadows!” he tells them. Every film about the son of Satan creating zombies should contain a line like this.
Birwack is then visited by an unnamed priest, played by the late Donald Pleasance (another Carpenter fave), who’s used the dead priest’s key to unlock his monastery’s basement. He wants Birwack and his students to come and examine the mysterious container of agitated green liquid he’s found down there, though any fool can see it’s the Original Big Ol’ Can of Whoop Ass™.
The students are post-grads and so a bit more lived-in than the typical horror movie cannon fodder – this lot come with wedding rings, pattern baldness, myopia and burgeoning beer guts. It’s kind of a nice change. In a clear breach of academic ethics, Birwack promises them a good grade if they show willing to give up their weekends of studying/getting high/screwing in order to spend it sitting in a monastery with a big jar of pure malevolence. Thus, the first rule of horror movie set-ups is achieved: isolate your characters from the outside world.
Along the way, Carpenter manages to squeeze in a love story between moustachioed, sensitive stud muffin Brian (Jameson Parker) and emotionally distant, baggy chambray-shirt favouring Catherine (Lisa Blount, who died last year). Comic relief comes in the form of Walter (Dennis Dun, of Big Trouble in Little China). Walter can’t get his head around the concept of Schrödinger’s cat, which seems significant-ish in light of what’s in The Canister of Evil. There are also portentous shots of the sun, ant hills, and mentally ill homeless people congregating around the monastery.
It sounds like a long, slow set-up because it is. Carpenter is in no hurry; in fact, he takes such a long time that my viewing companion gave up on PoD long before the main action got going. Carpenter’s trademark score of sparse, electronic music is used almost non-stop for about the first 40 minutes, despite the fact that nothing too spooky happens. Depending on your tolerance level, either this is irritating or a good way to convey hypnotic menace. Adding to the sense of disorientation is the weird picture quality, which is apparently due to the subtle use of an anamorphic lens (which ‘squeezes’ the picture to make the images denser).
As the researchers and the priest settle in, the homeless gather quietly outside and worms start appearing on the windows en masse. The priest is accosted by one of the homeless – a woman who kisses his hand and thanks him, in sepulchral tones, for re-opening the church. He pulls away from her when he notices that the coffee cup she’s carrying is filled with maggots.
The first death, when it eventually comes, is courtesy of the ‘Street Schizo’, portrayed by Vincent Furnier, who is credited here under his stage name of Alice Cooper. Yes, that Alice Cooper. And what an odd, blackly comic death it is. An egghead exits the monastery and finds a crucified pigeon propped up outside. He then notices the singer of hits like ‘Muscle of Love’ advancing on him with a bicycle frame, upon which the hapless boffin is duly impaled. It’s worth noting that there’s nothing supernatural about this death at all, apart from the fact that ‘Street Schizo’ and the other homeless appear to be possessed.
The homeless then barricade the scientists and the priest in and the fun really begins, with a few meditations on the true nature of Satan chucked in for good measure. The most interesting of these involves the priest’s epiphany that God and Old Nick are not remotely interested in the souls of humanity and function more like matter and anti-matter. Jesus, bringer of light, is negated by the bringer of darkness (hence the ‘cold’ blast of hell). Such philosophical musings are perhaps to be expected in the confines of St Godard’s; a monastery named for a radical, existentialist film maker.
After what feels like the 7 million years the substance is estimated to have been trapped in the jar, the goo escapes and takes control of Susan the radiographer. This triggers a cute running gag, which may or may not have been inspired by Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), whereby various characters have the following exchange:
“Have you seen Susan?”
“Susan! The radiographer? Glasses?”
As Susan transmits the gunge by spewing it into other people’s mouths, those fortunate enough to escape her vomitous wanderings try to get some sleep. They all have the same dream, a transmission from the far-off year of 1999 in which a dark figure at the door of the monastery tries to deliver a message. At long last the green stuff comes to rest in Kelly (Susan Blanchard, yet another Carpenter regular) and she instantly manifests the advanced stages of pregnancy before ‘the bump’ seeps into her very bones and she becomes the personification of Belial’s son.
This is a quick, clever way of dealing with the gestation and birth of a supernatural entity – look closely and the room this all takes place in has a ‘Nursery’ sign affixed to the door. In another nice touch, a student infected by the green stuff seems to realise he’s possessed by evil and stabs himself in the neck in a futile effort to kill himself ‘properly’. Nevertheless, the priest is unable to bring himself to finish performing the last rites over the soon-to-be-reanimated body.
In the end, Kelly/The Demon Spawn attempts to bring ‘Father’ into the material world by reaching for him through a large mirror. This is thwarted by Catherine, who tackles her and leaps through the mirror with her just as the priest shatters it behind them. The last glimpse of Catherine is a haunting image of her seemingly outstretched in dark water, reaching back towards the shattered, fading light. It’s a simple but effective special effect.
In the final scene, Brian dreams the “transmission from 1999” dream again, but this time the figure is clearly Catherine standing with her arms straight out at her sides. He then dreams that Catherine’s disfigured corpse is in the bed next to him. He wakes up, crosses to his mirror and reaches out to touch it, whereupon the film ends.
The main message seems to be that mere mortals will have to save themselves from the clutches of eternal darkness, because although there is an omnipotent god out there somewhere, it’s not very interested in us. (“Where are you?” implores the priest more than once, eyes rolled heavenward and hands gripping his Bible.) Another timeless lesson is that, no matter how small a secret society is, after the last official member dies there will still be enough people who knew about it to go and light hundreds upon hundreds of candles in the secret basement where it used to meet.