I’d forgotten Prince of Darkness‘s more fanciful notions–Jesus the space alien, still sent to Earth to save us from the Devil, but this time, the Devil’s kind of a space alien too (or not)–and its less creative ones (the Devil uses projectile vomit to posses people). It’s Carpenter at his strangest, the late 1980s period, where he made low budget pseudo b-movies. Prince of Darkness isn’t really a b-movie, if only because Carpenter’s intent, the one unaffected by budget constraints, is quite visible. But also visible are the realities of making Prince of Darkness for its budget.
What’s unfortunate about the film is Carpenter’s lack of inventiveness. Compared to what Carpenter did in the late 1970s, Prince of Darkness feels like a TV movie, only a really well-directed one. Instead of relishing in the low budget, Carpenter tries to work around it, tries to draw attention away from some of the obvious giveaways–the movies set in this church with at least three floors, but after a while… we only see one floor, like sets had to be dismantled. Or the exterior shots of the church, with the menacing homeless people. After a while, they’re only in a couple places (the disappearing Alice Cooper is a whole different discussion).
Or just the closed concept of the film. It deals with the end of the world where signs of imminent destruction are plentiful. Except there are no scenes or shots of regular people noticing these signs. Carpenter lays a framework similar to the modern disaster and destruction movie, but can’t fill it in with the fluff those movies rely on. Instead, it’s a creepy feel–which comes together a few times throughout and really well at the end–accentuated with his familiar synthesizer score. And the goofy reasoning behind the movie.
Much of Prince of Darkness‘s philosophizing sounds like Carpenter just copied his notes unedited. His cast are generally believable as physics majors, but smart undergraduate… certainly not doctoral candidates. However, Carpenter’s got some really sharp dialogue in the film, which is a pleasant surprise.
The best performances are Dennis Dun and Victor Wong, as they’ve got most of the film’s best lines. Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount, as the young(ish) lovers, are okay but nothing more. Poor Donald Pleasence has almost nothing to do. The rest of the cast varies. The ones who end up zombies more so then others. But soon-to-be Carpenter regular Peter Jason is good.
Where Prince of Darkness pulls itself together is the end. Carpenter lifts a lot from his other films for this one’s sequences–Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing–but even that unoriginal approach can’t affect his skill. The last twenty minutes, even accounting for Dun not trying to break through a wall from his side, just letting Parker and company come through the opposite, is great. There are some make-up problems–budget–and some silly script stuff, but Carpenter knows how to make it work and he does.