What Modern Horror Films Can Learn from John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness
For many people horror films are nothing more than a series of jump-scares, creatures lurking in the shadows waiting to jump at you when you least expect it. The desired effect being the ‘sudden shock,’ when the creature lunges at the unsuspected victim, often accompanied by loud music. For others, horror movies are all about the grotesque displays of death, the psychotic subject chasing hapless teenagers. It’s about how these teenagers are maimed or murdered, the question of which ones will make it out alive — if any of them even do. It’s about innocent subjects having to escape a maze of torture devices, it’s their agonizing screams and close-ups of extreme bodily harm.
Now there is nothing wrong with any of these types of horror films. Every now and then, you do need a good stupid horror film in your life. It’s the same with any genre, every now and then you need to watch a stupid comedy to balance out the more sophisticated one. But this is no excuse for laziness. This doesn’t mean that no effort should to be made in the basics of storytelling or characterization. Just because you’re watching a stupid horror film, doesn’t mean it should be an empty experience.
This brings me to the brilliance of John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, probably the most underrated of his ensemble of genre classics. Prince of Darkness is the second film of Carpenter’s Apocalypse trilogy, starting with the shape-shifting alien-terror The Thing and ending with the excellent reality-bending In the Mouth of Madness — a film that like this one, deserves more praise. Like most of Carpenter’s classics, it had a short lifespan in cinema and was appreciated more on video, granting it the necessary cult infamy. Upon re-watching it, I wasn’t just struck by how great it was, I was also reminded by how much it can teach modern films, how the basics of great storytelling and characterization are often sacrificed in favor for cheap thrills.
This is why I felt compelled to write an article, to not just remind people how great Prince of Darkness was, but what modern horror films can learn from the master.
The Necessity of Atmosphere
The horror lies not just in its menacing foe or monster, it lies in the sense of dread imbued in its surroundings. One modern horror film that knows this very well was Hereditary, a film that illustrates from its opening scene that something is deeply wrong and that it is only a matter of time before hell breaks loose. Both films coincidentally deal with satanic forces, with characters dealing with the terrifying unknown. An important part of the atmosphere is the score, which in Hereditary was in the more than capable hands of jazz-musician Colin Stetson. John Carpenter usually does the soundtrack for his own movies and Prince of Darkness is no exception, but he did receive some assistance from Alan Howarth. movies and Prince of Darkness is no exception, though he did collaborate with Alan Howarth. While it’s up for debate whether this soundtrack is Carpenter’s best work, it’s certainly effective and a large part of why Prince of Darkness works.
Consider the brilliant ten-minute opening sequence. The soundtrack is minimalistic, pulsating, it’s building up to something. We haven’t seen anything horrific yet but the tone is set. We know this is a story of terrifying revelation, both in the religious and scientific realm as we are introduced to an inquisitive priest Father (Donald Pleasence) and a philosophizing quantum-physics professor (Victor Wong) and his band of students.
Carpenter takes his time, he doesn’t care if his bores his audience or not. Interspersed throughout the film are scenes that at first glance might not seem sinister but the tone of the film conveys its mysterious but ultimately darker meaning: red ants crawling through the surface, seemingly in a possessed frenzy; a darkly gloom in the daylight sky; lone wino’s captivated by the film’s primary setting, a run-down church, as they surround it and bow to it in religious piety. Something is happening to this world. Carpenter keeps us in the dark. We know the answer lies somewhere in that rundown church, in the terrifying secret that’s been buried there for centuries.
The first instance of traditional horror happens past the 30 minute mark and when it happens it’s effective — but never excessive. It doesn’t matter either. We are drawn into the story because of the captivating atmosphere. We want to know what’s going on instead of just waiting for the next dumb horror set-piece. Most horror films wouldn’t even spend time on this, they completely neglect the atmospheric possibilities of their setting and hurry up to the next spooky sequence. Prince of Darkness is more confident than that, it teaches us that taking time to soak up the atmosphere is essential to a great horror film.
The Invisible Evil
Before I delve into this, it’s a good idea to talk about the plot first: a priest named Father Loomis (yes played by Pleasence and any horror fan knows the particular reference of his name), discovers a secret sect called The Brotherhood of Sleep within the Catholic church. This Sect was the keeper of a very dark secret, which lies within a dilapidated and abandoned church. Father Loomis finds within its basement a mysterious cylinder, filled with moving green liquid, alongside a book of ancient text. In order to grasp the full meaning of this discovery, he asks the assistance of infamous quantum-physics Professor Victor Birack (Victor Wong). Birack asks the assistance of his students and fellow academics to research the cylinder and the contents of the sacred texts.
The scientists are baffled with their discoveries: they discover that the cylinder is ancient, containing mathematical data that wasn’t invented in its time. The text speak of Christ as an extraterrestrial being who warned the world of Satan and his father, the Anti-God. It turns out that the green liquid is the embodiment of Satan whose sole mission is to release his father from his dimensional realm to our world — bringing about the darkness and possible annihilation on the human race. While the scientists struggle to believe what’s true, Father Loomis falls into an existential crisis as he begins to doubt everything he has ever believed in. Soon enough, some of the green liquid gets released and whoever becomes infected by it become possessed to do Satan’s bidding.
The evil here is invisible but powerful. The tragedy of the possessed hosts is that we sometimes see some semblance of awareness left within them — this is especially apparent in the wonderful performance of Jessie Lawrence Ferguson as possessed Calder. We can feel his presence throughout the film. It’s biding his time, waiting to unleash his terror.
Ignoring the fascinating mythology of the film, the most important aspect here is the form of the film’s primary antagonist: Satan. Instead of giant bulking monster with a slippery red tail and hooves, he comes in the form of green liquid. We are dealing with the embodiment of evil instead of its actual form. The closest we come to see his form is when poor Kelly (Susan Blanchard) becomes possessed, as the remainder of the green liquid consumes her –a beautiful display of body-horror as we see her body morph into an outwardly monstrous figure.
Carpenter, throughout his career, seems more interested in how people deal with the personification of evil. In Assault on Precinct 13, the interracial army of thugs that siege the precinct are completely dehumanized. In The Thing, the evil entity is a shape-shifting alien and can look like anyone of them. Even the infamous Michael Myers from Halloween is credited as The Shape and is referred to as a force of evil rather than human being with an idiosyncratic psychopathy.
The same goes for the film’s aforementioned Anti-God, the ultimate negative force, the darkness of the light. What makes Prince of Darkness great as a horror film is that we never actually get to see the ultimate monster. It’s left to our imagination, we only see a glimpse of his giant red hand through a portal. Less is more. The suggestion is enough. The mind fills in the terrifying blanks.
You Don’t Need Dumb Characters
Here’s something new: the characters of Prince of Darkness are actual intelligent and thoughtful human beings. An old cliché of horror films is that the victims are just begging to be murdered, the writers often forcing them to do something dumb in order to instigate their own demise. Prince of Darkness completely subverts that. Since the main characters are intelligent and besides Father Loomis, scientists, their actions, even when they walk alone in a dark corridor yelling someone’s name, are believable.
The characters question the story, the strange happenings around them. They don’t believe in the religious fear-mongering of Father Loomis. They act like scientists. They live in a world of reason and mathematics. Despite their trusted professor Birack warning them that our perceptual attachment to logical reality collapses under quantum-mechanics, they remain skeptical until they have no choice but to face the fact that reality isn’t what it used to be.
Prince of Darkness here proves that you don’t need generic or vacuous characters, just lambs for the slaughter. You can have intelligent, even believable characters in a horror film and it will be even more compelling.
A Great Cast and Subtle Characterization
If you’re a Carpenter aficionado you’ll recognize some of the regular faces: Donald Pleasence, Victor Wong, Dennis Dun, Dirk Blocker and Peter Jason. But none of them, apart from maybe Pleasence, could be considered movie stars. It seems that the biggest star in the film was actually rock-star Alice Cooper, who plays the lead schizoid hobo who memorably murders a hapless scientist with a bicycle tube.
The reason why the film didn’t have any movie stars was partly due to the budget — a measly three million, the result being even more impressive. But just like The Thing, which only had a heavily bearded Kurt Russell, you don’t need any movie stars. You need character actors, faces who are believable in their parts.
And even with their limited screen time, each performer is memorable in the film. Victor Wong is the perfect face as the unkempt and erudite professor. Dennis Dun is the excellent comic relief, a welcome relief from the unrelenting tension in the film. Lisa Blount as Catherine Danforth, in her penultimate scene, gives a wonderful subtle performance that on repeated viewing becomes quite touching. Jameson Parker as Brain Marsh has it the hardest, his character rather bland on paper but manages to imbue the character with some tender sensitivity that would have otherwise made him quite forgettable. While his romance with Lisa Danforth (Lisa Blount) is admittedly underdeveloped, they do manage to create some chemistry between them.
But the absolute star of the film is Donald Pleasence as Father Loomis. Instead of the heroic and determined Dr. Loomis from the Halloween Franchise, this Loomis seems broken and fearful of the evil he must confront. While there’s enough room for some of his infamous overacting, there’s a lot of nuance too. Throughout the film, in his great dialog scenes with Victor Wong, we can see his constant internal struggle to regain his sanity.
Everything he ever believed in has been shattered. This was a priest that was already heavily disillusioned by the moral state of humanity and must now question his loyal service to the Church. The savior to which he pledged his life to has become a different character: now he isn’t the son of God, he’s a benevolent extra-terrestrial who came to warn of us an evil that’s about to be unleashed upon the world. He’s locked in a cosmic battle, filled with riddles of quantum-mechanics, that he doesn’t understand. He doesn’t just feel unequipped, he feels insignificant in the face of evil.
It’s one of his greatest performance. His final stand against evil, screaming Christ’s name as the closes the portal, is a wonderful end to his arc.
The main point is that you care about these characters. You want these characters to come out alive in the end. Some horror filmmakers hide their lack of interesting characters with gory spectacle. Carpenter knows that if the audience doesn’t care about the characters, the gory spectacle will be ineffective, even dull.
Most filmmakers try to build suspense by putting loud music in the background during a chase scene but Carpenter knows better than this. The tension has already been set by the music, seen and unseen threats are lurking in the background. We know something was bound to happen and when it does, you know you’re in for a ride. As stated earlier, the film takes it’s time, the music builds to a crescendo for its eventual grueling assault.
The horror of the film varies, we have instances of slasher, possession, body horror and gore, so we don’t know exactly what to expect. When something finally does happen, you’re on the edge of your seat. A sense of hopelessness pervades the film. Since we care about the characters, we wonder about their fates. There’s a good chance nobody is safe and that evil might prevail — as Carpenter isn’t a stranger for ending his films on an apocalyptic note.
To build suspense is not an easy feat: it’s juggling of information, misinformation and surprise. Not every filmmaker deserves to be a master of suspense: Hitchcock was one and Carpenter certainly is one too.
The Merging of Science and Religion
Prince of Darkness was carpenter’s return to indie-filmmaking after the financial flop of his utterly delightful Big Trouble in Little China and his own disenchantment with studio politics. Carpenter wanted to do something different, knowing that he inspired many slasher derivatives after his hugely influential Halloween and wanting to do something special with the horror genre.
It was during this time that Carpenter was reading a lot of quantum-mechanics and together with his love for Hammer horror films, he devised a storyline that combined quantum-mechanics with religious horror. The result is a film filled with fascinating and crazy science-fiction ideas: Christ as an extra-terrestrial, Satan as a subatomic entity, God being the great manipulator of subatomic particles, the existence of an Anti-God, using tachyon signals to warn people from the past by sending signals into their dreams.
Prince of Darkness is about the need for scientific and religious forces banding together. The secret of the universe cannot be uncovered without those who are willing to study the laws of nature and the fate of our mankind cannot be saved without some allegiance to the great myths of the past. In other words: we must work together. It’s a scientist that martyrs herself at the end, plunging herself into the depths of hell to save humanity, it’s a man of God that closes this portal to make sure that ultimate evil cannot penetrate our earthly plain.
For all its horror and silliness Prince of Darkness seems more hopeful for the state of humanity than most of other Carpenter films.
The horror genre is often called derivative but Prince of Darkness proves otherwise. By taking risks and experimenting with interesting ideas, you can create something truly memorable.
Having Fun With It
For all its seriousness, Prince is Darkness is also just a lot of fun. It has its necessary eighties cheese to counterbalance the serious nature of the film — humorously evident in its original trailer. There’s the hilarious and all too human freak out of Dennis Dun’s character as the possessed subjects are closing in on him, the wonderful over-the-top monologues by Donald Pleasence, people using hilariously outdated computers and silly slasher deaths Like most of Carpenter’s films, there’s a sense of awareness that through all the horrors, it’s just a silly movie.
And that’s okay. Horror films can be fun. It doesn’t have to be a depressing or miserable experience. Prince of Darkness proves that horror can both be fun and scary, with intelligent characters and interesting ideas. It proves that you don’t need a big budget, you just need to be creative and take chances. Not all of Carpenter’s ideas have worked as is evident throughout his filmography. But the ones that did, like Prince of Darkness, stand the test of time.
Carpenter is officially retired from the film business though he has advised David Gordon Green and Danny McBride on the upcoming Halloween reboot/sequel, which has received his full blessing and he will even score the film’s soundtrack.
Here’s hoping that future horror film directors will continue to learn from his body of work. And perhaps if Carpenter changes his mind well… I’m sure I’m not the only thinking that Kurt Russell is never too old to play Snake Plissken.
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