Saturday, October 23, 2010

Prince Of Darkness (1987) Big Ol' Tube Of Evil

Atmosphere. That's what really counts. You can throw buckets of blood and gore at me, but what can really give me that unsettled feeling is the right atmosphere. The way a film looks or feels, how the characters are made to look or how we perceive them as they react to what's happening to them. The environment or setting of a film can be a character all in itself.

There are lots of characters in John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness - some of them actually make it through to the end. But one of the best characters is the atmosphere - it's almost a living thing in itself: heavy, confining even in outdoor shots, a weight on the human characters as they move through the mystery of St. Godard's Church. I'll talk more about what I call a "heavy" atmosphere in a setting a little later, but first let's get into the movie itself:

When a priest dies before a big meeting with the higher-ups, an unnamed Priest (Donald Pleasance - the character is actually known as Father Loomis - Carpenter fans do the math) is called in to retrieve his personal effects, which include a small metal box containing a key. What the Priest discovers shakes him to his bones and leads him to call upon someone he considers a friend and rival, Professor Howard Birack (the great Victor Wong), who teaches doctorate-level physics theory.

That's right. Science and religion are tagging up in a cage match against...a tube of pure evil.

Now, don't get me wrong. It's fun to say "tube of pure evil." Go ahead, try it. See? But everything about that tube is no laughing matter. Even science man Birack is rattled after seeing the swirling goo. The Priest tells him it has been influencing the outside world for about a month, changing everything on a molecular level even as the sun and moon align in the daytime sky.

In the meantime, insects and worms are getting agitated and the homeless around St. Godard's begin acting strangely in unison, watching the visitors to the old church with robotic menace. Also, handsome young student Brian (Jameson Parker of Simon & Simon and his mustache) first innocently creeps on then legitimately courts fellow classmate Catherine (Lisa Blount). He's all googly-eyed over her, but she's mostly guarded.

Birack gathers his best students along with other specialized departments to investigate the entity and translate an ancient text that is in the room with it. They load equipment into the abandoned church despite not a single one of them knowing what the whole she-bang is about. Finally, the restless crew is summoned to the basement to witness the Big Ol' Tube of Evil for themselves. Their mission becomes clear: find out what the hell is in there and prove what it is.

A long night ahead of them, the students get to work. One of them is cleared to leave, but meets a throng of the homeless outside. After "admiring" a blasphemous pigeon-based sculpture, the unlucky guy is stabbed with half a bicycle by the lead homeless dude (Alice Cooper). The games have begun.

The students put the clues together and find out that the tube itself is millions of years old, had once been buried in the Middle East about 2,000 years before it ends up in the USA, and that the text in the old book is a literal warning from Jesus Christ Himself that it is indeed Satan inside the tube...and that the tube was buried by Satan's father, dubbed the Anti-God.

And Junior is waking up in preparation to bring his Daddy into our world. *shudder*

Things start happening, small at first. One student bangs her arm, which seems innocent at first, but that changes later. When she goes to take a nap, that's it for her, as we'll soon see. Another, Susan ("radiologist, glasses" becomes a running line of dialogue about her), falls victim to a stream of water that carries the evil one's essence. She becomes possessed, then breaks the neck of another student before moving on to infect the theologist translating the text. They, in turn, infect the very tall, very deep-voiced student Conor with juicy, devil-juiced-filled kisses. Susan and Lisa, the theologist, bring the canister to the sleeping, Blue Oyster Cult-bruised woman and pretty soon the essence of evil is flowing into her. Seriously, the symbol that the bruise on her arm forms looks exactly like BOC's infamous symbol.

Apparently, the Tube of Evil is a big fan.

Another student tries to leave around this time, citing that the whole thing is ridiculous. He glimpses the possessed Susan just before he's stabbed multiple times by a homeless woman. But don't fret, minor character fans, the guy they call Wyndham comes back with a strange, foreboding message:

Things break down after this, as Conor fights the possession long enough to cut his own throat with a piece of wooden banister. The homeless have barricaded everyone inside and the woman once known as Kelly has completely absorbed the essence and has become the living vessel for Satan. The dreams of a possible future - sent from 1999 via tachyon transmissions - show shaky, grainy, and eerily understated pictures of something emerging from the church. Everyone in the church experiences these dreams, but we only see a couple snippets of them. Just enough to creep us out.

During a huge skirmish, everyone is separated, with the Priest ending up in the boiler room, where a huge mirror sits on a wall. You see, Satan needs the mirror to bring the Anti-God into our dimension. Reaching into the huge mirror,,, it grabs hold of a horrible, grasping hand and begins to pull. No one is there to stop one except Catherine, who tackles Satan into the mirror just as the Priest smashes it with an axe. The image of Catherine on the other side, fading into a flickering blackness, is heartbreaking. Like someone disappearing into cold, dark water under broken ice.

The survivors emerge, and move on sadly with their lives. Brian has one last dream before gazing hopefully/fearfully at the bedroom mirror and reaching his hand out to...

And cut to black and end credits.

If this movie doesn't make you fear mirrors, I don't know what will.

John Carpenter made this film as the second part of what he called the "Apocalypse Trilogy," after 1982's remake of The Thing and before 1995's H. P. Lovecraft/Stephen King tribute In The Mouth Of Madness. In each movie, the world is threatened on a level experienced only by a small group of people. The rest of the world is pretty much clueless for two of the movies - they learn the hard way in the final one, but I'll discuss that one at another time.

The threat in Prince of Darkness begins on a conceptual level, and I find that fascinating. Sure, big, blatant threats can be fun from the masked killers of Friday the 13th and Carpenter's own Halloween to the monstrous threat in Cloverfield. But the hidden dangers, the ones that lurk behind our own perceptions of reality...that's where real terror lies. You don't see it coming. You feel it, but it's one of those "corner of your eye" nudges until it's too late. Things in this movie happen not only on an outwardly physical level, but as Professor Birack states, "on the subatomic level" as well. The Priest has a similar quote when he said Satan hides "between the atoms," which is how he sneaks his slimy little way into peoples' hearts. The world around the characters is changing: ants and worms spaz out and climb windows, the homeless (or possibly only those homeless with mental illness) act in unison to carry out the will of something unseen, moon and sun align in space, the sky and the air appear...heavier.

In one subtle scene...blink and you miss it...main character Brian discusses the weight of thing as they have been occurring. He's messing around with a playing card, as he loves card tricks and it's a neat character quirk that he has to do that to busy his hands (maybe he's an ex-smoker). As he makes his point, he performs a pass to make the card look like it's disappearing. Simple sleight of hand, really. Only...the card actually disappears. No one has time to comment on it as events then spiral towards the conclusion. But I thought it was a well-timed, tiny little aside that shows the world is literally sinking into something unexplainable and not quite so obvious.

Here is the scene of which I speak, with the first few minutes setting it up:

Subtle and spooky.

And yes, because it is my blog, I will compare the heavy feeling to - I know it's getting old, but bear with me - Grant Morrison's Final Crisis from DC Comics. When evil Darkseid finally manifests himself in regular reality, it tears a hole in everything we know. Earth is pulled into a black hole singularity created by Darkseid's fall from The Fourth World's reality. In Prince of Darkness, I think something similar would happen. If the Anti-God forces its way into our reality, it will rip and tear the universe at the point where it happens: our world. Wrap your mind around that concept as you fall asleep. You're welcome.

Carpenter was always a master of atmosphere. I mean, look at Halloween, with its minimal blood spray yet sheer terror. The Thing is a study in claustrophobia and paranoia. Even Big Trouble In Little China provides an air of high adventure and magic that happens just beyond the streets and buildings of Chinatown. Prince of Darkness is mostly lesser-known than those three films. Horror fans and aficionados are very familiar with it, and most do agree that it is underrated and among the most chilling horror films. It is certainly among my favorites from the 80's or any decade, for that matter. This Halloween, do yourself a favor and check it out if you haven't before. It's a great popcorn chiller, nostalgic for those of us who grew up in the 80's and saw it then, and still has weight for those just now discovering it.

Now, here, enjoy the final dream sequence/message from the future:

Oh, and here's what the voice says: "This is not a dream...not a dream. We are using your brain's electrical system as a receiver. We are unable to transmit through conscious neural interference. You are receiving this broadcast as a dream. We are transmitting from the year one, nine, nine, nine. You are receiving this broadcast in order to alter the events you are seeing. Our technology has not developed a transmitter strong enough to reach your conscious state of awareness, but this is not a dream. You are seeing what is actually occurring for the purpose of causality violation."


OK, I'm off to deal with zombies. They're not a threat on the conceptual level. They're just undead and hungry. Until next time, fellow survivors...


  1. I had never heard of this film until it was recommended to me by Netflix after I had rated Carpenter's remake of 'The Thing' as not bad. After seeing 'Prince of Darkness', I thought I would do a little internet research on it and this website came up. Thanks, DOD, for your pointing out to us that scene of the really disappearing card 'trick'. One of many subtle touches that move along the slowly building tide of dread in this disturbing little film. As for those dream messages, well its going to be a while before I can stop thinking about them.

  2. Glad you stumbled upon my review, and even happier you were able to enjoy the movie. The sense of dread is so hard to capture in a film, but this one did it. Definitely one of my all-time favorites.