This is a film about a metaphysical Satan trapped in green ooze trying to break free to take over the world. A group of college students are brought in by their physics teacher (Victor Wong) to study the ooze at the behest of a Priest (Donald Pleasence). The container holding the ooze is locked in the basement of an old church and has been kept secret for many, many years. The students spend the night in the old church, and from there, things get weird. The ooze starts to break free and possess the students one by one and Alice Cooper leads an army of homeless bums who kill anyone who tries to escape. As the stakes and tension mount, it’s a battle of good vs. evil to save the world that ends on an enigmatic note.
I’m a big John Carpenter fan, but I’ve never really been in love with this film. The cover always struck me as being cool back in the VHS days, but it was one of the few films that my mom (for whatever reason) would not allow me to rent. I finally watched it on VHS in my college days (hard to believe it’s been 13 years ago…) in the fall of 2001 and thought it was a cool film. But it didn’t stick with me.
However, out of loyalty for it’s creator and the genre (and because it was on sale) I picked up the new blu-ray version Scream Factory has put out. And it struck me why I never really got into it. The opening sequence is very jarring. There is too much information, characters, and plot points being thrown at the viewer at once. Also, there is something inherently wrong with a film having a 10 minute opening credit sequence (see Devil Times Five for another example of this). There are too many characters all over the place to keep up with or have a through-line through. Carpenter had done quite a few films with an entourage cast, but they had their figure-heads (MacCready, Dr. Loomis, Jack Burton, etc.) but failed to establish one here. College student Brian Marsh is ostensibly the main character, but the film isn’t shown from his perspective and he’s not strong enough as an actor or in the film enough for the audience to identify with him. The film jumps from point to point and it is coherent, but not terribly engaging. You have to be willing to work with the film to truly enjoy it; and that’s probably why it didn’t do well in theaters and also why it has it’s fan base. It’s a very different film from what people are used to. It’s more of an abstract mood piece, something along the lines of a Fulci film almost. Just like the Italian Maestro’s Gates of Hell trilogy, there is rampant gore and use of maggots. In one of the most impressive sequences, you have a demon possessed guy covered in beetles telling the survivors to pray for death before he then falls apart. The film is more about leaving the viewer with a sense of helpless dread than being about any of it’s characters.
With that said, once the film does find it’s footing, it’s fantastic. Seeing the film in blu-ray was worth the investment. The menu screen is an image of the vault room from with the devil’s green ooze container in it from the scene where Donald Pleasence and Victor Wong first enter it, and it immediately pops out at the viewer. The restoration looks great; if it weren’t for some of the hair styles you could easily think this is a modern film. And it also helps to highlight just how good Carpenter was back in this time. The most amazing shot of the film comes near it’s climax when one of the possessed girls is bringing Satan out of a portal she’s opened through a mirror. Catherine Danforth, the love interest and heroine of the film, stops the girl by throwing herself and the girl into the mirror into the inky blackness of Hell. Danforth then reaches out helplessly back into the world of light, which flickers out as the mirror is shattered. This scene was done without any CGi in a darkened swimming pool, giving it a sense of stark realism. It’s one of the best shots ever in a Carpenter film and shows just how bleak his vision can be sometimes.
The commentary track has Carpenter and actor/Carpenter regular Peter Jason. Just like any Carpenter commentary, you can make a drinking game out of every time you hear him light up a cigarette. I never paid much attention to Peter Jason before this commentary track, but he’s a very funny guy, and it draws attention to his performance in the film which kind of gets lost in the shuffle otherwise. There is a lot of information given by Carpenter on how he shot certain scenes and how the film making process differs from modern day. NO CGI.
The extras are about what you’d normally expect interviews with various cast and crew, including Alice Cooper, previews/radio spots, and a still gallery. The interview with Carpenter is a bit depressing. Carpenter seems to feel himself a dinosaur in the modern age of film-making and a bit self-defeated. It’s always hard seeing our heroes age and it’s hard to see him giving up like that.
There is also a video version of Sean Clark’s Horrors Hallowed Grounds in it, and leaves one glad they mostly encounter it in print form. In the interest of full disclosure, there are only two or three films that I actually care about where they were shot. Prince of Darkness is not among them. However, seeing some of the locations in modern day is pretty cool, especially the way they edited shots from the modern location to shots of the movie. If that were the focal point of this piece, it’d be tolerable. However, most of the running time is focused Sean Clark re-enacting scenes from the film on location. The introduction where he inserts himself into a modern day version of the films dream sequence/broadcast is cool, but eventually it gets to the point where I wanted to throw my shoe at him. He filmed it with some of his friends from Dread Central and it seems the entire thing was shot as an in-joke to impress their friends rather than inform the viewer.
All in all, the blu-ray is a worthy investment for horror fans as Prince of Darkness is a type of film that could not be made today in a modern Hollywood system, and genre fans owe it to themselves to see some of the fantastic shot, make up effects, and the sparkle in Victor Wong’s eyes in 1080p.