No God Will Save You: John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness


It is often at the end of everything that mysteries are solved.  Answers to riddles and solutions to dilemmas reveal themselves when everything, even faith, is lost.   It is fitting that now, 33 years after its release, that John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness could be seen as the cinematic legend's most daring and ambitious offering.  Blending notions of religion and science while simultaneously incorporating all of themes that he explores throughout his career, this is living a nightmare, a creep-inducing mood piece that ruminates on the essence of fear and the illusion of control.  

The last living member of an order of mysterious priests passes away, divulging the existence of a mysterious canister and green substance to a well-meaning priest in Los Angeles.  The priest assembles a team of academics to determine the origin and purpose of the substance, while unknowingly beginning the end of days.  Carpenter's script is one of the most free-form of his career.  If one is looking, there are infinite plot holes and strange decisions that make the film almost opaque upon first viewing it.  It is upon return that the viewer begins to be rewarded with terrible delights.  Thematically, Carpenter delves into every major concept of his filmography. Evil, as a concept given form continues to be something that he explores throughout his films.  There are shades of the The Thing with respect to bodies being taken over by alien organisms, the siege aspect (while inverted) of Assault on Precinct 13, the illusion of accepted reality; puppeted by alien constructs that he would return to in They Live, and finally the sins of the past haunting the present, mirrored in The Fog.  The decision to meld these profane ideas together is perhaps what makes this one of Carpenter's more difficult films to approach.  There is very little camp and very little hope.  

The brooding, synth score is almost constant, something that becomes apparent when the viewer's mind has settled into the church sequence.  The first act setup in which things are usually "normal" never has a chance, as the ominous tones instantly inform that no one is getting out alive.  This was also Gary Kibbe's first time as director of photography and his first of many collaborations with Carpenter.  The cinematography marries with the score to create a series of realities in which the film journeys.  There is the outside world, the place where science, faith, facts, and beliefs coexist and contribute to the order and sanity of humanity.   In the inside world is where these concepts are challenged.  One of the most thoughtful aspects of the film is in how religion and science coexist rather than oppose one another.  It is intriguing seeing deific foundations being reinforced with quantum physics and borderline occult acceptance.  It is within this small world where things quickly begin to go awry.  As the canister spreads its foul blessings, members of the team are possessed and carry out the liquid's Satanic will.  It is also here that whenever anyone sleeps, they have the same recurring dream, a message sent from the future, 1999, warning of the impending apocalypse, a tachyon laced dispatch from beyond. 

These missives and their implications present yet another quagmire, if the order of priests is no more, then who exactly is sending them?  The way the group handles the meanings of the dreams along with the varying reactions to the phenomenon is intriguing.  The lovers, portrayed by Lisa Blount and Jameson Parker are the middle of the spectrum, both faithful to their educations but also cognizant of the dangers.  On one of the extremes is Donald Pleasance's (in the performance of his career) Priest. Watching his faith be completely eroded in the face of something inexplicable by religion or science is fascinating to behold, while, on the other end, Victor Wong's Birack abandons the precision of knowledge for primal survival instincts, thus completing a sinister cycle in which convention is eradicated.  Dennis Dun rounds out the cast as Walter.  His performance is memorable because he appears to have the traditional comic relief role, however, in the final act, his desperation, his abject terror and vulnerability brings the larger-than-life proceedings back to base levels, a recurring theme in Carpenter's work.  Ultimately, in the end, as with each film in his apocalypse trilogy, things rest in the hands of normal, everyday people. 

Now available for digital streaming, 4K UHD, and a Shout Factory Special Edition, Prince of Darkness is yet another masterwork from one of the most inventive minds in cinematic history.  The careful, yet wildly surreal plot serves as a delivery mechanism for an awful truth.  If the nature of evil is beyond the confines of religion and science, what chance does good stand?  This supposition, combined with an oppressive ambiance creates a viewing experience like no other.  It is scary, violent, slyly hopefully, and absolutely beautiful.   Few films have the courage to try something this daring, let alone succeed, and here Carpenter transforms what would be considered a throwaway cult film into one of the most disturbing visual and aural experiences ever conceived.  


--Kyle Jonathan