As I work through John Carpenter's corpus, I find myself so taken with his sparse yet impeccable style that I tend to gawk over the details. Often, I focus so intently on his visuals that I forget to be scared by his horrors: Halloween is too aesthetically perfect to work as a piece of pure horror (though it does maintain a constant level of unease that works as a fine substitute to shocks), and the effects work on The Thing attracts me, like Dawn of the Dead before it, to marvel at the results over the impact of the gore. Prince of Darkness throws a monkey wrench into the gears: using anamorphic lenses, Carpenter distorts the image slightly. He intends the effect to reflect the nature of the film's supernatural element -- why he started now is anyone's guess, considering the presence of primal forces in all his other films -- but it speaks more to the sloppiness of the feature and its failure to make its ill-defined evil emotionally felt.
After the troubled production and bungled marketing of Big Trouble in Little China disenchanted Carpenter, he returned to independent filmmaking. In an attempt to prove that he could make quality work without the help of Hollywood, he swung for the fences with Prince of Darkness. The story of a group of academics and a holy man locked up in an abandoned church to investigate a cylinder of mysterious liquid that apparently contains the Antichrist, Darkness certainly doesn't pull any punches. And if Carpenter made the film to prove he could make the films he wanted without big (for him, anyway) budgets, he succeeded: while the effects are certainly dated -- more so even than some of the work in his earlier films -- nothing in the film suggests that the director lost his flair with a cut budget. It also proves, however, how a bad script is a bad script, no matter the cost.
There's always been a certain woodenness in Carpenter's films, yes, but he typically balanced out the static performances of his cheap supporting cast with a dynamic lead and/or a reliably loopy second-tier character who usually served as the film's primary source of exposition. Yet no character or actor particularly works in Prince of Darkness: the only emotional brunt of the film rests on a couple that has no implicit chemistry nor even enough explicit scenes of mutual attraction to fuel the emotions at the end. The rest of the characters are nothing more than props for the blocking, moving from scene to scene and delivering lines with such lackadaisical indifference that, in a film with zombies and the possessed, sorting out the normal humans is a chore.
Not even Carpenter's recycled actors -- Donald Pleasence, Victor Wong, Dennis Dun -- all of whom made such an impression elsewhere, jolt any energy into the cast. Somewhat interestingly, Pleasence and Wong reprise their roles from Halloween (the priest is even named after that film's Dr. Loomis) and Big Trouble in Little China, albeit with the roles reversed: Pleasence plays the spiritual guide, the one who knows something about the supernatural forces at work, while Wong appears as the scientist and analyst driven slightly mad by his brush with something that cannot be explained. Their subtle reprisals of their old parts, even if swapped, reflects the film's larger absorption of Carpenter's previous works: the appearance of a mob of possessed homeless people (led, hysterically, by Alice Cooper) recalls the zombie-like gang of Assault on Precinct 13, the gore obviously brings The Thing to mind, and the general tension -- when any exists -- mines the same territory of omnipresent, implacable terror of Halloween.
Carpenter doesn't simply plunder his own filmography, however: when the mysterious liquid infects unfortunate victims, it finds its way into other hosts via the streaming vomit of the possessed, a clear take on The Exorcist. One female student finds herself the chief host of the Antichrist, and her bloodsoaked body, combined with the telekinetic abilities naturally exhibited in the spawn of the "Anti-God," plays like a straight-faced version of Carrie.
You'd think, given the clear influence of some of the greatest horror films ever made (including a handful of his own films), that Carpenter might have generated more thrills and chills, or at least more unsettling vibes. Sadly, most of Prince of Darkness is so dull it doesn't even work as unintentional comedy; only in the final 15 minutes does it finally tap into some of the macabre magic of Halloween, mixing a reliably atmospheric Carpenter score with impressive low-budget effects and the suitably uneasy feeling of mounting evil. One effect in particular, of a watery space behind a mirror that the Antichrist uses in an attempt to summon its father, is as memorable as anything in The Thing. Yet Carpenter undermines the effect of the climax with a dénouement that makes a stab at conveying a sense of pain and loss before the director clearly realized he hadn't done anything with the characters to make those emotions felt and switches abruptly into one of those wearisome "The End...?" finales that, as far as endings involving the supernatural and mirrors go, couldn't stand in the same room as the later Twin Peaks cliffhanger.
One can fairly easily find the message in one of Carpenter's films, be it broad satire or a more dramatic thrust, but I confess I can't figure out the point of Prince of Darkness. The scientific angle from which Carpenter attacks the idea of the Antichrist is so thinly defined it leaves open the frightening possibility that Carpenter is equating the embodiment of evil with science, something that hardly jells with Carpenter's political and moral positions and smacks more of lazy writing than insidious messaging. I wouldn't call Prince of Darkness a failure -- like Carpenter's previous foray into mediocrity, Christine, it has its moments -- but if Big Trouble in Little China took the wind out of Carpenter's sails, this hinted at the coming downfall