John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987) became “The Scariest Movie I’ve Ever Seen” sometime in 1988, the night Dad brought home the VHS tape from the video store. I was 13 years old.
Here’s the original trailer for Prince of Darkness, which I’ll admit looks pretty silly now — so why was this film so frightening back then? Does the film hold up 25 years later?
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First, some context:
My family rarely went to church. We tended to avoid other families who went to church more than once a week. We didn’t get along with the typical, conservative, Indiana fire-and-brimstone sort of thing. We weren’t atheists, but people probably viewed us as heathens for not adhering to their particular brand of religion. Whatever.
Sometimes we went to church on special occasions: Grandma’s birthday, Mother’s Day, or some other day involving making Grandma happy to have the whole family together. Matriarchy is like religion sometimes. Those trips always reminded us why we don’t go more often, though: too much crying, yelling, and fear-mongering.
(Note: I realize that not all religious denominations resort to crying, yelling, and fear-mongering. I just didn’t realize this when I was, say, 10 years old. I’m not interested in hearing about how your church is different. Please do not invite me to your church. Please read that sentence again if you think you should invite me to church anyway.)
Despite the rare churchgoing, I managed to grow up in a household strongly influenced by those fire-and-brimstone Baptist values and beliefs. You don’t descend from white Southern Baptists without picking up some of that — even if you stray from the flock. My initial beliefs about Christ, God, Heaven, Hell, Satan, etc., were shaped that way.
Because I didn’t spend much time in church, my understanding of confessing sins came from watching movies depicting Catholics in confessional, as well as visiting various Protestant churches where I could watch adults sob openly, often louder than anyone else in the room, sobbing into their hands, rocking back and forth, singing “Amazing Grace” to themselves. Yep.
(Note: I don’t want to hear anybody’s thoughts on religion. I’m just writing about why a movie scared me and why, in many ways, the movie still scares me today.)
Mom walked away from organized religion and took the rest of us with her. That didn’t stop her from believing the things she believed and teaching us about them. If we kids believed in those things and tried to do right by others (especially the less fortunate), then we would go to Heaven. In many ways, that’s how I still live.
(Note: See previous notes.)
That uneasy foothold in Christian belief makes me susceptible to films like Prince of Darkness — a film about a secret order of priests who have guarded a mysterious cylinder of green, swirling liquid for 2,000 years. The liquid is the essence of the Anti-God, who has a plot to emerge through a mirror and end the world. This film has everything: demonic possession, deep voices, rotting flesh, self-mutilation, impaling, etc.
Those images have been in my head for more than 25 years, and if I stand in front of a mirror long enough and think about what’s on the other side, I still get a little freaked out.
Prince of Darkness came out on Blu-ray a few weeks back, and I had to have a copy. Maybe I’m cruel to myself. I had to re-live this film. I had to see if this movie holds up.
When I re-watched the film, I still got many of the same chills I got at age 13. I had to look away at certain points: When the possessed woman rasps, “Father” at the glowing mirror, as though she can see the Anti-God, for example. Or when all the people in the church are having the same dream-that-is-not-a-dream-but-a-communication-from-the-future-end-of-the-world-holy-shit-there-is-a-dark-cloaked-figure-in-the-church-doorway!
I’m talking about these scenes, which a helpful YouTube person spliced together. Out of context, they might not make sense. In the context of the film, they’re horrifying.
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Ultimately, though, Prince of Darkness is not a great movie, and a little disappointing. As John Carpenter films go, this one’s barely in the top five (The Thing, Halloween, They Live, and Escape from New York clearly beat this one, and your mileage may vary on lesser Carpenter films such as Escape from L.A., In the Mouth of Madness, et al.).
Prince of Darkness’ third act devolves into a weird, not particularly exciting zombie chase sequence down a hallway. One possessed man is felled when Victor Wong shakes a can of soda and sprays it in his face. Oh, and Donald Pleasance chops off a woman’s arm with a fire axe. Her arm grows back. Then he chops off her head. She sticks her head back on. Prince of Darkness is that kind of movie.
Unsurprisingly, Roger Ebert’s review is spot-on. Yet Prince of Darkness still pokes at something primal, or certainly engrained early in life when religion was equated with truth regardless of whether we went to church: This stuff actually could happen.
Somewhere, maybe in Los Angeles, there could be a cylinder of green, swirling liquid that spurts out and makes people into zombies who do the bidding of the Anti-God, who plans to enter our world through a mirror if he can find one big enough. Are you serious?
Come to think of it, I have a good-sized mirror in the closet. Better go shut that door.