In his best films, John Carpenter straddles the fuzzy line between auteur and genre craftsman. This tendency is on full display in Prince of Darkness (1987), perhaps his most deceptively heady film of all. Beneath its jump scares and gore coils a sombre commentary on the relationship between science and faith. Does religion exist, the film asks, in order to rationalise what science and technology have yet to illuminate?
The mechanics of the story itself are both inventive and utterly ridiculous. A group of physicists and chemists, headed by Professor Birack (Victor Wong), are recruited by a mysterious, unnamed priest (Carpenter regular Donald Pleasance) to examine and explain the nature of a cylinder that has been locked in a church basement for decades.
The cylinder, which contains a swirling mass of primordial green goo, is said to hold the conscious essence of the Devil’s son. Needless to say, it’s not too long before the goo starts possessing and terrorising the hapless researchers as they struggle to prevent the Devil’s offspring from materialising on Earth.
Carpenter uses this admittedly goofy conceit, however, to explore some intriguing and creative ideas. For example, a number of the characters experience a shared dream in which a dark, cloaked figure looms at the church’s entrance. They soon realize that this dream is actually a video message transmitted from the future to their subconscious minds, warning them of the dark days ahead if the evil entity is allowed to escape into the world.
Professor Birack later speculates that maybe premonitions and dreams experienced by ancient mystics and recorded in religious texts were actually just documentations of similar warning messages from the future. Unable to grapple with future technologies far beyond their comprehension, did these ancients rely on religion to rationalise their seemingly inexplicable experiences?
Unlike the scrappy, punk attitudes of the popular films immediately preceding (Big Trouble in Little China, 1986) and following (They Live, 1988) it, Prince of Darkness never edges into winking silliness. Instead, an almost unbearable gloominess permeates it. The final, chilling scene (which resurrects the video transmission dream, but with one unsettling difference) deflates any previous rays of optimism; evil may very well be temporarily weakened, the finale suggests, but it will never go away completely.
Though Prince of Darkness is far from Carpenter’s best work, it is still an admirable, mostly successful meditation on faith and science, all wrapped up in a slick, economical horror story. The film is proof positive that good horror is not afraid to be cerebral as well as visceral, to engage the mind as well as fry the nerves.