Prince of Darkness (Blu-ray)
Directed by John Carpenter
Distributed by The Scream Factory
Without a doubt, horror auteur John Carpenter enjoyed one of the greatest runs in the history of the genre, spanning from his under siege gang tale Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and ending with the Roddy Piper classic They Live in 1988. His results after that period are generally considered a mixed bag, but the films he made during those 12 years are sacrosanct to horror fans. But even within that winning streak, with so many films to choose from some people are inevitably going to dismiss a couple as sub-par - and for some reason that always seems to be the fate for Prince of Darkness (1987). Lately, however, fans seem to be getting a little more forgiving. It seems like an obvious analogy, but some of Carpenter’s films really are like a fine wine, only gaining more appreciation with age. The Thing (1982) was a total bomb when it was released, and now many fans (myself included) put it at the top of their favorite horror films. So, now, some 25 years later, Prince can be seen as more than “that movie with liquid Satan” thanks to Scream Factory’s new blu-ray release.
Prince of Darkness was made at a time when Carpenter was interested in theoretical physics and quantum mechanics, and he decided it would be a novel concept to present themes of good and evil contained within matter and anti-matter. For the few who don’t know the film’s plot, a priest (Donald Pleasence) is given possession of a key that unlocks a door behind which an ancient, swirling liquid evil is contained within a massive cylinder. The priest arranges for Professor Birack (Victor Wong) and some of his students to stay the weekend at the church so they can study his findings. Once they arrive, strange vagrants surround the church and prevent anyone from leaving. Everyone also begins to experience a bizarre, shared dream that warns them of an apocalyptic future. The mysterious liquid begins to leak from the container, infecting some of the students with its contents and causing them to act violently. Kelly (Susan Blanchard) is afflicted with a bruised mark on her arm, and eventually she is possessed by the full contents of the container, bringing to life the Anti-Christ himself. Only a few survivors are left to battle Satan’s forces before he can bring his father, the Anti-God, back into the world.
Carpenter considers this film as the second in his “apocalypse trilogy” (the other two are The Thing and 1995’s In the Mouth of Madness). Although all three have vastly differing plots, they each share an ending that suggests mankind’s future may not be so bright. Prince presents a lot of intrigue by employing a plot that isn’t needlessly nebulous. Even John himself admits he doesn’t know what some things in the film are supposed to mean. And that’s a good thing, because not everything always has to be explained away. I’ve often found the scariest horror films are the ones where nobody is safe and everything seems like a threat. Here, we’ve got worms and bugs and beetles scaling the walls, a group of nefarious homeless people who seem to spring up out of nowhere to attack, an evil liquid that shoots in people’s mouths like Satan’s personal Super Soaker, a man made of bugs delivering a cryptic message, and the embodiment of Satan which not even Donald Pleasence’s ax can defeat.
Speaking of which, I have to give credit to Blanchard for making that nearly-silent performance as the Anti-Christ so memorable. As if that grotesque, runny, bloody, half-melted skin-falling-of-the-face make-up wasn’t almost enough to make a man dry heave, the sense of wonder she can elicit just by using her eyes added another element to that character. Satan hasn’t been fully formed in around seven million years or so according to the movie, and Blanchard plays the role like a newborn with a profound sense of power. And when her eyes widen, making the whites stand out amongst a bloody mess of red, it looks very goddamn creepy. Big props also to an uncredited Mark Shostrom for handling the gruesome duties on Blanchard’s rotten face. I remember seeing her face as a massive fold-out poster in Fangoria’s Bloody Best back in the ‘90s and the image stuck with me ever since.
Casting was always a strong suit for Carpenter as well, and while we don’t get a Kurt Russell or a Roddy Piper here we do get one Jameson Parker and, with that, one damn fine mustache. Seriously, did someone in makeup put a wig on a NY strip steak and glue it to his lip? I’ll bet that push broom has swept more than a few corners clean. Parker might be one of the few leading men to be upstaged by his own facial hair. He’s a fine leading man, mildly charismatic, but he’s also got a bit of a creeper vibe to him. His early come-ons to Catherine (Lisa Blount) are awkward, but then I guess he is supposed to be a bit of a nerd here, right? Pleasence is here for gravitas, nothing more. Other than saying, “Hey guys, here’s this evil liquid I found”, there isn’t a lot for him to do in the film. He spends half the movie hiding and reading his bible. Peter Jason has his Carpenter debut here, his first of seven films they did together, and he mostly provides comic relief. He’s one of those great character actors that round out a picture and elevate it. Dennis Dun had been seen previously in Big Trouble in Little China (1986), and he plays his character here with the same frantic energy and horn dog nature we got in that film.
As a huge Alice Cooper fan, can I just say how fantastic it was seeing him in a horror movie I love? Just two years earlier he starred in Monster Dog (1985), which is only worth watching for the two music videos he performs. To give you an idea of how bad it is if you haven’t seen it, the director is Claudio Fragasso. Yes, the guy who did Troll 2 (1990). Anyway, Cooper got involved because his manager, Shep Gordon was a producer on the film and suggested Alice record a song for the movie. He did, and then he wound up playing the “leader” of the homeless people, eventually using one of his own stage props to impale a victim who also happened to be listening to the song Cooper recorded for the film.
Prince of Darkness contains many of the themes and settings that Carpenter liked to employ – the church’s forced isolation and confined setting, paranoid, mistrust, a small outnumbered group fighting against many, and an ending that suggests things aren’t going to just go back to being how they once were. This film has one of those powerful endings that knows exactly when to cut, leaving viewers’ brains in a scramble trying to hypothesize what happens next. It’s a vastly underrated film, and now thanks to Scream Factory we get it served up on blu-ray with healthy upgrades in both picture and sound, as well as enough extras to keep Satan occupied through the next millennia.
Carpenter shot this film using wide-angle lenses in an anamorphic format, which often results in some softness around the edges. Make no mistake; this is the best the film has ever looked. There’s a moderate layer of grain over the image, preserving the filmic aesthetic. Fine detail receives a big boost over the previous DVDs, as exemplified in the cracks on Pleasence’s face, or the ability to count the individual hairs that make-up Parker’s luxurious flavor saver. An occasional problem with films being seen in HD is that make-up work or other effects lose their magic under the scrutiny of hi-def, but thankfully the only element that’s made more apparent is the matte work used in the beginning. The palette used is fairly dark and devoid of bright colors, but this disc has no problem making sure everything is delineated and crisp. Black levels likewise hold up well, allowing for detail to appear even through shadow. The audio comes with both 2.0 and 5.1 DTS-HD MA offerings. The multi-track is the better choice, allowing the full range of Carpenter and Howarth’s incredible score room to breathe through every available speaker. The rear channels provide nice support to the front mix, enveloping listeners with a chilling ambiance.
Don’t let the back cover fool you, since it erroneously states the disc includes only a commentary with Carpenter, some new interviews, and a trailer. Fact is, there is much more to the disc. Fans will be extremely pleased. The audio commentary should sound familiar to those who owned the Momentum Region 2 DVD. This is a direct port of that track, featuring Carpenter alongside actor Peter Jason, and it’s another winner. Jason is infectiously funny, hardly stopping for a beat between zingers, anecdotes, and questions for Carpenter. There’s a lot of talk about how he directs scenes and actors, what he tries to achieve in scoring the film, and how he views some of the aspects of this movie. Highly recommended for fans. Sympathy for the Devil is a ten-minute interview with John Carpenter, where he discusses his influences on this movie, how it all came about, location scouting, as well as acknowledging that maybe the opening credits are a bit lengthy. Alice at the Apocalypse is another ten-minute interview, this one with legendary shock rocker Alice Cooper. He discusses how film appeals to him, how he got involved with this picture, and the cult status it has attained. The Messenger is a 12-minute interview with special visual effects supervisor Robert Grasmere, who also plays the role of Frank (the “I’ve got a message for you…” guy). He initially was hired on just to do effects, but one night Carpenter asked him if he could act and he said yes. The guy was clearly thrilled beyond belief, still sounding struck by how awesome it was to have his own stunt double as well as a trailer with his name on it. Hell on Earth – A Look at the Film’s Score is a 10-minute piece that finds composer Alan Howarth talking about his work with Carpenter. John knows what he wants and he runs the ship, so it was Alan’s job to be the engineer and see that his vision was preserved. Alternate Opening for TV Version runs for around seven minutes; the major difference being that this presents the film as a dream of Brian’s. Sean Clark’s ever-popular Horror’s Hallowed Grounds pops up here as well, running for 13 minutes we get a rundown on all of the major locations used in the film alongside Clark’s usual parodies and constant humor. All I know is whoever came up with the mustache gag at the end is a damn genius. Trailers & Radio Spots contains one of the former and two of the latter. A Still Gallery runs for around 4 minutes and showcases many behind-the-scenes and publicity shots. Finally, an easy-to-find Easter Egg appears on the second page of extras. Click it to access a 12-minute interview with John Carpenter, as moderated by Brian Collins, at Screamfest 2012 where he talks in depth about Prince of Darkness.
As usual, feel free to flip your cover art right around to display the original key art beneath your fancy new-art slipcover. I’m not a huge fan of “everything but the sink” artwork, but this one works well - mainly because Jameson Parker’s thigh tickler is given prominent placement. Scream/Shout! Factory are doing everything in their power to massacre fans’ wallets this year, and their latest release of this underrated ‘80s classic is a necessary addition to all shelves. As if it wasn’t enough to provide the best audio and video presentation the film has ever received, they go and dump a big pile of supplements right on top of it. Buy without hesitation, because this is THE definitive release for Prince of Darkness.
4 1/2 out of 5
4 1/2 out of 5