Written and directed by John Carpenter in 1987, Prince Of Darkness tends to get overshadowed by the likes of Halloween and They Live but this movie holds up really well. An interesting story that in many ways pits science against religion as much as it does good against evil, it's a smart and spooky movie and one well worth revisiting.
When the movie begins, a Catholic priest in charge of a rundown church in a bad part of downtown Los Angeles turns up dead shortly before his meeting with a Bishop. Enter a priest named Father Loomis (Donald Pleasance), who finds an ancient diary containing an ancient scripture and an aged key that unlocks the basement where he finds a large canister containing a strange green substance. More than a little frightened by what he's discovered, he enlists the aid of a noted physicist and university professor named Howard Birack (Victor Wong) who in turn gathers up some of his top students and associates to try and figure out exactly what all of this means.
Accompany Birack are Brian Marsh (Jamison Parker), Catherine Danforth (Lisa Blount), Lisa (Ann Yen), Susan Cabot (Anne Howard), Walter (Dennis Dun) and Dr. Paul Leahy (Peter Jason), all of whom are a little unnerved upon arriving at their location to find that there's a strange congregation of homeless people (lead by Alice Cooper) hanging about. As they start to unravel the mystery and crack the code presented to them by Loomis, bizarre events take place and anyone who doses off experiences the same dream, an eerie vision of someone or something emerging from the church with obvious evil intent. When Susan comes into contact with some of the liquid, she transforms into something not quite human while outside both the homeless and insect populations of the area seem to be answering to something unholy.
And let's leave it at that. This is a movie that reveals a lot as the story unfolds, it takes a little bit of time to get going but that pacing is deliberate and if we're not moving a thousand miles an hour here, even in the earlier part of the movie Prince Of Darkness is far from dull if you pay attention to it. All sorts of great little bits of foreshadowing are on hand, be it the calculated movements of an army of homeless denizens or the increasing amount of freak insect activity on the outside of a church window. Once Susan is infected (and in a way contagious) we're off and running, however, and the last half of the film ratchets up the horror movie elements to an incredibly satisfying conclusion. The fact that all of this takes place inside a great location, that being the church that is now only a glimpse of what it once was and which has obviously fallen into disrepair, also helps. This allows Carpenter to experiment with some interesting Catholic iconography as the story line evolves from a typical horror movie into a movie that dares to take on the subject of Christianity itself. The resulting storylines allows for a great scene in which Loomis and Birack sit in a room together, the priest's faith more than a little rattled at this point, and simply talk about what they've uncovered. It's a brilliant character heavy moment, one of quite few, and if it isn't a scene that will shock you with a jump scare it's certainly effective in the way that it presents some unsettling concepts and makes you think.
The cast do a fine job with the material here. Wong and Pleasance are the scene stealers, with Wong playing the sage skeptic and Pleasance the man who, once confronted with what's been discovered, wrestle with his entire world view and purpose in life. Both actors play their parts well, and while Pleasance does occasionally conjure up memories of a certain other Loomis he's played before, he's well cast here. Supporting efforts are strong as well, with Alice Cooper doing an excellent job in his small part as the leader of the homeless, using his body language and eerie facial features really effectively to create a solid sense of menace.
As the movie comes to its conclusion, the deliberate pacing comes to work in its favor. With an impressive sense of impending dread having been built up throughout, Carpenter finishes the film with a bang. While Prince Of Darkness is unlikely to unseat his more popular pictures, it is in many ways just as good as anything else the director has ever made. And now, thanks to Shout! Factory, it gets the special edition that it deserves, which brings us to…
Shout! Factory brings Prince Of Darkness to Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed in the movie's original aspect ratio of 2.35.1 widescreen. Generally this transfer is great. Colors really pop here, especially that strange shade of green used for the ooze in the church basement. The blue used to ‘push' the shadow of the entity out of the door during the dream sequences also looks really good. The image is very clean, there isn't any real print damage to note, though there is some softness and at times it looks like grain is less pronounced than you might expect it to be. Otherwise, there are no obvious issues with compression artifacts and no heavy edge enhancement to note. Detail is quite good, contrast looks right, black levels are very solid. The image is brighter and cleaner looking than it has been on past DVDs resulting in a much clearer picture with better shadow detail.
English language audio options are offered up in DTS-HD 5.1 and DTS-HD 2.0 Stereo tracks with optional subtitles provided in English only. Both tracks sound great, with the surround mix spreading out some of the effects and parts of the score into the rear channels when appropriate but not really going over the top with it. This results in a mix that sounds ‘true to form' in that it opens things up nicely but doesn't make this eighties era movie sound like something that it's not. Clarity is strong on both tracks, levels are properly balanced throughout and there were now noticeable issues with any hiss or distortion noticed during playback. The score has some appreciable added depth here and voices sound very full and natural. Nice job.
Carried over from the UK Blu-ray release of the movie is the audio commentary with John Carpenter and actor Peter Jason. These two have worked on a few projects together over the years and they have a pretty solid rapport here. This results in a nice talk, an active discussion about making this picture on a modest budget and some of the toils that incurred. Carpenter discusses in a good bit of detail working with the different cast and crew members, the locations used, where some of the ideas came from for this movie, working on the score and quite a bit more with Jason getting his two cents in and sharing information about how he came onboard to act in the film and what his experiences were like.
The disc also includes quite a few new featurettes. Sympathy For The Devil which is a new interview with John Carpenter that runs for ten minutes. Here the writer/director talks about his fascination with religion and how that intertwined with his desire to make a low budget movie over which he had complete control. He also mentions that a book he'd read on quantum mechanics and how that changed his worldview. Of course he also talks about the cast and crew, how to shoot certain scenes and edit them and the locations. It covers some of the same ground as the commentary but it's still definitely worthwhile. Alice At The Apocalypse is a new interview with Alice Cooper that runs nine and a half minutes and starts off with him discussing how he grew up watching monster movies and his love of horror pictures. He talks about the specific look that the filmmakers came up with for his character, and how his manager started producing horror movies in the eighties, which lead to the meeting with John Carpenter and thus his appearing in the movie. Alice is always an interesting subject and he looks back on all of this pretty fondly. The Messenger is a new interview with actor and Special Visual Effects Supervisor Robert Grasmere that clocks in at just under thirteen minutes. He notes that he was cast as ‘that guy who didn't believe anybody' and how horror movies always need that character. He also talks about the difficulties involved in moving the giant green canister which he says weight about 1500 pounds. He also says that it kept breaking all the time and spewed green liquid everywhere. He also talks about some of the difficulties involved in his character's death scene and the joys of having a bug glued to your face. Hell On Earth is an interesting discussion of the film's score with Alan Howarth, long time Carpenter collaborator who co-wrote the score with the writer/director. Clocking in at ten minutes, here he speaks about his admiration of the movie's opening scene, how they used samplers of choir sounds, and what it's like to work with Carpenter (who he describes as a renaissance man). Basically they'd role the scene while he sat at his keyboard and Carpenter would play, essentially scoring the movie in real time while Howarth ‘provided the palette' to Carpenter's strokes. It's an interesting look at how they work together and what makes their work together unique. Last but not least is an entry in the Horror's Hallowed Grounds series hosted by Sean Clark. At just under fourteen minutes this segment returns to the church where most of the movie was shot. He also checks out the mission that served for some of the exteriors early in the movie and the university that served as the school in the feature. He also explores what is now a theater but which was, in the eighties, the building that they used as the ‘control center' area in the movie.
Rounding out the extras is the seven minute Alternate Opening from the TV Version of the movie (which suggests that everything that happens in the movie could be a dream), a Theatrical Trailer, a radio spot, an extensive still gallery, menus and chapter selection. The disc is housed inside a slipcover and the insert inside the case features reversible cover art with the newly created illustrated cover on one side and the movie's original theatrical one sheet on the flip side.
In the pantheons of eighties horror, Carpenter's Prince Of Darkness doesn't get the accolades it really deserves, but Shout! Factory's Blu-ray could go some ways towards changing it. It's a smart horror picture, on that offers up the requisite visceral thrills but which builds at a very deliberate pace and requires you to think things out for yourself along the way. The Blu-ray looks and sounds very good and contains an impressive array of supplements that do an excellent job of documenting the history of the movie and those who made it. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.