John Carpenter at His Most Apocalyptic

This is one of the most tragic facts of cinema John Zimmerman is only recognized as one of the greatest horror directors decades later. While his title as the master of horror is undisputed today, there was a time when his films were widely derided by critics, only being re-evaluated after successful runs on home video and in the midnight circle. the thing is the most notorious example, a film that’s now considered a landmark of the genre but was initially met with an almost unimaginable level of nastiness (with terms like “instant junk” and “quintessential idiot movie” being tossed around like confetti). Why the film received such backlash remains unclear (competition from ET and Bladerunner that both were released in the same window, for two reasons), but the ensuing acclaim has mysteriously silenced most of his early critics. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of another of his films centered around the unfathomable world of cosmic horror, one that explores many of the same concepts as the thing as he pushes them in new and (whispers) better directions – none other than his 1987 supernatural masterpiece, Prince of Darkness.


Though it’s unrelated to its predecessor in terms of plot, Carpenter muses Prince of Darkness the second entry in his self-proclaimed Apocalypse trilogy, a series that would conclude with the 1994 cult classic In the mouth of madness. All three draw heavily from the works of HP Lovecraft, and watch as its hapless characters confront beings beyond our comprehension, forcing an examination of humanity’s place in a vast and indifferent universe. They also mainly take place in a single location, creating a microcosm of terror that will destroy the world if it escapes. It’s a brilliant premise, but judging by past and present reviews, Prince of Darkness could not reach the heights of his companions. It is widely considered the weakest film in the trilogy and often ranks at the bottom of Carpenter’s filmography. To a certain extent, that’s understandable – it doesn’t have the strong characters of the thing or the creativity of In the mouth of madnessbut what Prince of Darkness is a feeling of sheer, unrelenting fear. This is an atmospheric film where the shadow of impending doom lingers every second like the grim reaper just hiding out of frame. It succeeds in making the thing look tame, and not every film can do that. The Apocalypse trilogy has never been so aptly named as it is here.

More apocalyptic than any other apocalypse trilogy film

The plot of Prince of Darkness centers on a Los Angeles monastery owned by the mysterious Brotherhood of Sleep, an ancient sect that communicates through dreams. The chief priest has died under mysterious circumstances, and his successor (an unnamed priest played by the ever-watchable donald please) invites the physicist Howard Birack (Victor Wang) and a small group of his disciples to join him in the monastery. The priest hopes they can provide answers about the strange cylinder of green liquid he found in the basement. Research shows that it is the physical embodiment of Satan, and soon after it begins possessing members of the group after it begins to escape from its captivity.

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With a mass of schizophrenic homeless people surrounding the building, the survivors are unable to leave and are forced to fight this evil before it succeeds in bringing the even more nefarious anti-god into our world, while also fighting a recurring dream of a fighting a shadowy figure emerging from the church that seems to foretell the future. Just citing the plot can make it sound a bit silly, but Carpenter treats it with maturity to elevate it above its B-movie roots. The result is a compelling story that dares to pose big questions about human nature and our importance (or lack thereof) in the universe, while reflecting themes explored in the thing and yet retains a distinctive identity.

Building a sense of fear

As previously mentioned, Prince of Darkness is at its best when it sows the seeds of inevitable doom, and luckily, Carpenter recognizes that, too. The characterization is serviceable but cliche given only the most flimsy development, so we invest enough to ensure our leads come out alive. That might sound like a problem, but in a film where insignificant human drama like love triangles becomes meaningless when we’re confronted with our annihilation at the hands of a creature we can’t even begin to understand, it’s only fitting that complex character arcs on the keep track. The tradeoff is that we spend more time immersing ourselves in Carpenter’s latest ordeal and he doesn’t waste time ramping up the suspense. The opening montage is among his strongest works as a director, with innocent scenes from college life juxtaposed with the priest’s initial realization that the world is in grave danger, all sandwiched between an ominous lunar eclipse above and an onslaught of ants below. The score is the final breath of horrid joy – a three-note foreboding growl, dripping with blood from each note, lending an eerie undertone to mundane scenes such as two college students walking through a bucolic campus. Even after the credits have rolled, Carpenter rarely allows for silence, instead keeping the soundtrack vibrant to ensure the film has a constant sense of energy. It is among the best scores of his career and serves as the perfect fanfare for the upcoming Armageddon.

It’s hard work maintaining a tense and swift build-up period without slipping into plain old boredom (while still remembering having an actual payoff at some point), but Carpenter’s commercial filmmaking is at its peak here. The pace is fast but never rushed, allowing for a continuous flow of movement that never gets tied to one person or place. Characters hover between rooms while debating theological issues, barely registering the barrage of worms pouring through the windows, which soon begin to feel comparatively tame as we descend further into this nightmare. Some of Carpenter’s most impressive shots can be seen, from the menacing group of homeless people silently watching the church, ready to pounce like a attack dog at the first sign of escape, to the stunning image of a dead man’s skin covering the is revived by hundreds of squirming bugs before they shatter into pieces and disappear into the night. The highlight is the distorted dream sequence. Its low-fi appearance, evoking memories of a VHS, is an interesting choice, but it gives it an otherworldly tone that adds to its mystique. It’s a haunting image, both literally and figuratively, and its role as a metaphorical ticking clock counting down to a hellish future is the film’s most chilling creation.

A spooky atmosphere adds to the horror

The monastery itself is an excellent site, and Carpenter’s masterful sense of space exploits every nook and cranny. His signature widescreen cinematography remains among the quietest in the industry, transforming everyday scenes into works of true beauty (watch him frame the arrival of the priest at the church, whose huge bulk stares down at him as if he weren’t once worth standing in his shadow). The interplay between the old and the new is fantastic as ancient crypts lit only by candles become the resting place for advanced scientific devices rendered useless in the face of such incomprehensible power. Soon the survivors are building barricades out of sofas and using wooden planks as weapons, a return to a primitive way of life only fitting given the enemy they face.

It is this mindset that defeats the anti-god, the mirror he uses to invade our world being shattered not by computers or degrees but by a simple axe. As with all good Lovecraft stories, victory feels more like defeat. The anti-god is still out there, and today’s actions bought them just a few years before this all happens again. the thing ended on a sour note, but at least it felt like a potential global catastrophe was averted. With Prince of Darknessthere’s little to suggest they’ve made a dent at all…especially if that still-lingering dream is anything to go by.

A simple moment of greatness

prince of darkness The greatest moment is also the easiest. After a night of chaos that claimed the lives of most of the team, dawn breaks on a planet that may have only a few hours left. The chaos of possessed zombies and a liquid Satan gives way to a moment of calm, and Carpenter uses this time to cut to an exterior shot of the monastery. A car drives past. His driver ignores the building like it’s the most ordinary thing in the world, then we cut back in and the story continues. It only lasts a few seconds, but the effects are terrifying. Humanity stands on the brink of annihilation, but only the tragic souls trapped within this edifice even know it’s happening. This driver was a stone’s throw from certain death, but instead they just drove by in blissful ignorance, a chilling thought that shows how little we really know about the world around us.

This theme runs throughout the film, reminiscent of the old Lovecraftian idea that human beings are nothing more than a speck of dust on a giant rock, oblivious to the universe around us. For centuries we believed the devil to be the ultimate embodiment of evil, and now we learn that he is just a foot soldier for a much larger entity. It’s a revelation that shatters both the scientific and religious worlds, and as the credits roll we wonder what other truths are mere fabrication. Prince of Darkness isn’t perfect and is a better showcase for John Carpenter the director than John Carpenter the writer – our supposedly rational characters, for example, are very quick to accept the supernatural – but when the direction is this good it’s not worth bothering with to deal with such things.

Nothing in his filmography has a better atmosphere than this, with the dread that lingers and torments from the first frame to the last, creating a haunting experience unlike anything else. The best horror is that which lingers, and when Prince of Darkness is shattered in black after his eerie final minute, you’ll have no doubt as to why Carpenter is horror’s greatest master. The apocalypse is coming, evil is around every corner and there’s nothing we can do to stop it… what’s not to love? John Carpenter at His Most Apocalyptic

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