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We continue our early look at Momentum Pictures’ forthcoming Horror Collection with another John Carpenter movie, 1987’s Prince of Darkness. The film, which marked Carpenter’s return to low-budget horror, stars a number of actors who had previously collaborated with the director (most notably Victor Wong, Denis Dunn and Donald Pleasance) It is also part of what Carpenter likes to refer to as his “Apocalypse Trilogy”, which also includes The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness.

Prince of Darkness
Prince of Darkness opens with a lengthy credits sequence that introduces the main protagonists. The first of these, a priest named Loomis (ironically played by Donald Pleasance), has come into possession of a secret that threatens mankind’s very existence. It is a secret that has been kept by the Catholic Church for over two thousand years. Housed in the basement of a derelict Los Angeles church, a mysterious canister of green fluid is host to the most terrible evil the world has ever known – the essence of Satan himself!

In order to scientifically prove the existence of such evil, Loomis enlists the help of Howard Birack (played by Victor Wong), a professor at the University of Southern California. Birack is teaching a quantum uncertainty theory to a class of young scientists, all of who are persuaded to join Birack and Loomis on a top-secret 'extra credit' field trip to the church. When the group arrives they immediately go about studying both the canister and an ancient book that may hold the key to its origins.

However, unbeknownst to the young researchers, the long-dormant consciousness inside the canister has awoken and has begun to exert its influence over the outside world. At first the Prince of Darkness can only affect lower life-forms, but before long his power increases and one by one he begins to ensnare the scientists, turning them into mindless zombies driven by one desire – to free his father from the extra-dimensional prison that holds him.

The film is full of scientific technobabble, mostly about the relationship between good and evil, and positive and negative particles. This is the metaphor Carpenter chooses to explain his Prince of Darkness. For each and every action there is a reaction, for each positive there is a negative, and, in the case of God, there is the anti-God. Unfortunately, the scientific theories that form the core of the plot are not explored as fully as one might hope, which makes for a slightly confusing film at times. Repeated viewings do clear up some of the questions, but you’ll have to be on your toes if you want to get the most from this particular bit of cinema. Upon listening to the commentary it became apparent that Carpenter didn’t really have too much of the back-story worked out, which really tells in certain scenes.

Prince of Darkness
The biggest failing is the way that the story deviates from is interesting beginnings. Towards the end, the film almost completely abandons psychological horror in favour of the more formulaic zombies coming to get you/things jumping out at you type of movie. If only Carpenter had stuck to his guns and explained some of the more fascinating plot elements, such as the dreams that are actually subliminal messages sent back through time, and the supposition that Jesus Christ was an alien being sent to warn us about the Anti-God, then this could have been something really special. One other area I found a little unconvincing was the romantic sub-plot between two of the students, played by Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount. The couple barely share any on-screen time before jumping into bed with one another and falling madly in love. I also thought the ending was a little bit of a cheap shot, but then it still made me jump! I don't want to sound like I'm slating Prince of Darkness, far from it, but as the film progressed I did start to feel slightly confused and disappointed.

Like most discs released by Momentum, Prince of Darkness features a pleasing transfer. Framed at 2.35:1 and anamorphically enhanced, the picture is generally very good. External shots feature bright, vibrant colours (with particularly lush greens in the opening scenes), while the darker interior shots are clear on the whole. This is especially important as he film progresses, as most of the action takes place in the gloomy confines of the church.

If I had to criticise I would say that the picture is not as sharp as most new releases, and I also noticed a few instances of shimmering scenery. Still, this is yet another competent transfer from Momentum Pictures and one that greatly enhanced my viewing experience.

Prince of Darkness
Sound is provided courtesy of a functional Dolby 2.0 Stereo track. Obviously there's nothing to report in the way of surround effects here, but this is predominantly a dialogue driven film so the omission of a full surround track is negligible. The all-important dialogue remains clear throughout, and the rest of the film’s sound effects also come through nicely. Like many of Carpenter’s movies, the score (which is provided by the man himself) is exceptionally well suited to the on screen events. Carpenter chooses to provide a subtle, understated score rather than over-scoring (or “Mickey Mousing” as he puts it in the commentary track). It makes for eerie listening and it reminds me of the soundtrack to A Nightmare on Elm Street in some respects.

Supplements are limited, but the standout feature is definitely the commentary track from director Carpenter and actor Peter Jason. Although Jason is an odd choice for the track as he doesn’t appear until half an hour into the film, and then only has a small role, he discusses many facets of the production and provides many amusing comments. Jason went on to collaborate with Carpenter on numerous projects after Prince of Darkness, so perhaps that explains why he was invited to join the director in this instance. The commentary is full of banter and subtle, good-natured jibes, and is definitely worth revisiting.

The only other offering is a theatrical trailer, which is a little disappointing. Still, the commentary goes some way towards compensating for the relative lack of features, but I would have liked to see material that explored the premise of the film in greater detail.

Prince of Darkness
Yet another interesting and original film from John Carpenter, Prince of Darkness is certainly worthy of repeated viewings (and if you’re anything like me you’ll need to watch it more than once in order to make sense of some of the more involved plot elements). With some genuinely scary moments, as well as some interesting takes on the relationship between religion and science, this should offer something for both die hard horror fans and the casual viewer alike. Although the film does lose the plot towards the end (quite literally), the strong first half and thought provoking premise means that this still comes recommended. It's a pity the disc is so barren; if only some additional features had been included to bolster the supplemental section it would have scored more highly. As it is, the excellent commentary track and nice audio/visual presentation go some way towards earning the disc a decent overall score.