Prince of Darkness (US - BD RA)
Or, how Gabe stopped worrying and learn to love Carpenter's pseudo-classic...
A group of graduate students and scientists uncover an ancient canister in an abandoned church, but, when they open it, they inadvertently unleash a strange liquid and an evil force on all of humanity. As the liquid turns their co-workers into zombies, the remaining members realize they have released the most unspeakable horror of them all. Terror mounts as the team must fight to save the world from a devilish fury that has been contained for over seven million years. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
Following the disappointing release of The Thing in 1982, John Carpenter’s genre films began to sink critically and commercially (with the exception of Christine, which he reportedly didn’t really enjoy making). It seems unlikely, now that so much of his ‘80s output has worked it way into the pop-culture consciousness (even those that don’t know where it originated use ‘You’ve gotta be f**cking kidding me’ and ‘I came here to kick ass and chew bubblegum…,’ in meme capacities), but Carpenter was considered washed-up at least a decade before the curtain fell on his career as a filmmaker. Prince of Darkness, his second-to-last release of the decade, may have taken the longest of all of his good-to-great films to finally earn the respect it deserves. Even I, the guy writing this mostly praising retrospective review, took quite some time to come around. I fell instantly in love with Halloween, The Thing, They Live, and even Big Trouble in Little China when I first watched them as a kid/teen, but it took several subsequent viewings of Prince of Darkness before I finally realized that it had begun to obsess me. I believe that it was Carpenter’s willingness to lose control of his narrative and tone without neglecting his expert structure (the opening act of Prince of Darkness features the best editing in any Carpenter film) that rendered repeat viewings necessary. This perpetual balance between scary and stupid is simultaneously the source of the film’s greatest short-term weakness and its greatest long-term strengths.
Initially, Carpenter’s de-evolution into grotesque images and seemingly randomized plot details – many grabbed willy-nilly from other popular horror films – feel slapdash and are easily dismissed. But the film’s tone sticks and the aimless mysteries become inexplicably intriguing. In the end, most of the script’s enigmas (especially those tube television dreams from the future) are gimmicks I don’t think Carpenter ever had any intention of answering. This is usually designated as ‘bad writing,’ yet the frustrating ambiguity feeds back into form and feel of the film’s immaculate craft. Prince of Darkness isn’t a simple practice in style over content; it’s a master class in filmmaking and composition without the need for narrative substance. Carpenter achieves this and doesn’t immediately alienate his intended mainstream audience. After all, this isn’t an art film; it’s a poppy, late-‘80s horror movie. And the scares still work, even 26 years later. Halloween was a game-changing, brilliantly icy thriller and The Thing was a perfectly paranoid, nerve-jangling suspense piece (both films also include a plethora of pant-emptying jump scares), but Prince of Darkness is the only John Carpenter movie with a lingering sense of fear and dread. Much of this is established via the nightmarish imagery, but those initially discouraging lapses in narrative logic also creep under the skin. The audience becomes unwilling participants in the characters’ desperate attempts to understand and fix Armageddon.
The film’s weird tone, flamboyant imagery, and lapses in narrative logic recall a series of similar films that came out of Italy around the time Carpenter began building his reputation as a ‘Master of Horror.’ One influence Carpenter readily cites during interviews is Dario Argento, specifically Suspiria, which changed the European horror landscape in 1977, one year before Halloween. Prince of Darkness’ imagery also recalls Argento’s hyper-violent giallo, Profondo Rosso, and his Suspiria follow-up, Inferno (1980). Carpenter’s film is slightly more anchored in reality than Argento’s super-saturated, baroque universe, but the sentiment is there, especially in the ridiculous green lava lamp that houses the Antichrist. Argento’s influence can also be seen in the way Carpenter frames the early violence, specifically the hobo-on-student violence -– though Carpenter cops to swiping the arresting stabbing scene from Terence Fisher’s Curse of the Werewolf (one of the best, non-franchise Hammer horror films). Prince of Darkness also has a surrealistic and icky visual tone that recalls Lucio Fulci’s practically plotless, early ‘80s horror movies. Carpenter doesn’t press the boundaries of his R-rating into the unrated territory that so many of Fulci’s film’s occupy, but there are some similarly gross occurrences, especially when the Antichrist physically manifests itself in Kelly’s (Susan Blanchard) body. The revolting make-up has always reminded me of City of the Living Dead’s post-zombified Emily (Antonella Interlenghi), another innocent young lady who found herself touched by evil. Both Prince of Darkness and The Beyond appear take some of their basic mythologies from Michael Winner’s The Sentinel as well.
The more common comparison is made to a series of films & TV serials starring a character named Professor Bernard Quatermass, written/created by Nigel Kneale – specifically Quatermass and The Pit, which was produced both as a BBC television serial and a feature film from Hammer Studios (I’ve read that Prince of Darkness has even more in common with Kneale’s The Stone Tape, but I haven’t seen that, so I cannot comment). Carpenter himself invites the correlation by writing the screenplay under the pseudonym ‘Martin Quartermass’ and naming the fictional college in the film Kneale University, but there are plenty of narrative and physical similarities as well. Both films involve the excavation and study of scary ancient objects that bridge the horrors of science and religious mythology. Both objects influence the people studying them and eventually threaten to unleash the apocalypse. But Professor Quatermass gives his film a central character, one with a chance of solving the mystery before it’s too late. In Carpenter’s film the responsibility is divided between an ensemble cast. Minus a good-natured British scientist to parse their information, Carpenter’s characters don’t see the connections and, ultimately fail to fully defeat the evil (though, in both cases, someone sacrifices themselves for the greater good). I suppose there’s also a metaphor about late Cold War-era politics in there somewhere.
Many of Scream Factory’s Carpenter releases ( The Fog, They Live, and Assault on Precinct 13) were already available on Blu-ray (granted, often from another country), but Prince of Darkness hasn’t hit the format at all until now. Scream Factory’s track record with Carpenter movies has been stellar so far, but they haven’t had a full-stop exclusive yet (unless we’re counting Halloween III, which I’m not). However, this isn’t Prince of Darkness’ first appearance in the HD format. When the film appeared on Netflix a while back it was in 2.35:1 HD and looked very good, good enough that, if that transfer would’ve been put directly to disc, I would’ve been content with the upgrade over Universal’s anamorphic DVD, despite the minor artefacts created by the streaming process. On first glance, this is a fantastic transfer and precisely the one fans were hoping for. It is, as memory serves, the Netflix transfer minus compression artefacts. The details are way sharper than any DVD version, including realistic foreground textures and complex backdrops, though, like most of Carpenter’s films, Prince of Darkness was shot using wide-angle, anamorphic lenses. This creates a bit of blurriness and distortion around the edges of the longer shots, which, as a matter of fact, also looks much clearer than the various, fuzzy, HD releases. The tighter element separation allows those of us that haven’t had the chance to view the film in its original 35mm to see all kinds of minute textural differentiations and actually notice the subtler focus pulls Carpenter and cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe use during dialogue sequences.
Upon closer inspection, the transfer is…actually even better. There are no major signs of DNR enhancement. Clearly, things have been scrubbed, because there aren’t any problematic artefacts and the image looks practically brand new, but there’s no waxy build-up and there’s lots of fine, natural grain. And I do mean grain, not CRT noise. There is some fine-line edge enhancement, but these issues mostly pertain to light-on-light compositions and there aren’t very many light sequences here. The material shows its age the most during the more even-toned images, where the detail increases can’t really make a difference. The colour quality is a huge step up over the DVD versions, which were either over-saturated or a bit dull. The basic palette features nice, warm gradations set against punchier reds (blood, naturally) and vivid greens (both the Antichrist goo and the natural beauty of the daylit outside world). Contrast levels may have been set a little too high, but I don’t think there will be any complaints about this transfer being too dark, overall, nor does the occasionally over-exposed-look deplete the important details during the gloomiest shots.
All previous US DVD releases of Prince of Darkness were presented in the film’s original stereo surround (it was reportedly shown in Ultra Stereo in some theaters), but Studio Canal’s French and Australian versions did feature a 5.1 remix. I assume that this lossless DTS-HD Master Audio mix was based on SC’s remix. The changes made from the 2.0 mix (which is also included here) are pretty subtle and respectable. The discretely-centered dialogue has an occasionally artificial tone, but doesn’t bleed into the stereo channels. It is coupled with quite a bit of the incidental noise, even some of the more extensive supernatural sound effects. The stereo and surround channels come into play as they do on the 2.0 mix – with music and the punchiest effects work. The largest directional enrichments pertain to the swirling effects of the multi-dimensional mirror stuff, the chatter of evil insects, and the creepy robotic voices heard during the repeating dreams. The 5.1 version is a bit sharper in terms of overall elemental separation, but I only recommend it over the 2.0 mix because the discrete LFE enhancement makes a notable difference with the relentless synthesizer music. This wasn’t one of Carpenter’s catchiest scores (which was co-composed with Alan Howarth), but, next to Halloween, it might be the most perfectly ingrained with the images. The droning hum of analogue strings, the moan of artificial chorus, and the punch of the electronic kick drum all sell the mood perfectly.
The extras begin with the same Carpenter and actor Peter Jason commentary track that has been making the rounds on non-US DVD releases for quite some time now. Old or not, a John Carpenter commentary track is always worth listening to in terms of facts & figures being delivered with a charming nonchalance. Carpenter usually works very well with others and has plenty of his usual chemistry with Jason, who participates with just as much vigor as Kurt Russell and Roddy Piper, despite only appearing in the film for a matter of minutes. My only disappointment is that Carpenter spends more time discussing technical stuff than he does discussing his inspirations. Besides this commentary and a brief director introduction/scene analysis on Studio Canal’s French DVD, Prince of Darkness’ home video releases have been bereft of special features for years until now.
This editions all-new extras include:
- Sympathy For The Devil (10:30, HD) – a sweet, warm interview with Carpenter where he discusses his religious and scientific inspirations, some of his other literary inspirations (Gregory Benford’s Timescape), his filmmaking techniques, the sets and locations, and the film’s home video ‘second life.’
- Alice at the Apocalypse (9:30, HD) – another new interview with rock legend and hobo actor Alice Cooper, who talks about his life-long love of horror, meeting Carpenter, getting the part, his religious beliefs, and how they pertain to the film’s themes.
- The Messenger (12:40, HD) – yet another new interview with actor and special effects supervisor Robert Grasmere. He splits the discussion between his work helping to create the film’s various in-camera ‘gags’ and his part in the movie as Frank, the guy who gets stabbed to death, then resurrected as a bug man.
- Hell On Earth (10:20, HD) – the final new interview, this time with co-composer Alan Howarth, who talks about his relationship with Carpenter and the way they worked together. He refers to himself as more of a technician/mixer that refines the director’s motifs and is very hesitant to take credit for anything more specific.
- Horror’s Hallowed Grounds with host Sean Clark (13:40, HD) – Prince of Darkness edition.
- The alternate opening titles from the TV version of the film (7:00, SD)
- Original trailer and two radio spots
- Footage from the 2012 Screamfest, where Carpenter participated in a casual Q&A, moderated by Badass Digest’s Brian Collins (Easter egg, 12:10, HD)
- Still galleries
Like all of Carpenter’s best, Prince of Darkness is a movie that ends by leaving the door open to a sequel – a glorious sequel that, Antichrist willing, we’ll never actually see. Continuing this story and answering these questions can only lead to more pain. It’s better to revisit the original, instead. Thanks to Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray, there is no time like the present to rediscover its peculiar virtues. Maybe you’re like me and it took you a while to realize how much you actually liked it. Or maybe you’re a lifelong fan, in which case I welcome you to enjoy this new HD transfer, lossless audio, and a decent collection of brand-new special features.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality. Perhaps we can talk Matt into adding some after the disc is released?
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 24th September 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 English
Extras: Director and Actor Commentary, Sympathy For The Devil, Alice at the Apocalypse, The Messenger, Hell on Earth, Horror’s Hallowed Grounds: Prince of Darkness, Still Galleries, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Donald Pleasence, Jameson Parker, Victor Wong, Lisa Blount, Dennis Dun, Susan Blanchard, Anne Howard, Alice Cooper
Genre: Horror and Sci-Fi
Length: 102 minutes
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