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Continuing our early look at Studiocanal's remaster John Carpenter features, it's now the turn of 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) and is part of what Carpenter likes to refer to as his 'Apocalypse Trilogy', which also includes The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness.

Feature


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 whom 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, the 'Anti-God', 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. Repeated viewings also reveal a really strong gay subtext (one character literally announces he's stuck in the closet) and allusions to the AIDS epidemic, but I'm not sure how much of this was a conscious decision.

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, because I've really grown quite fond of it over the years, but it's not quite the classic that The Thing is.

Video


I previously reviewed Momentum's UK DVD release for the site many years ago, but although I own the German Blu-ray I never got around to giving my thoughts here. Essentially, that disc presents an ageing, but relatively natural looking transfer, which is far less processed an artificial than the one offered up by Shout! Factory a while back. In Shout!'s defence I imagine they were only using assets provided by Universal, a company known for its terrible catalogue masters, but even so the German disc was a much better option to my eyes.

The new 4K scan that provides the basis of this new release is yet another improvement, not just in fine detail as one might expect, but in virtually every other area as well. There’s a healthy dose of natural film grain on show at all times, with any softness being inherent to the original photography rather than as a result of overt filtering. For me the biggest difference is with the colour palette, which is far cleaner and more natural here than on any previous release. The red push found on the German release is completely gone and contrast is also markedly improved over what has come before. The blown highlights found on the older Blu-ray releases are no more and detail is retained in even the murkiest of scenes. It's also a very clean image, with no obvious film artefacts on show, and compression is also solid. I think it's fair to say that this is the best Prince of Darkness has ever looked on Blu-ray.

Audio


Unlike the US Blu-ray release, which included a 5.1 track, the German BD was limited to the original 2.0 Stereo audio. That is still included on this release (by way of an LPCM track), but we finally get that 5.1 mix in the form of an atmospheric DTS-HD Master Audio effort.

Prince of Darkness is a predominantly dialogue driven film, but the subtle enhancements afforded by the multi-channel mix don't go to waste. The surrounds are mainly used to allow the understated, ominous Carpenter/Howarth score room to breathe, but the occasional effect also finds its way into the rears. The score is one of my favourite from a long list of great accompaniments to Carpenter's features, with its mix of guitars and synthesisers perfectly capturing the mood of the piece. The artificial choral elements blend perfectly with the low 'da da dum' of the bass, creating something simple, yet wildly effective in the vein of John Williams's simple, repeating two-note theme from Jaws (now that's high prise). As for the aforementioned dialogue, it's always intelligible but can occasionally suffer in quality, but as a result of the original recordings not due to a technical issue with the track. The stereo track is also very solid should you wish to listen to the film accompanied by its original audio presentation.

Extras


This release includes a healthy collection of supplemental material, most of it new to the UK and some of it new to any media. Here's a list of what's included across the two-disc set.

  • Audio commentary with John Carpenter and Peter Jason
  • Malevolent: Unearthing John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness - A brand new retrospective documentary produced by Ballyhoo Motion Pictures and featuring interviews with Cinematographer Gary Kibbe, actor Peter Jason, actor Alice Cooper, composer Alan Howarth, script supervisor Sandy King, visual effects supervisor Robert Grasmere, stunt coordinator Jeff Imada, Carpenter biographer John Muir, film historian C. Courtney Joyner, music historian Daniel Schweiger and Producer Larry Carpenter
  • Intro by John Carpenter: An interview with director John Carpenter originally recorded for a French DVD release in 2003
  • Scene Analysis by John Carpenter: Director John Carpenter analyses key scenes from Prince of Darkness, in an interview from 2003
  • Sympathy for the Devil: Interview with John Carpenter from 2013
  • Horror's Halloween Hallowed Grounds with Sean Clark: A fun tour of the film’s locations hosted by Sean Clark
  • Trailer
  • Photo gallery incl. Behind the Scenes

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 anecdotes. 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 other extras have been doing the rounds on various releases for some time, save for the all new documentary 'Malevolent'. This is a great retrospective piece that includes interviews with many of the key players, who explain the genesis of the film, discuss the shooting, cinematography, score and much more besides. It's essential viewing for Carpenter fans and very entertaining in its own right.

Overall


This set is a must have for Carpenter fans, particularly given the relative lack of love previously shown to Prince of Darkness in the UK. I genuinely feel that it's one of the directors most underrated works and certainly one of his last great films. Thematically it sits right alongside The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness and offers an interesting take on the relationship between religion and science while offering up some genuine scares. It does lose the plot somewhat towards the end (quite literally), but the strong first half and thought provoking premise ensures that this still comes highly recommended. That this is now the best available Blu-ray version from not only an audio-visual standpoint, but also in terms of bonus material, is just the icing on the cake.

* Note: The images below are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.

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