Writer/director John Carpenter must like Last Stand in a Haunted House movies as much as I do, because almost every single one of the man’s movies meet the criteria for such a movie or comes awfully close. Of the movies that most fits into the subgenre in question are Ghosts of Mars, The Thing, The Fog, just to name a few. And to a certain extent, even Vampires played with the subgenre conventions. Let’s just say John Carpenter enjoys putting multiple characters into a situation where they are surrounded and outnumbered and in desperate peril of getting killed.
Prince of Darkness is a 1987 movie by writer/director Carpenter. As the movie opens, a priest has just passed away, and on his person is a key to a basement room inside a condemned church/hotel. Father Loomis (Donald Pleasence) inherits the key and calls on an old friend, physicist/philosopher Howard (Victor Wong), for help. After discovering a greenish liquid being held in prison inside an ancient cylinder in the basement of the church, Howard assembles a group of scientists and graduate students to spend a weekend at the church to investigate the cylinder and its content.
As soon as the group begin arriving at the church, a small army of homeless people also begins showing up. Soon, the homeless army has surrounded the church and sealed everyone inside, just as the greenish liquid inside the cylinder in the church’s basement is beginning to come “alive”…
Prince of Darkness has a very interesting premise. The entire concept of an ancient cylinder that might possess the “essence” of some evil entity from a parallel universe/dimension is pretty interesting. Carpenter must have gone “Eureka!” when he thought up this new twist to the old Good Vs. Evil/Son of Satan story. The one thing that flattens the whole premise is Carpenter’s seemingly inability to decide on which premise he likes the most, and as a result the movie’s entire foundation becomes a jumbled mess, as we aren’t clear which is the real reason for the happenings.
At one point the cylinder and its contents are essences of an alien species that came here millions of years ago; later it becomes the essence of some satanic creature’s son who is trying to retrieve his banished father from some dimension prison. I think somewhere in the middle a character posits that Jesus was also an alien sent to Earth to defeat the evil creature/alien/Satan/whatever. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of exposition to be found, and the characters rattle off one explanation after another. It all gets to be a little too much after a while, especially when the why’s, who’s, when’s, and how’s keep changing on us.
Regardless, Prince of Darkness is a good Last Stand in a Haunted House movie, although I though the army of homeless people, led by rocker Alice Cooper in white makeup, was grossly underused. Their only reason to be seems to stand in groups staring blankly at the researchers. Every now and then one of the homeless people kills one of the researchers, but really, they were much too underused.
The real danger comes inside the church when the fluid starts taking over the bodies of the researchers, turning them into its own army of killers. This new threat gives Carpenter the chance to give us scares involving researchers searching for missing researchers, only to discover that the missing researchers are now possessed researchers. Carpenter makes great use of slow pans to reveal the possessed researchers, and in fact the movie has quite a number of inspired Slow Reveal shots.
Carpenter has assembled a variety of characters to be killed, chased, and possessed, with Dennis Dun being the best of the lot. Dun’s smart aleck Walter has all the best lines and keeps the movie light and peppy, whereas everyone else seems to be moping or lost in thought or just walking around aimlessly. Leads Jameson Parker (Brian) and Lisa Blount (Catherine) were terrible bores. The two are supposed to be lovers, but they have very little chemistry, and I get the feeling Carpenter knew all about their history but either neglected to inform us or forgot that we can’t read his mind. As a result, the leads are boring and their love affair is uninteresting. But at least Walter is funny.
Prince of Darkness also has other problems. For one, the kill scenes are much too brief and uninspired, and the ending is wrapped up too nicely. The Head Villain is defeated too easily — absurdly easy, in fact. And this despite the fact that the Head Villain has telekinetic powers and can move objects with its mind. I guess they just don’t make Head Villains the way they used to.
Prince of Darkness seems to be an inspired film with an inspiring premise, but like almost all John Carpenter films I’ve seen, the execution just isn’t there, and as a result the film falls short. This seems to be the bane of Carpenter’s movies — they’re always good and fun, but they never quite have that something that makes them Great films.
John Carpenter (director) / John Carpenter (screenplay)
CAST: Donald Pleasence …. Father Loomis
Jameson Parker …. Brian Marsh
Victor Wong …. Professor Howard Birack
Lisa Blount …. Catherine
Dennis Dun …. Walter