John Carpenter's 'Prince of Darkness' is meant to be the bologna (not baloney) to his apocalypse sandwich. Or in other words, it's the second installment to the director's supposed "Apocalypse Trilogy," preceded by the now-classic 'The Thing (1982)' and followed by favorite 'In the Mouth of Madness,' all loosely connected by a similar theme. This little picture arguably doesn't come close to the excellence of its predecessor and is more on par with the bizarrely creative second sequel starring Sam Neill. It's a strange beast which can seem a bit corny at times and there's little worth sympathizing in any of the characters, but I love it still because I see it as a wildly imaginative horror film with some surprisingly intelligent moments.
Inspired by various scientific discoveries in the field of theoretical physics, as well as Nigel Kneale's sci-fi television serials about Professor Quatermass, Carpenter melds the worlds of theology and prophecies of an ancient evil force with that of modern science. In his own way, he's basically posing the question of whether the latter can find an explanation for the existence of the former based on current known reality. Amazingly, and what makes the movie so entertainingly silly, he devises some absurdly wild possibilities involving anti-matter and carefully walks the line into parallel universe territory. While on the surface we have the traditional battle of good vs. evil, the plot also suggests an underlying theme of the pursuit of knowledge and the doors we may not be ready to open,
Representing the two sides of the conversation are Victor Wong as Professor Birack and Donald Pleasence's priest, two wonderful actors that really light up the scenery each time they appear together. After Pleasence's humble but open-minded man of God discovers a large cylinder with a green fluid that continuously swirls inside, he asks Wong's professor of theoretical physics to help explain it. The professor gathers a team of students, which includes Lisa Blount, Dennis Dun, Peter Jason and Jameson Parker, from other disciplines to experiment on rust-covered container. What they uncover pits all known scientific knowledge to the test, but that doesn't mean the group fails at deciphering the unknown into possible explanations. My favorite is the shared dream sequence from the future as a very probable tachyon transmission.
Of course, the scientific and theoretical aspect of the story is all well and good — although more from the fictional perspective than an accurate representation — but in a Carpenter feature, we want and expect some frights and scares along the way. And we definitely get plenty of that, especially when student Kelly (Susan Blanchard) transforms into the hideously disfigured monster with a narcissistic personality. The makeup and special-effects work is both shockingly gross and brilliant. The creepiest part is the horde of zombie vagrants, led by none other than Alice Cooper himself. It's somewhat comical and silly but also pretty scary and terrifying — homeless people with murder in their eyes surrounding the church, waiting patiently in the dark shadows for anyone to come out.
Working with cinematographer Gary Kibbe ('They Live,' 'Vampires'), Carpenter also gives the film a rich, energetic visual design that's frankly hypnotic. There's an eerie dreamlike feel permeating each scene, as if the unexpected could and probably will happen at any given moment. Carpenter, however, denies his audience of such jump scares, preferring instead to maintain an endlessly brewing apprehensive air of dread and fearful anticipation. If it's not the hobos walking from the alley like background dancers to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" music video, then it's Dun's freaked-out-of-his-mind Walter hiding in the closet while Susan (Anne Marie Howard) and Lisa (Ann Yen) stare at him from the darkness.
'Prince of Darkness' is ultimately a visually beautiful horror flick with an immersive creepy atmosphere and some genuine smarts, a great Carpenter classic deserving of more attention.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Shout! Factory unleashes the 'Prince of Darkness' to Blu-ray as a Collector's Edition package under the distributor's Scream Factory line. The Region A locked, BD50 disc is housed inside the normal blue case with brand new reversible cover art and a cardboard slipcover. At startup, the disc goes to an animated menu screen with options along the bottom while music plays in the background. Also, buying direct from the Shout! Factory website includes an exclusive poster of the newly commissioned artwork, available while supplies last!
The 'Prince of Darkness' awakes from its eternal slumber with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode that often looks fantastic but also comes with a couple, unwanted drawbacks. First, contrast has been boosted slightly, which may, at times, yield a crisp, brilliant picture but can also lead to other issues. Highlights tend to bloom a tad with light posterization, and natural grain is bit more apparent and prominent during many scenes, nearing the point of looking like mosquito noise. Sadly, I also noticed some minor aliasing in a couple spots, such as when the limo makes an appearance. There's some visible ringing, as well, around the edges of several objects in daylight sequences which can be somewhat distracting. Although blacks are deeply rich and penetrating throughout, brightness levels are nonetheless affected, as many shadows appear much too strong, overwhelming the finer details.
On a more positive note, the high-def transfer is a massive improvement over previous home video editions, showing a great deal of clarity and resolution from beginning to end. Lettering on buildings and walls is distinctly sharp and clearly legible, while the interior of the church is very well-defined, and we can see plainly see individual rust and calcium spots on the strange cylinder with green fluid floating inside. Facial complexions are actually quite stunning with lifelike textures, exposing every pore and wrinkle of the cast, and the gruesome makeup effect on Kelly is particularly slimy and gross. The color palette is richly saturated with loud, animated primaries and accurate, bold earth-tones, making for a slightly troubled but still pleasing video presentation.
Making up for some of the minor video issues, Shout! Factory brings this John Carpenter favorite to Blu-ray with two DTS-HD MA audio options: a modern 5.1 upmix and a stereo soundtrack. The former is not half-bad, but at times, it also feels somewhat awkward and out of place. Rear activity, in particular, is a tad too loud and distracting while the low-end is exaggerated and sounds overwhelmingly muddy.
As always, my preference goes to the latter option, which is closer to the original design. It feels more natural and accurate with a wide soundstage that's highly engaging and continuously active, thanks primarily to the synthesized music of Carpenter and Alan Howarth. Off-screen effects are discrete and pan from one channel to the next with convincing fluidity and fidelity. Dialogue is crystal-clear and precise in the center. Imaging exhibits sharp detailing in the upper ranges and dynamic, room-penetrating mids while the LFE delivers a clean, accurate bass response, providing the music and action with wonderful weight and presence. Of the two audio tracks, the lossless stereo mix is the clear winner.
Although it can fall a bit on the corny side, 'Prince of Darkness' remains a long-time favorite in the John Carpenter cannon of horror films, starring Donald Pleasence and Victor Wong. Showing some smarts and savvy in a plot about science trying to make sense of the impending apocalypse, Carpenter establishes an atmosphere of dread and apprehension while legendary rocker Alice Cooper leads an army of zombified hobos. The Blu-ray arrives with a great but mildly troubled high-def transfer and an excellent audio presentation. With a healthy collection of amusing bonus features, the overall package is a good purchase for devoted fans and worth a look for everyone else.