REVIEW: ‘Prince of Darkness’ is a masterpiece of horror

The ‘80s cult classic is John Carpenter’s most underrated film


Bradley Hinkson says that the 1987 film “Prince of Darkness” is one of John Carpenter’s best and scariest works. “Brick wall” by Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine is marked with CC0 1.0. Tara Gnewikow

Bradley Hinkson

With Halloween quickly approaching, why not spend that time recommending some horror films to get everyone in the mood for the spooky season?

It’s never possible to give a definitive answer as to what the scariest film of all time is. Fear is subjective. What may seem terrifying to one person could lead to absolutely no reaction from someone else. Though with that being said, “Prince of Darkness” is one of the scariest films of all time. It’s an unrelenting film that sometimes feels like it was made by the Anti-God discussed in the film.

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An unnamed priest, played by Donald Pleasence, invites Professor Howard Birack, played by Victor Wong, and a few of his quantum physics students to figure out the mystery of a strange canister filled with a glowing green liquid. As they discover more and more about the canister through the religious text written about it, they learn that the liquid could possibly be evil in its purest form.

There’s an underlying sense of doom throughout all of “Prince of Darkness,” and a sense of dread throughout the film that makes it feel like there won’t be any chance of the characters making out of it alive. As the film continues and we learn more of the purpose of the strange liquid, that sense of hopelessness comes true.

Horror that focuses on more sci-fi elements and horror focusing on religious themes usually don’t mix. Though in the hands of a master like John Carpenter, these work wonders together. What makes this film so scary, outside of the genuinely terrifying imagery, is how it brings forth the idea of what would happen if science could easily explain what religion has been trying to uncover for so long.

What if science could prove that the Devil was real? Not only that, but what if it could prove that what we know as the Devil isn’t even the purest evil possible? There’s no religious text to try and decipher it and have someone else’s own interpretation, the cold, hard facts are right there and there’s no stopping pure evil from coming. “Prince of Darkness” makes that a reality for the characters.

Things start to get much worse for the characters as not only does this liquid contain the so-called “Anti-God,” but it starts to take over different people. This is when the film goes off the rails and truly starts to become terrifying.

There are quite a number of images in this film that are just engraved in my mind. The sight of the green liquid bursting out of someone’s eyes and mouth, or someone decomposing into a pile of bugs after leaving the message, “Pray for death.” There are images here that no other horror film has ever been able to imprint so heavily into my head. Especially one in particular.

Throughout the film, many of the characters experience what they believe to be a collective dream. This “dream” just looks so unnatural. It’s made to look like it was some strange videotape that honestly feels cursed. With strange camera movements, a strange dark figure standing in the doorway of a church and a warbled disembodied voice saying, “This is not a dream,” it feels like you’re watching something akin to the tape from “The Ring.” Carpenter was able to figure out what can make found footage so effective long before the genre even started.

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Carpenter is royalty in the horror genre. Anyone who made films like “Halloween” and “The Thing” can bring themselves up to legend status. Not only is “Prince of Darkness” probably his most underrated work, it is quite possibly one of his absolute best that could compete with the previous films mentioned. This film captures the same sense of confined isolation and idea of pure evil that he uses for Michael Myers in “Halloween,” and even the same disturbing imagery from “The Thing.” This film should be held at the same standard as those two juggernauts. Like most of Carpenter’s films, he scores the film himself and it’s probably his best. It’s incredibly moody, and helps create the underlying sense of doom and dread that the whole film has. 

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This film perfectly blends the kind of horror that’s more lasting to me. Not only does it have some unnerving images that just sear into your brain, it has ideas that leave with you as well. The thought that science could just easily explain the concept of pure evil existing seems so terrifying. We’re always interested by outside and mystical forces far beyond our understanding because we have no way of fully understanding them, so there’s almost less to fear because we may think it isn’t real. Once science can explain it and tell us it’s real, we have more to fear.

“Prince of Darkness” deserves its rightful justice. While the film has slowly gained an audience since its release, this should be more of a household name like Carpenter’s own “Halloween.” It’s the perfect kind of film that you can watch in the complete dark and let the images just destroy you. You’ll probably destroy all your mirrors once it’s all done.