The further one gets away from John Carpenter’s filmography, the more essential and singular it seems. Halloween did not invent the slasher film, but it kickstarted the genre with an effort so perfectly timed and atmospherically driven that the slew of cheap, exploitative knockoffs it inspired have never come close to replicating its power. The Thing, which plays on a first watch as an effects showreel, is one of the few horror films to get scarier with every new viewing, as even the gore of those effects sublimates into the film’s pervading sense of doom, not fright.
Prince of Darkness takes things a step farther. On an initial viewing, its blend of cod-science and pseudo-religion, its lethargic drifting around church hallways and its sense of detachment make it perhaps the most disappointing of the director’s gold run of the late ‘70s and ‘80s, a designation backed up by negative contemporary and re-evaluative reviews. Upon closer inspection, however, the film shows such a unity of form and Carpenter’s singular gift for cosmic doom drawn from confined scales that it emerges as his greatest film, a work that crystallizes the director’s skill with chamber horror while stretching well beyond the walls of that chamber. All the director has are an abandoned church, a group of suspiciously old graduate students and a green cylinder of gravity-defying liquid, and from that he draws forth a nightmarish vision of the Antichrist come to Earth.
Carpenter establishes the film’s mood in successive bursts. Over a prolonged sequence that cuts in and out of credits, the director introduces seemingly unrelated images—a full moon, an old man on his deathbed in a church, grad students going about their day at college, a rustling floor of ants, sunlight blotching onto clouds like a broken yolk— that produce a disquieting effect, the mundane crossed with hints of the supernatural as the science classroom and the church are gradually drawn together. The greatest indication of the film’s tone, though, can be found in Donald Pleasence’s performance, the last of his roles for Carpenter as a disgraced authority figure. But where the physician and the president roiled with panic and rage, the priest is in a place beyond terror, muted in a combination of shame and a Lovecraftian silence brought on by the magnitude of the horror that faces mankind. The priest confesses the clergy’s role in concealing pure evil with a tinge of self-revulsion, but even that emotion is being drained away by the paralyzing fear of what will come.
The film’s patience puts most horror films to shame: its breakout moment of horror occurs fully 40 minutes into the film, and it consists of nothing more than an ominous, jolting spurt of green liquid. Before and after this turn, the film operates primarily through odd, unnerving sights. Where The Thing’s ruptures of tumescent flesh followed the logic of its morphing alien being, Prince of Darkness’s flourishes take on a surreal quality that stress just how far outside humanity’s understanding the evil within the church is. An assembly of homeless trudge toward the church to prevent escape, while the possessed within slowly take over the other inhabitants. From the moment Michael Myers appeared at the far end of a shot by some hedges, Carpenter has made clear his affinity for placing evil in a distant, immobile, observant position, and the soulless damned take up similarly removed spots here as they wait at the end of corridors studying the next target. Elsewhere, flesh slowly peels from bone, and bodies dissolve into mounds of insects. The linear movement of Carpenter’s camera has always set down certain predictable movements, if unpredictable outcomes, for his films, but, without being incoherent, Prince of Darkness never gives the audience a clear foothold of how things will turn out.
Even the one-by-one destruction of the group throws routine curveballs. Some fall instantly, while others, like Dennis Dun’s Walter, lend themselves to extended sequences in which they are besieged by the possessed. Walter, holed up in a room for a good portion of the film’s second half, only compounds the film’s compartmentalization; siege narratives are nothing new for Carpenter, but this multi-layered entrapment reaches the apex of the director’s use of confined, inescapable spaces. The climax, in which the survivors struggle against their tormentors as one attempts to call the Antichrist from another dimension, is Carpenter’s finest hour. The simple pairing off of foes creates a large setpiece without clutter, clearly emphasizing the mirror through which a possessed soul calls her “father.” The film’s coda, which includes a jump scare and one last warning from the future broadcast through dreams, can only cap the horror of that mirror and its attendant hell dimension. The simplicity of the climax’s highlight shots—flayed hand reaching through mirror, giant demon hand reaching out from the abyss to grab it, then the outstretched hand reaching back toward a closed portal after a character sacrifices herself to save the day—evoke the gargantuan with nothing, and they above all demonstrate that, at the height of his powers, Carpenter truly was a master.