Its climax may be Carpenter’s single best demonstration of skill.
After a number of increasingly high-profile, (relatively) high-budget features, John Carpenter got back to basics with Prince of Darkness, another of his bottle-episode narratives that uses a single space to show off his visual dynamism under restrictions. The second of the director’s loose Apocalypse Trilogy, the film is the most bluntly concerned with the end of days. Its setting is a derelict church in Los Angeles, a Gothic cathedral that clashes with the faceless contemporary construction that surrounds it. At a glance, the meaning of the rundown house of God is clear: religion has no place in modern commercial society, a point underlined when it is revealed that the church houses a scientific explanation for the existence of pure evil.
The mechanism by which Carpenter visualizes the corporeal embodiment of Satan—a green, pulsating liquid—is corny, and it is amusing that the academic team sent to study it consists mainly of graduate students more interested in flirting with each other than discovering the meaning of this strange substance. But Carpenter always loved to deal in elemental simplicity, all the better to frame his own aesthetic concision, and when things start to go south, they do so with ominous unease. The Carpenterian trope of unwashed masses standing in for zombie hordes rears its head as homeless people begin shuffling slowly, mindlessly toward the church, gradually forming impenetrable walls of flesh that attack anyone who attempts to leave. Inside, some of the students are gradually possessed, their behavior more odd than scary as they begin to act strangely. Carpenter uses the downtime to gradually map the church, from its nave to study classrooms to the basement containing the evil container.
Finally, nearly halfway into the film, things fall apart, and the director’s patience in establishing the layout of the church—particularly its cramped dimensions—pays off by rapidly escalating tension as people attempt to flee their possessed classmates and dodge the encroaching waves outside. Carpenter tends to prefer a steady, mechanical sense of progression, but he changes up his tempo here, staging deaths in unpredictable jolts punctuated by longer siege warfare. Walter (Dennis Dun), finds himself trapped in a classroom for an extended period of time as a possessed friend, all melted flesh and exposed muscle, attempts to break in in ways both terrifying and comical.
The film culminates in a climax that may be Carpenter’s single best demonstration of skill. With Satan, or the “Anti-God” as the being encased within the liquid comes to be known, attempting to truly breach our dimension in a flesh-and-blood form, the characters scramble to ward off their doomed friends and stop the creature from entering through a magic mirror. Carpenter films this portal with aplomb, using right-angle camera flips and various tricks (like using mercury for the reflective but porous surface of the trans-dimensional mirror) to create a strange alternate realm. The entire sequence is a marvel of low-budget ingenuity, a clever use of in-camera effects, composite shots and precision to give the impression of a vast, hellish world colliding with our own.
Carpenter’s wicked sense of humor is on display throughout, but in some respects this is his most genuinely emotive, ruminative feature, outside of possibly Starman. The opening montage, in which a withered, old priest dies amid unnerving pillow shots of night skies and the church, connotes a grim hopelessness in the face of death, where not even faith can comfort the dying. That idea is taken much further by another priest (Donald Pleasence), who comes clean to the researchers about the true nature of the green liquid with a tone of haunted emptiness livened only by the deep shame of having repressed that truth from the rest of humanity. In one fell swoop, the film lambastes and empathizes with organized religion, castigating its tendency toward cover-up while understanding the burden of attempting to reckon with the vast terror of existence. That terror is deeply felt throughout Prince of Darkness, arguably most horrifically communicated in the most detached, clinical way, when the Anti-God communicates through the computer hooked up to study it. As the students monitor the green liquid, text flashes across the computer display: “You will not be saved by the holy ghost. You will not be saved by the god Plutonium. In fact, you will not be saved.” Carpenter remains the greatest apocalyptic filmmaker, but nothing he ever did so succinctly conveys the pure, overwhelming despair of realizing a higher power can see you and has decided with pure, emotionless resolve to destroy you.