How do you follow up a directing career that includes “Halloween”, “The Fog”, and “The Thing”? You follow it up with a quantum physics investigation of Satan, obviously. Though not one of John Carpenter’s more lauded films, Prince of Darkness is an interesting puzzle of a movie. Part horror, part scientific rumination, the film is understandably a bit schizophrenic. What this ultimately means, though, is that it’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch. And now, thanks to Netflix streaming, you can.
Part of Carpenter’s self described “apocalypse trilogy”, Prince of Darkness is a bit of standout based on its pure intellectualism. Instead of driving themes of distrust and madness, ala “The Thing” and “Mouth of Madness”, Prince of Darkness spends a large portion of its time observing physicists debating and explaining evil, and perhaps even Satan himself, through the lens of molecular and quantum physics. Instead of being a fallen angel, Satan becomes antimatter, the literal antithesis of the “God” matter. If that sounds a bit dry, it is. An appreciable portion of the film is clinical, awkward, and a little odd. But, luckily, it’s also kind of incredible. The filmmaking bravery it took to spend narrative time on physics and theoretical musings is, if nothing else, incredibly admirable. Carpenter is not here to spoon-feed pop horror to us. Instead, we get soulless explanations of what may be happening on a molecular level.
Incredibly, and mostly thanks to Carpenter’s skill, Prince of Darkness still manages to be innately creepy. Sprinkled among all the science are amazingly horrific images. From the empty, zombie-like horde of homeless people, to armies of bugs scurrying about, the visuals that Carpenter puts forth act as their own kind of antithesis to the clinical approach of the scientists inside. Evil, no matter how it is explained, is still horrific on a very basic and evolutionary level. Carpenter’s knowledge of this and his cinematic use of it makes Prince of Darkness seem uncomfortable unstable. The film is dry, expository and emotionally unsettling. This frenetic balance that this creates makes the film feel odd, off putting and, somehow, completely engaging. The film itself, much like the themes within it, wants its cake and to be able to eat it too. To be both dispassionate and primal. The oddest thing of all, is that the film somehow pulls that off.
And then there is the ending. The ending represents the most chaotic, and perhaps confusing, portion of the film. This was surely bound to happen when you throw quantum mechanics into a blender with human possession and nefarious mirrors. Through all of the strangeness and ambiguity, though, Carpenter manages to keep one thing constant, the terror. The audience may be confused and angry once that final cut to black takes place, but they will most definitely be affected. Meaning clear or not, Prince of Darkness gets that vital element of horror incredibly right, the visceral fear of the unknown. Science may be able to explain evil, but it can never make it less scary.