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'Prince of Darkness' and the low-budget magic of John Carpenter
The legendary horror master knows how to do a lot with a little.
In his decades-long career, John Carpenter has worked at virtually every level of filmmaking budget, from student films to Hollywood blockbusters. He's had money to throw at the screen, and he's had to scratch together just enough to pull off a three-week shoot. In other words, he can make it work with whatever he's got.
But there's something undeniable special that seems to happen when Carpenter's budgets are especially tight, in part because that usually means he's also managed to negotiate creative control out of working cheap. Something in the legendary genre filmmaker comes alive when these logistical restrictions are in place, and he's able to build worlds onscreen that seem so much bigger than they are. He did with Assault on Precinct 13, one of the most tension-laden thrillers of the 1970s. He did it with Halloween, one of the most influential horror movies ever made. And, he did it again with Prince of Darkness, the second part of his fabled thematic "Apocalypse Trilogy," now streaming on Peacock just in time for the Halloween season.
Produced as part of a low-budget two-picture deal (the other product of this deal was the legendary They Live), Prince of Darkness stands 35 years later as one of Carpenter's most impressive moviemaking feats. Like those aforementioned films, it was produced on a relatively low budget with just a handful of locations and a somewhat tight shooting schedule. You can see the confined nature of the story in a visual sense, as Carpenter's characters spend most of the film in one place, but you can never feel it. Like Halloween before it and They Live after it, Carpenter's sense of atmosphere dominates Prince of Darkness, but even They Live can't match it in terms of the sheer scope of storytelling at work.
Inspired by Carpenter's own reading about quantum physics, Prince of Darkness is a merging of science and faith, of the tangible and the inexplicable. The meat of the story follows a quantum physicist (Victor Wong) and a group of his students as they head to an old church to research an object unearthed by a Priest (Donald Pleasence). The priest claims that the object — a cylinder full of swirling green liquid — is the physical embodiment of Satan, kept under guard by a secretive Catholic order for centuries. But the order's power over the cylinder is waning, and the liquid is threatening to break loose into the world. To save humanity, the priest warns, the physicists must study the liquid and the artifacts associated with it and decode them scientifically, creating tangible proof for the general public that "pure evil" is real, and must be defended against.
First of all, if you're going to make a film about the physical embodiment of actual, touchable Evil, it helps to have Donald Pleasence in your corner. Carpenter and Pleasence alike wield the actor's place in the public imagination — a place cemented by his work on Carpenter's own Halloween franchise — to drive home the point the film is making about the liquid in that cylinder, and the danger it brings. There's something undeniably compelling about the concept alone, but Carpenter doesn't coast by on that. Yes, it might be interesting in any visual context, but it's easy to imagine another filmmaker with a bigger budget making it into something vast and logistically complex. A modern reinterpretation might put government choppers overhead, even rope in the Pope and the President of the United States, but because Carpenter didn't have such scope at his financial disposal, he makes everything more intimate, and thus much more frightening.
In the world of Prince of Darkness, the end of the world and the rise of a malignant "Anti-God" doesn't arrive with some great sounding of trumpets. It happens in a small church, with a small group of people slowly falling prey to evil's influence, and just a handful of survivors standing in the way of us and the apocalypse. It's a film full of big ideas which must be grappled with not by the all-encompassing power of the Papacy or the U.S. Government, but by a few experts trying to get their heads around the fact that they've just found the answer to one of the world's ultimate questions. It's a tight, almost claustrophobic film about the burden of secrets, of unimaginable truths that can't be hidden anymore, and it's as much about the terror of coming to know those secrets as it is about the terror of turning into an insect-ridden demon monster.
John Carpenter is capable of greatness on just about any cinematic scale, but Prince of Darkness remains a haunting reminder of just how good he can be when he tightens his belt, takes a look at his constraints, and figures out just how big of a story he can fit into a low-budget project. If you haven't seen it, this Halloween is the perfect time to take it in. If you have seen it, it's one of those films that's always worth another look.
Prince of Darkness is now streaming on Peacock.