Satan is a cylinder of swirly, glowing green goo. Mirrors part like mercury and lead to another dimension. Beetles erupt out of a man. Alice Cooper leads an army of homeless people in a siege against a church. This is not a dream. It’s not a recollection of an acid trip gone wrong. It is, in fact, a simple collection of images from the delightfully weird mindfuck of John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness.
Released in 1987, sandwiched between The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness, Prince of Darkness is one of the underrated and overlooked gems of John Carpenter’s impressive filmography. It is not a film without problems — in truth, it has almost as many problems as it does moments of genius — but it is also not the unadulterated trainwreck it is purported by many to be. In truth, it’s a brilliantly original and inventive horror movie driven less by standard scares and tired horror tropes and more by nightmarish surrealism and an incredible atmosphere.
The story centers on an ancient order of priests called the Brotherhood of Sleep, who watch over a cylinder containing a green fluid that is somehow Satan. Supposedly, these priests have held the true, secret meaning of Christ’s message until the world had the technology to defeat Satan, but the last brother of the order dies, kicking off a series of events that sees a non-initiated priest, played with a manic energy by Donald Pleasance, take up the mantle. He brings in a crack team of wacky quantum physicists, biochemists, a linguist and other grad-student types to figure out a way to stop the Dark Lord, who seems to be hatching out of his container.
Naturally, the fluid infects one of these scientists and things get murdery. Plus, anyone who tries to get out has to face that army of zombielike homeless people led by Alice Cooper. Before, during and after all this, those scientists spend a lot of time looking at columns of numbers on ’80s-era computers and listening to fancy machines go “ping.” Meanwhile, old Scratch starts stirring things up, leading to a climactic confrontation that involves a lesion-covered possessed woman reaching into mirrors to pull out the Prince of Darkness.
There are lots of other sweet occurrences, such as a videotape-recorded, backward-traveling message from the future, Alice Cooper, angry insects, lots of green fluid that gets spewed around, that guy who melts into beetles, impalements — you know, the usual rigmarole of a great horror film.
Does it sound a little confusing, maybe even nonsensical? Well, it is. In some ways, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. But neither do nightmares, or bad acid trips, and those are both fantastically effective about scaring the living shit out of you. Prince of Darkness is no different. Between all those creepy images of bugs, the cryptic nonsense Satan keeps spouting, the backward-in-time messages of impending doom, the mirrors that lead to the hell dimension and Donald Pleasance freaking the fuck out, this is a pretty scary movie. It is dragged down a bit — maybe more than a bit — by some uneven acting, Jameson Parker’s sweet pornstache and several fantastic mullets.
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Take all those pieces in isolation, and it’s easy to understand why critics and some fans are so down on this movie. It’s a mess, no doubt. But it's a glorious, creepy, one-of-a-kind mess that dispenses with convention and sticks with you long after the credits roll. That’s more than all but the top tier of horror movies of its era can boast, and if no horror filmmaker has picked up its weird-ass mantle of surreal science fiction mixed with religious symbolism and faux-biblical hooey, that’s more an indictment of their failings than this film’s. Coherent, concise and critically acclaimed it is not, but Prince of Darkness is still an unforgettable expedition into the weirder corners of horror, and a film worth seeing despite its many flaws.
See Prince of Darkness at 10 p.m. Saturday, June 18, at the Sie FilmCenter. Tickets are $11, or $8 for seniors and $7 for Denver Film Society members. For tickets and more information, visit the Denver Film Society website.