Prince of Darkness

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Creepy beyond belief, this horror-fantasy-science fiction hybrid is one of the most focused and perfect fright engines ever devised by writer-director-composer John Carpenter (writing here under the pen name Martin Quatermass). Set in and around a monastery in downtown Los Angeles, the story begins when a priest (Carpenter regular Donald Pleasance) asks a theoretical physicist (Victor Wong) to stay in his church and investigate a cylinder filled with mysterious green liquid which, upon closer inspection, turns out to be the corporeal embodiment of Satan. This discovery is the audience’s doorway into an increasingly complex cosmology that merges religion and science, with good and evil (and God and the Devil) posited as quantifiable opposing forces, akin to matter and antimatter. 

Earnest discussions of quantum physics, philosophy, and morality alternate with some of Carpenter’s most surreal and frightening images. There are slow-burn stalkings in the vein of Carpenter’s Halloween, body horror in the spirit of Carpenter’s colleague David Cronenberg (Dead Ringers), and sociopolitical commentary acknowledging the class divisions between the academics and the homeless massing around the property (an image that Carpenter would explore the following year in his satirical thriller They Live!). Alice Cooper guest stars as a homeless zombie who achieves one of the weirdest kills in horror film history. The screenplay draws on the works of British science fiction and fantasy writer Nigel Kneale (Quatermass and the Pit, etc; thus Carpenter’s pen name), whose work often deal with ancient evils, paranormal events, and messages from the future. PRINCE OF DARKNESS is also notable as Carpenter’s most purely imagistic work, merging image and sound into a continuous flow of dread, punctuated by moments of gore and shock. Carpenter’s electronic score runs almost continuously throughout the movie, making PRINCE OF DARKNESS feel as much conducted as directed. It is truly a symphony of horror.
Discussion afterward between MZS and horror expert Simon Abrams, a critic and journalist whose work has been published by The New York Times,, and The Hollywood Reporter.
Screening as part of our series Movies with MZS, an ongoing program of audience discussions hosted by critic Matt Zoller Seitz.
Trivia on the image above: Carpenter shot it with a regular resolution camcorder, then shot the same image again with yet another camcorder, to make it shimmer in a strange way for additional creepiness.
  • Country USA
  • Year 1987
  • Running Time 102 minutes
  • Distributor Universal
  • Director John Carpenter
  • Writer John Carpenter (as Martin Quartermass)
  • Editor Steve Mirkovich
  • Cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe
  • Cast Donald Pleasence, Lisa Blount, Jameson Parker

IFC Center does not generally provide advisories about subject matter or potentially triggering content in films, as sensitivities vary from person to person. In addition to the synopses, trailers and other links on our website, further information about content and age-appropriateness for specific films can be found on Common Sense Media, IMDb and as well as through general internet searches.