As the last member of a secret Catholic sect expires, he leaves behind him an abandoned Los Angeles church of which he had been the guardian. The keys to the building have been entrusted to Father Loomis (Donald Pleasence) and he has made a sinister discovery inside, for at the altar of the church there is a large canister full of a revolving, green fluid. This would be strange enough, but anyone who draws close to it has an overwhelming sense of foreboding and dread. When Loomis brings in a scientist, Professor Birack (Victor Wong) and his students he hopes to get to the heart of the mystery...
But as you might expect, it all goes horribly wrong. John Carpenter scripted Prince of Darkness, which he considered the middle part of his apocalypse trilogy, under the pseudonym Martin Quatermass which was a tribute to Nigel Kneale who wrote classic T.V. play The Stone Tape to which this film owed a strong debt. If you can forget about the similarities, and don't judge this as a cross between that play and Carpenter's own Assault on Precinct 13, then you could enjoy this as a low budget but still fairly impressive example of serious horror.
All right, there are a few lighter moments, but mainly Carpenter aims for an atmosphere of encroaching doom and to back up the usual "Return of Satan" business he had amassed no small amount of scientific mumbo jumbo to make the terrors as ominous as possible, for if you can bolster your horror with a measure of scholarly conviction, then the audience can buy into it. Unfortunately there were not legions of fans to praise Prince of Darkness when it was first released, and many found it too self-involved to be really appealing, but over the years some have tuned into what others would deride as pretension on the part of the director and found it's not bad at all.
Leading the group of the world's oldest students is Professor Birack, and during the long build up we get to know two of them, Catherine (Lisa Blount) and the man who wishes to romance her, Brian (Jameson Parker). This relationship is intended to bring poignancy to the final stages, but like too much of the characterisation verges on the perfunctory. Once everyone gathers at the church, we at least have the supernatural menace to contend with, which includes an army of homeless people led by Alice Cooper to ensure that nobody leaves that night, and if they do they meet a sticky end at their hands.
There's a danger of this falling into a "guess who dies next?" routine shocker, but after a while the weight of all these intelligent personalities taking the threat seriously might make you take a similar view. The trouble is that Carpenter doesn't seem to have his usual assured grasp of his story, and too often those awestruck conversations leave the audience at a loss to explain precisely what is going on. On the other hand, this can be advantageous because it renders the machinations of the evil forces just obscure enough to seem more vast than the budget could allow for the visuals. Every so often, there's a neat idea, such as the transmissions from the future which invade the characters' dreams as they sleep, and which were sampled for D.J. Shadow's classic album Endtroducing, which if nothing else proves that some do respond to Prince of Darkness's potent but slightly fumbled unease. Music by Carpenter, which lasts practically the whole film.
Skillful American writer-director of supense movies, often in the science fiction or horror genres. Comedy Dark Star and thriller Assault on Precinct 13 were low budget favourites, but mega-hit Halloween kick-started the slasher boom and Carpenter never looked back.