I like John Carpenter. The man is responsible for perhaps the greatest horror film of all time ("Halloween",) as well as numerous other classics like "The Thing" and "Escape from New York." He has also never been one to shy away from heavy topics such as politics ("They Live") and touchy social issues ("Pro-Life".) In "Prince of Darkness" Carpenter broaches perhaps the most heavy topic there is-- religion.
The premise is a good one-- after the death of an elderly priest at a run-down old church, another priest, Father Loomis (Donald Pleasance) is sent there to take over. What he discovers is that this Church was the base of something called the "Brotherhood of Sleep", a group of Catholic priests who were charged with protecting a centuries old secret. In short, the basement is home to a canister of green goo that contains the essence of pure evil which, if released , will bring about the return of the son of Satan, or the "anti-God."
Father Loomis enlists a theoretical physicist, Professer Birack, to help him try to figure out the science behind the supernatural powers that the canister seems to have. Together they gather a group of grad students, scientists and translators to set up shop in the Church and figure out exactly what they're dealing with. However, before they are able to do so, the essence begins to overtake them one by one.
The main issue with the film is its pacing. The story is set up quite fast, only to have it drag to a halt during the second act. Essentially everything we need to know about the story is set up in the first half hour and then, for the rest of the film, the eventuality of the situation seem to develop in super-slow motion. I liken it to standing on train tracks, aware that a train off in the distance will eventually be there to hit you, yet you just stand there and watch it slowly make its approach. As you may have gathered, this led the film to have a sort of lag to it. Though, in a way, it felt reminiscent of the Italian horror films of the 1970's, and not just due to the overtly (anti?)religious story. These films were often slow going, and would often conclude with a really effective, memorable denouement-- something this film does indeed contain.
This is not to say that the film didn't have bright spots-- it is, after all, still a John Carpenter film, so there's bound to be something good about it. For me, it was the shared dreams that the group of grad students begin to have during their stay in the Church. The dreams aren't actually dreams at all-- but rather transmissions from sometime in the future, giving a peek into what will happen if the evil in the canister is released. Carpenter uses grainy, handheld video for the footage of the transmission which, to my knowledge, may have been one of the first horror movies to use handheld, first person video in this way.
The film is interesting, but ultimately just a bit too much of a slow burn. After viewing it a second time, it seems as though the entire film is one, giant, drawn-out first act (Not unlike Shyamalan's "Unbreakable", although in that case it was by design.) I would have liked to see where the film would have gone if the ending we get would have taken place much earlier in the film-- like, say, in the second act. This film is obviously a must-see for anyone who considers themselves a true John Carpenter fan. However, for anyone else, it's probably not going to do much to win you over.
Score: 2.5 out of 5