"Before man walked the earth... it slept for centuries. It is evil. It is real. It is awakening."
Having been summoned to a long abandoned church in downtown Los Angeles by Father Loomis (played by the perpetually nervous Donald Pleasance), Prof. Birack and an assortment of graduate students are asked to investigate the origins of a mysterious cylinder of glowing green goo and a tome of indeterminate age written in an unknown language. It isn't long before strange things begin to happen as hordes of insects and worms appear, zombie-like homeless people gather outside the church, and the occupants within begin to experience a disturbing shared dream. Tensions mount as the cylinder is analyzed, the book is deciphered, and the meaning of the dream becomes clear. (What's actually going on in the church is kind of complicated, so I'll save all that for a little later.) With the truth revealed and the container's seals breached, a number of the students begin to fall under the spell of what's inside, joining the possessed homeless in an assault on those still unaffected. The dwindling number of survivors must not only find a way to escape the church, but also, as their dreams have revealed, save the world in the process.
"Martin Quartermass, whose first screenplay this is, overloads the dialogue with scientific references and is stingy with the surprises." Well, at least that's what the October 23, 1987 New York Times review of Prince of Darkness had to say upon the films release. The problem is, you see, Martin Quartermass never really existed outside of the credits of the movie. (God bless the NY Times, getting things wrong for generations.) As it turns out, the name was just a pseudonym for John Carpenter himself, who used it as a penname in tribute to the old Professor Quartermass films of the 60s. Long time genre fans were quick to catch the reference, especially since the plotline of Prince of Darkness touches on themes very similar to those in the brilliant 1967 film Quartermass and The Pit. In that movie, London is laid waste to after a buried space capsule is unearthed and the evil world-mind of the planet Mars, which the racial memory of humankind recognizes as Satan, possesses most of the population. That's right, the devil came from Mars.
Carpenter's take is slightly different, and also a little tougher to explain. You see, in Prince of Darkness, the ancient text the scientific team is decoding explains that Jesus was actually an extraterrestrial being who came to our planet in order to warn mankind about the antichrist. This entity, which is basically sentient evil in prebiotic liquid form, was sent from it's mirror universe to our world at the dawn of time in order to infect the world's population. The resulting army of evil would then prepare the way for Satan to breach the dimensional barrier and bring a time of darkness to God's universe of light. Upon delivering this warning, however, the alien Jesus was promptly crucified as a madman. Undeterred, His followers managed to capture the cylinder containing the antichrist and secret it away. They then established the dogmas of Christianity as a smoke screen so that no one could learn the real truth, a truth the science of the time could not prove. Once science had advanced enough, however, the Church still kept the cylinder a secret as it was unwilling to give up its phony teachings and thereby lose its means of controlling the hearts and minds of the population. (Got all that? Good. Now take a deep breath, because we're only halfway there.)
You would think that would be enough plot points for two or three films already, but Carpenter was reading a lot of quantum mechanics at the time, and couldn't resist throwing in one more little element. The disturbing dream. As the investigators come to learn, their shared dream is actually a future television broadcast showing the newly released Satan emerging from the church, a signal being transmitted backwards in time via faster than light tachyon streams. The hope is that the transmission, which is picked up by the subconscious of anyone sleeping in close proximity to the church, will warn the people of the past about the approaching apocalypse and allow them an opportunity to intervene and change the timeline. Neat, huh? Not only does this plot device set up an absolutely perfect payoff in the final scene, but it also provides a foreboding sense of doom throughout the entire movie that really amps up the tension. You want atmosphere? This film is swimming in it. (Got all that? Good. There just might be a pop quiz later.)
If all this sounds overly geeky, like you need to read some Stephen Hawking before popping the DVD in, then let me reassure you, we're still talking about a John Carpenter film here. As interesting as the ideas are in this movie, they only come at you scattershot amidst the usual Carpenter carnage. All that Star Trek manual type stuff gets squeezed in between scenes of zombies dissolving into puddles of insects, guys getting stabbed with bicycle seats, people vomiting the antichrist into each others mouths, etc. You know, all the fun thrill-ride stuff you actually rented the movie to see when you noticed John Carpenter's name over the title. In fact, if the movie has one noticeable flaw, it's probably that it's overcrowded, with Carpenter's typical "small group under siege" action scenario competing with all of the tech talk for screen time. Things can quickly become convoluted if you're not paying attention.
Along with being tough to follow, the movie also has serious budget problems in the effects department (the antichrist in human form kind of looks like somebody's mom with cherry pie all over her face) and some of the acting is a little wonky (if physicists are really this wooden when they fall in love, it's amazing they get a chance to breed at all). In fact, there's a good chance you might just hate this movie. But if you're like me, then this movie will slowly creep it's way up your list of favorites. You see, I'm just enough of an armchair intellectual (annoying nerd?) to really enjoy discussions of Schrodinger's cat and God-directed sub atomic particles being wedged in amongst all the neck snapping and eye gouging. This film is exactly the kind of grand guignol geekery that this blog was made for. Which is odd, I suppose, given the fact that the central conceit of Prince of Darkness is that everything my religion teaches, everything I profess to believe in, is a lie, a fabrication designed to steer people away from the real truth.
How then, you might ask, am I able to enjoy this movie so much? How is it that I'm not so offended by it's very existence that I don't go all Golden Compass on it? Probably because, in truth, there's no sense of real malice towards religion in Prince of Darkness. While the Church is indeed presented as deceitful and the priest does (temporarily?) lose his faith, the scientists fare little better as their arrogant confidence in a purely secular worldview crumbles before the realization that God and the devil are real (even if not quite in the way the Church taught). You could even say science gets the worst of it, as those students who doggedly refuse to accept that Satan exists are the first to get killed off. And, as Conrich and Woods' The Cinema Of John Carpenter: The Technique Of Terror correctly notes, God even gets in the last word as "Christian teachings apparently resurface in the self-sacrifice of Catherine who, while the priest suffers a breakdown, goes through the mirror to prevent the entity from bringing about the Apocalypse." (Kind of interesting to note that the authors don't see self-sacrifice as a scientific concept.)
No, unlike the aforementioned Golden Compass, Carpenter doesn't really appear all that interested in destroying my religion, he just seems to want to borrow ideas and start discussions. "I'm an atheist" Carpenter is quoted as saying in an interview with Big O Magazine, "but I have a great fascination with this issue - over God and whether there is one or not. I come to (my belief) personally for my own reasons and my own decisions. But I respect anybody who believes anything, I don't have the ultimate answers about anything." (Isn't it nice to be reminded sometimes that not all atheists are like Christopher Hitchens?) Really, Carpenter sounds like someone you could talk these things over with, especially if beer and nachos were part of the deal. And as the Catechism notes, Catholics have no reason to shy away from talking with people whose ideas clash with our own. "In defending the ability of human reason to know God, the Church is expressing her confidence in the possibility of speaking about him to all men and with all men, and therefore of dialogue with other religions, with philosophy and science, as well as with unbelievers and atheists."
That's how it always been from the beginning. As I made note of myself in the very first paragraph I ever wrote on this blog, "in Acts 17 of the Christian New Testament, St. Paul finds an altar in Athens dedicated to the “Unknown God”. It was one of those little stone thingies Tertullian mentions which the Greeks would erect just to make sure they were covering all their bases god-wise. You never know when some wandering Bulgarian Samodivi might wander into town and want a little sacrifice. Never one to pass up an opportunity, Paul uses the altar as a springboard for conversation with the locals about his new religion and its "Unknown God", Jesus." And that turned out okay, didn't it? Adherents.com speculates that there are over 1.1 billion atheists-agnostics-unbelievers in the world today. That number is only going to grow if we never engage those who disagree with our beliefs.
As recent as his December 21, 2007 speech to the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops from Latin America and the Caribbean, Pope Benedict XVI reminded us all that "those who have recognized a great truth, those who have discovered a great joy, must pass it on, they cannot keep it to themselves... In order to reach fulfillment, history needs the announcement of the Good News to all peoples, to all men and women... because the renewed encounter with Jesus Christ and His Gospel - and only that - revives the forces that make us capable of giving the right response to the challenges of our time." So, talk to them. Even if they tell you Satan is from Mars, go ahead and talk to them. Even if they tell you evil is nothing more than a big vial full of snot, just... talk to them.
Pop quiz time. (Hey, you were warned.) Carpenter's atheism does get the better of him in one aspect of the script. Did you spot it?
In his history of the antichrist, rather than admit to the truth (even for the sake of the story) of the Church's spiritual teachings on the nature of good and evil, Carpenter couldn't resist falling back on one of the oldest chestnuts about the Church that there is, that we made it all up for the sake of power. "The name "atheism" covers many very different phenomena" the Catechism reminds us. "[One] form of contemporary atheism looks for the liberation of man through economic and social liberation. "It holds that religion, of its very nature, thwarts such emancipation by raising man's hopes in a future life, thus both deceiving him and discouraging him from working for a better form of life on earth."