The critics got it wrong. I’ve been fueled with righteous, horror indignation because one of my favorite genre films was reviewed unfairly. As I push my devil-horned rimmed glasses atop my boney nose, I’m finally going to call out three critics for their errors. Mistakes authored twenty-eight years ago.
The film is Prince of Darkness (1987), a piece of celluloid terror from director John Carpenter. It’s a small film with big ideas, the second installment in a suite Carpenter called “The Apocolypse Trilogy.” The critics are The Washington Post’s Richard Harrington, The New York Times’ Vincent Canby, and The Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert. They were small-minded with big egos, failing to understand thematic context, homage, and scoring.
Harrington’s review from October 28, 1987 decries the film’s thematic underpinnings. “Carpenter may think he’s saying something about the hollowness of religion and the roots of evil (there are a lot of strained “supposes” and “what ifs”), but in the end he’s just after cheap thrills.” Mr. Harrington was blinded by a flood of 1980s horror mediocrity. Prince of Darkness admittedly has a traditional genre plot; a demonic force will return to Earth unless a band of unfounded heroes can stop it. Simple. However, the film explores unique applications of theoretical physics and atomic theory. Evil is approached as a measurable force. Implementing matter and anti-matter as plot devices in a horror film was provocative, especially considering the genre fare of the mid 1980s (ex. Maximum Overdrive, April Fool’s Day, Deadly Friend). No answers are offered to questions of faith and scientific inquiry, unless character death is a consideration. Dying in this film is less a “cheap thrill” as it is a nihilistic embrace.
Canby’s review from October 23, 1987 pokes fun at the writer. “Martin Quatermass, whose first screenplay this is, overloads the dialogue with scientific references and is stingy with the surprises.” Mr. Canby’s ignorance is abhorrent. Firstly, surprises are irrelevant in Prince of Darkness. Fatality is the known outcome from the start. Mounting tension is the film’s strength. Secondly, Canby fails to understand the film’s homage to genre history. The screenplay was written by Carpenter under the pseudonym ‘Quatermass.’ That name is in reference to Bernard Quatermass, a fictional scientist from mid-century BBC sci-fi serials. No less than three plot elements in Prince of Darkness share similarities with Quatermass adventures: confronting an ancient evil, investigating the paranormal, and receiving messages from the future. Carpenter also pays respect to the Quatermass writer, Nigel Kneale, with the naming rights of the film’s featured Ivory Tower – “Kneale University.”
Lastly, Ebert’s review (also published on October 23, 1987) takes aim at the score. “The movie tries to compensate for a thin plot by some very thick, even oppressive, music. Composed by Carpenter and Alan Howarth (apparently on a synthesizer that also has been possessed by the devil), the music is effective at first, but then it grows obnoxious, loud and annoying – the kind of music that tells us the sights we are witnessing are not as banal as they seem.” This opinion is ludicrous. The score is a character in its own right, belonging to an ensemble that grows more tense and charged as the film reaches its climax. Carpenter is a true auteur, with the skills sets in writing, directing, and composing. His debut album, Lost Themes, was released in February. Universally praised by critics, it is masterfully scary. The high praise is deserved.
Despite their flaws, these three critics have some merit in begrudging other aspects of the film. Hokey dialogue, ridiculous props, and uneven acting make Prince of Darkness fall short on the scale of horror heavies. Nevertheless, the film’s positives outshine the negatives. Or, the matter outweighs the anti-matter.
As an aside, the exterior location for Prince of Darkness was a community church in downtown Los Angeles. It still stands, now as a community arts center. Now THAT’s scary.