By Justin LaLiberty
It takes nearly ten minutes for the opening credits of John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness to complete their slow, sporadic crawl through the center of the screen. They’re chopped up, delivered piecemeal in a seeming attempt to prolong the inevitable. By the time John Carpenter’s “directed by” credit punctuates the ordeal, we are well aware of whose hands we are in; the brash, electronic score has kicked in, the image is wide and oppressive and the apocalypse has been foreshadowed.
Referring to Prince of Darkness as an apocalypse film is far from novel; the film has long been the center of Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” which begins with The Thing in 1982 and ends with In the Mouth of Madness in 1995. But where The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness rely on an apocalypse brought about from within man, either than manifested in an organism transmitted via blood or one man’s (mis)understanding of reality, the apocalypse of Prince of Darkness is far more epic – and theological – in nature.
Despite its title and blatant religious overtones, Prince of Darkness isn’t so much about the arrival of Satan on Earth as it is about the destruction of God – the proof that He has never existed and that in the lacking of a higher power only exists pure evil, which can bring about the end of the universe as we know it, like a star falling from heaven. In Prince of Darkness, the end times aren’t so much about the image of mass destruction or a sentient being overcome with pure evil hellbent on ending human life, but the absence of such things. The Antarctic dread of The Thing gives way to an LA teeming with the possessed, with seemingly no escape and a group of people who have surrounded themselves with candles and computers in an attempt to understand it all.
Prince of Darkness and the other two films in Carpenter’s trilogy are far from the first or last films to deal with the apocalypse as a narrative device. The 1950s was rife with sci-fi films inspired by the Red Scare, including The Thing from Another World (which would inspire The Thing), The Day the Earth Stood Still and The War of the Worlds. The 1960s took advantage of Cold War paranoia with Fail Safe, Dr. Strangelove and Panic in Year Zero! The 1970s saw a sardonic spat of post-apocalyptic black comedies like A Boy and His Dog, Gas-s-s-s, and Zardoz – all of which questioned social mores of the day while taking place after the end of humanity. And then the 80s hit in a big way with the first two films in Carpenter’s trilogy alongside period spectacles like The Apple and Night of the Comet.
At one point, a computer screen in Prince of Darkness reads “YOU WILL NOT BE SAVED” – it’s a far cry from the more jovial AI interactions of MacReady (Kurt Russell) in The Thing playing chess which he calls a “cheating bitch” after “she” repeatedly declares checkmate. In all three of Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy films, technology and man are at odds – whether the technology is alien, ancient or fabricated. There is no saving man in any of these films, most of all Prince of Darkness. We are all doomed; doomed by the Anti-God, by Alice Cooper and by ourselves. But at least we have that fun, synth heavy score to listen to on our way out.