And You Call Yourself a Scientist!

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"I have a message for you - you’re not going to like it:
Pray For Death!"

prncdk.jpg (12461 bytes) Director: John Carpenter

Starring: Donald Pleasence, Victor Wong, Lisa Blount, Jameson Parker, Anne Howard, Ann Yen, Dennis Dun

Screenplay: Martin Quatermass (John Carpenter)

Synopsis: A member of a sect known as the Brotherhood of Sleep dies, and a key and his diary come into the possession of a priest (Donald Pleasence). The priest turns for help to a physicist (Victor Wong), who enlists his graduate students to investigate the guarded secret, a mysterious cylinder of green fluid entombed in the basement of an abandoned church. A manuscript found with the cylinder is translated, and reveals that the cylinder contains the Essence of Evil, perhaps Satan himself. Meanwhile, the scientific intruments brought in to monitor the cylinder reveal that its contents are forming themselves into a physical presence. While the scientists argue the significance of their findings, the Essence begins its work by taking them over one by one. Several deaths occur before the scientists understand that the Essence requires a physical host to complete its recreation and enable it to bring its Father, the Anti-God, into this world. and that one of them has been chosen.

Comments: The science/religion conflict has been a staple of horror films from the beginning, but few have used it as explicitly or as interestingly as Prince Of Darkness. Priest Pleasence knows that the cylinder contains the eponymous evil, but needs science to help him prove it and to fight it; physicist Wong, known for his "TV debates with that English priest", is the first to believe the priest’s story. The Brotherhood, we are told, has shrouded their secret in mysticism until society is advanced enough technologically to deal with it, while an intriguing balance is struck between the priest who must ask for scientific help, and the scientists who must admit they can’t explain what’s happening (when two thousand-year-old Latin is translated into differential equations, one of the team objects, "We hadn’t invented them then!").

The film argues throughout for the virtues of the open mind (not always subtly: the scientist who dismisses the whole matter as "kaka" is brutally stabbed to death while being overrun by cockroaches). This meshing of themes is in intelligent contrast to the straightforward Science Vs Religion framework usually employed in this kind of movie. The script is full of scientific and pseudo-scientific jargon, and wisely tosses it about so rapidly that the viewer has little time to think about it. Prince Of Darkness also succeeds in subverting the conventions of the modern horror film (conventions largely established by Carpenter’s own Halloween) by having two quiet, work-obsessed women the first to be taken over, while Catherine (Lisa Blount), the only woman explicitly presented as being sexually active, is the one who ultimately defeats the evil, albeit at the cost of her life (perhaps).

There is also a discomforting sequence concerning the radiologist, Susan (Anne Howard): three times running she is asked for, prompting blank inquiries, and the response "The radiologist. You know - glasses." Her insignificance makes her vulnerable: apparently, not only do boys not make passes at girls who wear glasses, they are the first ones possessed by the devil (post-possession, she doesn’t need her glasses). These interesting points aside, the film is not without serious flaws. As it progresses, both science and religion take a back seat to gruesome special effects, while the evil, to a great extent, is defeated by physical violence rather than intelligence. The John Carpenter signature there’s-someone-behind-you framing shot, used to best effect in Halloween, is overused here. There is also something distasteful about the evil’s chosen servants: classing homeless people and the mentally ill (led, in a distracting cameo, by Alice Cooper) with ants, worms and cockroaches is dubious, to say the least.