For most of his life, Evan Dossey generally avoided horror films. The genre made him profoundly uncomfortable. This meant he had enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Over the years, he has asked family and friends which essential horror movies he needs to see and spent the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those folks — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
John Carpenter’s filmography is all over the map for me. He’s made some of my favorite movies of all time (The Thing, They Live), some classic action movies (Escape from New York, Assault on Precinct 13), some beloved films that don’t exactly work for me (the original Halloween, Big Trouble in Little China), some boring trash (Ghosts of Mars, The Ward) and a few I haven’t even bothered watching (Memoirs of an Invisible Man, 1995’s Village of the Damned). I can place every one of his movies in one of these personal categories except for one: Prince of Darkness.
Prince of Darkness is one of those Carpenter movies I appreciated but didn’t love. I definitely love the foreboding tone of the film, which is established by Carpenter’s always great music (working with Alan Howarth). But the plot was hard to penetrate. There’s stuff about quantum mechanics, and the church has been guarding some ancient canister of swirling green goo that might be the devil. But it’s not all convoluted; there are zombie-type people, a man turns into bugs, and someone gets killed with half a bike. So there’s fun to be had. But by the end, I was left underwhelmed.
Years passed, and I watched it again because some podcast was talking about it. This time I liked it more, but still couldn’t put my finger on what issue, if any, I had with it. Finally, watching it for this article, it hit me: Prince of Darkness is an apocalyptic hangout movie.
Carpenter has a unique talent for making big end-of-the-world-type situations feel very small; he’s the anti-Roland Emmerich. Prince of Darkness and They Live deal with worldwide issues in big cities, but they feel populated by just a dozen or so people. With this film, it begins in the world at large, following characters at a university or at a church compound, but it still feels like they are the only people in the world. It creates this mood that the world is ending, and no one seems to even notice. Once the film settles into its final location, it becomes something special.
All the characters end up at this church with the swirling green devil canister, and they’re stuck there for the entire weekend or until the world ends, whichever comes first. Despite a couple scenes in which most of the group is together, everyone stays spaced out in the church. It’s like a house party, and the film drifts from room to room checking in on each character, as the world inches closer to eternal darkness. Characters joke around with each other, eat takeout, drink beer, hit on each other, fall asleep, etc.
Of course, things take a dark turn, but it still feels like a hangout movie. Everybody is there to do a vague job, and they learn, sometimes the hard way, that they’re dealing with some serious, evil shit, but there’s still a lot of scenes of people just sitting around talking. The main moment that sticks out to me is when Victor Wong falls asleep and has the shared ominous dream everyone in the church is having. When he wakes up, it’s revealed that Donald Pleasence has been sitting across from him the whole time, and he asks Wong about his dream. Aside from this being funny, it struck me as something that could happen at a sleepover; not the watching-each-other-sleep stuff, but the asking about the dream when someone clearly wakes from a nightmare.
Sleeping plays a factor in my enjoyment of this film, as well. Typically, I like to put on a fairly lighthearted movie when I try to go to sleep. I don’t want to watch anything heavy that might mess with my dreams or interest me enough to keep me awake. So Prince of Darkness normally wouldn’t work. But this time, I fell asleep during one of my viewings. (I’m a shift worker with three kids, one of whom is a newborn, so it happens). Waking up in the middle of this movie wasn’t jarring, though. Because so many characters fall asleep in the movie (to have the shared dream), it actually made it feel like an immersive experience. This is a sleepy movie, despite the dire circumstances, and the movie is better for it.
The sleepy hangout nature of the film doesn’t exactly sound like a great description for a movie, but in the hands of John Carpenter, it works. Action-heavy disaster-porn apocalypse movies are a dime a dozen. A quiet end-of-the-world movie that seems to be happening with no one even noticing is so much more unique and disturbing than watching a tidal wave hit a city. It feels realistic, which is exactly what you need for a horror film of this type.
After watching Prince of Darkness multiple times this go-around, it has risen in my personal ranking of John Carpenter films, but it’s not my favorite or anything. But due to its amazingly ominous atmosphere and the hangout nature of it, it does have the distinction of being the only John Carpenter movie I could keep on a loop as background noise, and that’s high praise from a weirdo like me.