Prince of Darkness marks the second installment of John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy. Sandwiched between The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness, most of the film takes place in a Los Angeles church basement where a priest and a group of scientists investigate a swirling green ooze of mysterious provenance. As science and religion fold onto themselves, the line between earth and hell threatens to buckle, and this small group must stand in its way. Rather than directing a victorious action film about confronting the evils of the world, Carpenter crafts a surreal horror film about loneliness. At the heart of Prince of Darkness, the failures of religion and science reflect the limits of the human mind to grasp the immensity of the universe and our menial position within it.
If even in romantic relationships we cannot fully connect with another person, how are we meant to understand the incomprehensible? Treated as a hypothesis during the exposition, a melancholic romantic connection in Prince of Darkness’ early scenes seem to be emblematic of humanity’s failure to face the reality of our mortality. If love symbolizes our ability to connect with each other and our environment, it also reflects our need to accept its limits. The true horror of Prince of Darkness, as it is in many of Carpenter’s films, is the inevitably of humanity’s end. Just as the universe existed for eons before our existence, it will survive for eons after we’re gone.
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Having the greatest minds from religion and science face off (and fail) against an ancient evil inspires a familiar and aching sense of dread. Prince of Darkness doesn’t just amount to the failures to overcome a darkness that will eclipse humanity, but drowns in the meaninglessness of life itself. While the film’s visual effects are often more silly than scary, it only serves to drive home the emptiness of our existence. We might want to believe humanity can only be crushed by an awe-inspiring evil, but our physical bodies are incredibly fragile, and humanity as a whole can be done in by a change of temperature or falling space debris. The pitiful villainy at play within Prince of Darkness only points to humanity’s fundamental weakness: the fragility of our mortal bodies and our inability to face that truth.
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Loneliness has long been a staple of horror, and while it’s something most of us relate to, articulating its precise conditions remains difficult. People feel loneliness in a crowd or a relationship, just as they can feel completely at ease in isolation. Rather than being an external condition, loneliness most often lies in the inability to face the untrustworthiness of reality. While you might know that you’re human, part of you worries that you might not be, and that crippling fear hangs over Carpenter’s filmography. Whether in The Thing, In the Mouth of Madness or Prince of Darkness, his characters are faced with an existential doubt that reality might not be as fixed as they once thought.
Justine Peres Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema.