They Said What?! is a biweekly column in which we explore the highs and lows of film criticism through history. How did critics feel about it at the time, and do we see it differently now? In this entry, Chris Coffel explores the original critical reception of John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness.
In October 1987, John Carpenter released the second installment of his “Apocalypse Trilogy”: Prince of Darkness. The film follows a quantum physicist professor and a group of his students as they research a mysterious cylinder containing a strange green liquid found in the basement of a monastery. At the box office, Prince of Darkness was a success, coming in second place over its opening weekend and bringing in just over $14 million (against a budget of $3 million) at the end of its eleven-week run. Critically speaking, however, the results were a bit more mixed.
“It has too many holes,” Los Angeles Times critic Michael Wilmington wrote in his middling review. Wilmington was impressed with Carpenter’s direction, pointing to his “graceful, gliding tracking shots, and icily precise Hitchcockian setups” but felt the film got stuck in that weird space between serious and scary and goofy and camp.
Eleanor O’Sullivan of the Asbury Park Press echoed similar sentiments, albeit in a slightly harsher tone. O’Sullivan wrote that the film was “self-consciously camp and self-important but it’s so dopey, you can’t hate it or help laughing.” O’Sullivan also mocked various lines of dialogue and claimed the film would have put her to sleep if not for Carpenter’s “insistent, persistent and loud” score.
Vincent Canby of the New York Times called the film “surprisingly cheesy” when compared to Carpenter’s previous work. Much like O’Sullivan, Canby took issue with the film’s dialogue, writing that the film spends too much time on the science while being “stingy with the surprises.” As for the cast, Canby was less than impressed, calling Donald Pleasence and Victor Wong “windbags who could easily bore Satan into submission.” He did find Alice Cooper mild entertaining, however.
“Prince of Darkness never should have seen the light of day,” reads the headline for Robert S. Cauthorn’s review in The Arizona Daily Star. Like many of his fellow critics, Cauthorn poked fun at the film’s dialogue, which he best summed up as different variations of “Oooo, I feel evil.” Though he wasn’t the only reviewer to refer to the film’s sinister cylinder as a lava lamp, he leaned into much more than anyone else, calling it such at seven different points in his review. It’s safe to say Cauthorn wasn’t a fan of the film, calling it a “stinkerooney,” but he was eager to see the sequel, “Prince of Darkness II: Cramming for Final Exams.”
In the years since its release, the analysis of the film has been much more positive. When Carpenter’s twenty feature films are ranked — and they’re ranked often — Prince of Darkness regularly appears in the top half. Here at FSR, we placed the film in ninth place, with Jacob Trussell calling it Carpenter’s “most criminally underrated” film. Slashfilm has the film ranked seventh, while Collider puts it in Carpenter’s top five.
In an excellent 2016 piece for Little White Lies, Tom Watchorn writes that Prince of Darkness is “among the most haunting” of Carpenter films but gets lost in the shuffle because it was released between two beloved cult classics: Big Trouble in Little China and They Live. Watchorn credits Carpenter’s ability to deliver power imagery as to why the film works so well, writing that the director “unrepentantly goes tactile and visceral in a manner only rivaled by The Thing.”
Writing for io9.com that same year, Cheryl Eddy acknowledges the film is “riddled with gaping plot holes” but that doesn’t stop it from depicting “evil in one of the most repulsive and scary ways ever.” Eddy writes that some of the plot points are confusing and the acting leaves a bit to be desired, but if you can get past that, you’re left with “highly effective nightmare fodder, with a bonus side of skin-crawling repulsion.”
In a 2019 column for Bloody Disgusting, Meagan Navarro attributes the best moments of Prince of Darkness to Carpenter and crew being forced to get creative due to a limited budget. The film’s most memorable moment comes in the climax with a mangled hand reaching into a mirror and pulling the evil out and into the real world. “Carpenter and crew ingeniously drained their camera crane of its mercury,” Navarro writes, “and put it in a container. It gave the effect of liquid mirror glass. The arms in this shot are prosthetics.” Navarro also suggests that the film slipped by many because of its “ideas and surrealism,” but credits those same reasons as proof that Carpenter isn’t “afraid to go full throttle on his vision.”
The writer known by the moniker The Wolfman, of the website The Wolfman Cometh, believes Prince of Darkness works so well by not being your typical John Carpenter film. “The way that real science was used along with the supernatural made it feel much more like it was based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft,” The Wolfman writes in a 2010 review. “And I mean that in the best way possible.”
This is the third time one of Carpenter’s films has appeared in this column. I don’t think that’s an indictment on him by any means, but it does suggest that his films can require repeat viewings before they catch on. Or perhaps it means Carpenter is often ahead of the curve and viewers aren’t ready for his films on their initial release. With regards to Prince of Darkness, I can say I’ve shared similar thoughts to nearly every review mentioned here, negative and positive, at one time or another.
The first few times I watched the film, I was left disappointed. I felt like Carpenter presented all these big ideas but then didn’t manage to do anything with them. The film is called Prince of Darkness, but we never actually see the Prince released to wreak havoc upon the world. I walked away thinking this was a huge missed opportunity.
Over the years my opinion has completely flipped. Prince of Darkness isn’t Carpenter’s best film, but with regards to humanity, it may very well be his most chilling. The movie implies that there is a powerful evil out there — in this case, an Anti-God — that’s just waiting to strike, and there’s no way for anyone to escape. Even with the science to battle it, you’re up against an unbeatable foe. And at that point, the only thing left is your faith.
The movie is pure nightmare fodder, just as Eddy described it. Nothing exemplifies this more than the dream sequences, which we learn to be transmissions from the future. Carpenter shot these on video, played them on a television set, and then recorded them off that. The effect works brilliantly, creating eerie visions that are sure to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
With Prince of Darkness, there are two morals we can take away. The first is that we’re all boned because, in the end, evil will always win. The second is to not question John Carpenter. His films may not work on the first viewing or the second or the third, but eventually, we all realize he was right all along.