By Ray Schwetz
Image Entertainment, Widescreen
John Carpenter is one of my favorite directors. Let's just get that right out in the open. I'm even willing to forgive him about that whole "Memoirs Of An Invisible Man" Chevy Chase thing. Say what you will about that film, but John Carpenter is simply one of the best directors alive.
Now that you all know that I'm totally biased, non-Carpenter fans have probably left the room. Don't let the door hit you on the way out.
Getting back to business, for those still with me, "Prince of Darkness" is the second most underrated film of his career. The first, of course, is his 1982 adaption of "The Thing." Like that film, "Prince of Darkness" was pretty much pegged a failure upon its release in 1987. By this humble reviewer's opinion, that was unfortunate.
"Prince of Darkness" is a very complex, intricately plotted science fiction/horror hybrid similar to the "Quatermass" films. In fact, Carpenter penned the script under the pseudonym Martin Quatermass. It concerns a group of scientists who get together at an abandoned church to aid a priest who has found a secret that may destroy the foundations of Catholicism.
They are there primarily to research the age of a canister kept in the abandoned church and monitor activity within the canister. The canister contains an amniotic fluid that appears to be influencing the outside world.
If the story sounds a bit involved, you're right. However, Carpenter makes this thought-provoking film well worth the mental investment. Too many films nowadays expect you to check your brain at the door. While I'm certainly not against that (as evidenced by some of my reviews), it's refreshing to find a film that will not spoon feed you answers.
A movie that has you thinking after you've left the theatre (or home theatre) has truly done what a film should do.
"Prince of Darkness" is not without its flaws. For example, Carpenter favors horrific setpieces and expositions on scientific theory over character development. However, the ideas floating around within this film more than compensate.
Also, the actors do what they can to enliven their parts. Jameson Parker is decent in his first (and only?) excursion into feature films (most will remember him from TVs "Simon and Simon." Lisa Blount is extremely effective as the female lead and Parker's romantic interest. Victor Wong is endearing and imposing as Professor Birak, the leadership/mentor figure of the group. He previously displayed his fine, unorthodox acting talents in Carpenter's "Big Trouble in Little China."
Finally, the late, great Donald Pleasance wins the Shatner award with his over-the-top performance as a slightly off kilter priest. Heck, you've even got Alice Cooper as a homicidal homeless dude.
"Prince of Darkness" so benefits from something I call "The Carpenter Feel." Other low budget features tried to ape this, but few got it right.
"The Carpenter Feel" is the signature way the director scores his own film and uses widescreen composition. For example, in "Halloween" there's a scene where the Shape appears behind Laurie Strode in the dark to the far left of the screen. In the pan and scan version, the camera noticeably pans from Laurie to the Shape, ruining the mood and the effect.
There's also some trademark dialogue; "Jan, you know, radiologist glasses." You fans know what I mean. He also uses many of the same cast members in all of his films. Seeing them here again is like visiting old friends.
Image's DVD is a pretty standard bare bones edition. No extras here, not even a trailer. This is a shame. The trailer for "Prince of Darkness" is pretty neat. The titles smash through a mirror at Jameson Parker, a scene which does not occur in the film. I was lucky enough to get an old promotional VHS trailer tape from Universal that included this trailer.
Speaking of deleted scenes, the TV version of "Prince of Darkness" includes alternate footage for the opening and concluding segments of the film. Supposedly, there were certain events in the film deemed by TV censors to be too disturbing. Therefore, the scenes added give the impression that most of the film is a dream! It would have been neat to have those scenes included on the DVD.
For those of you interested, watch for the next time the film is shown on the Sci-Fi Channel.
The menu for the DVD is actually just a chapter listing. Keep in mind that this DVD was among one of the earlier waves of titles for the DVD format.
The film is presented, for the first time, in its correct aspect ratio (2.35:1). It's also anamorphic. There was a Japanese laserdisc that presented the film letterboxed, but it was at an incorrect aspect ratio (approximately 2.21:1). Also, the transfer was much too dark and murky. The pan and scan domestic Universal laserdisc was better with the transfer, specifically the colors, but it was pan and scan.
The video for this DVD, in my opinion, is the most satisfying. There are no noticeable artifacts. The film looks crisp and the print used in the transfer is clean. There is some grain, but nothing too distracting. The colors are much richer, and the picture much brighter, than the import disc.
The Universal disc is still the winner with the best colors, but overall the video on this DVD is very satisfying.
The audio is also very satisfying, although it's not much of an improvement over previous video incarnations. It's presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital (basically, it's pro-Logic). Again, the overall effect is very good. It would have been nice if the film was given a new 5.1 mix, but there?othing to complain about here.
In all, you've got a DVD that is a must own for Carpenter fans, or fans of the film, only. Others interested should probably just give it a rent. Hopefully, this DVD will be given the special edition treatment, a la "John Carpenter's The Thing."