Moments of Dread: John Carpenter’s PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987)

Most horror movies have a difficult time maintaining a sense of dread throughout the duration of their runtime, but even the worst films can sometimes muster a singular moment of dread that lingers long after the final credits have rolled. In this series, I recount the scenes that have left an indelible impression on me.

SPOILERS AHEAD! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

John Carpenter is by far my favourite director. From the late 70s to the early 90s, he directed a number of classic horror and SF movies that any director would be lucky to have on their CV. In addition to directing, he also scored the music to most of his films, and if you haven’t checked out his music — which seems to be where most of his focus is nowadays — you really should give it a try. One of his best scores, IMNSHO, belongs to the subject of this post: PRINCE OF DARKNESS.

IMDB describes the plot thusly: A research team finds a mysterious cylinder in a deserted church. If opened, it could mean the end of the world.

Descriptive, huh? Basically: Donald Pleasance plays a priest who seeks the help of a group of Physics students and their professor (the awesome Victor Wong) to study a vat of swirling, green goo in the basement of his church. In short: the goo is evil incarnate and he wants to unleash its father, the Anti-God, on the world. Quantum physics, zombified students, window-crawling worms, and a homeless, homicidal Alice Cooper all factor into the proceedings in one of the most unique takes on Satan (well, not really Satan, but close enough) ever committed to film.

Though not my favourite of John Carpenter’s works — it tends to lose me for a stretch starting where Dennis Dun is trapped in a closet with nothing to do but report on what is happening to Susan Blanchard’s “possessed” character, and ending around the point where Lisa Blount realizes that she will have to sacrifice herself to save humanity — it does boast a number of creepy sequences, the most effective of which is the unsettling premonitions experienced by the protagonists whenever they fall asleep.

Everybody experiences the same dream, and we see more of it with each iteration. The dream appears as a grainy image, like somebody recorded it off a CRT tv screen (which is what they actually did to achieve the effect) and simply consists of the camera moving along a fence outside the church, ending with a dark figure beginning to emerge from the front door of the building (I get creeped out just writing that). While this is happening, we hear a distorted voice informing the recipient that this is not a dream (I always thought the explanation for the dream/premonition was a brilliant conceit), but it is continually interrupted by the character waking before it is finished.

To this day, I’m not sure what exactly it is about that scene that makes it so effective, but it works just as well today as it did the first time I saw it — and I’ve watched this movie A LOT. It might be the verisimilitude of the grainy image quality making it seem like you’re watching something that really happened (or will happen), the creepily distorted voiceover, the mundane nature of the footage before the mysterious shape appears at the end, or some combination thereof, but for me it is one of the most-brilliantly unsettling sequences in horror movie history.

* The sequences above are pretty creepy on their own, but work even better in the movie where they pop up unexpectedly, divorced from the events of the main narrative.

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