“I have a message ... and you're not going to like it. Pray for death.”
After a string of hits that took him from ambitious film school student to grand-slamming indie genre god, John Carpenter - bolstered by the cult kudos of Dark Star, Assault On Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, Escape From New York and, of course, The Thing - had already shown signs of burning out before his 1987 satanic pot-boiler, Prince Of Darkness, came out of the shadows. Whilst his previous Big Trouble In Little China was mindless hokum, it still made it clear that Carpenter was hell-bent on tackling every sub-genre that fantasy cinema could offer him. Starman was an intriguing premise, but his body-grafted adult ET still seemed to lack that spark that set the writer/director/composer apart from the crowd. Prince Of Darkness, starring Donald Pleasance as a priest - named rather unimaginatively Loomis (once again) - who uncovers Satan's liquefied form in the basement of a disused LA church and assembles a group of theological students and professionals to study it and make sure that it remains corked in its bottle, was a devout attempt by Carpenter to emulate the classic themes of science, religion, age-old horror and the desperate plight of mankind in the face of such history-re-writing that English author and script-writer Nigel Kneale had made so popular back in the fifties when his celebrated brusque hero Professor Bernard Quatermass did battle with all manner of otherworldly oddities. Carpenter, under the rather silly pseudonym of Martin Quatermass, penned the screenplay, and a splendid piece of turgid old tosh it is too. He amasses a gaggle of totally unbelievable students, scientists and theologians to do battle with the Devil and then the scene is set for another siege-type of deal (the sort of of scenario that Carpenter loves) as various members of the team bend to the Evil One's will and a veritable army of the homeless gather ominously outside, seemingly called by the awakening spirit down in the bowels of the church.
With a cast of lamentables, other than Pleasance, of course, Prince Of Darkness is one of those movies that truly believes it is working up towards a fever-pitch of excitement. But the plot is hackneyed and nonsensical, the effects all rather bland and old school. We have a pizza-faced dark disciple, Alice Cooper using his stage-prop of a bicycle-cum-impaling device, a large cylinder of swirling demonic vapours, a bug-man and, sadly, the very anticlimactic sight of the Ancient Evil's outstretched paw extending from a mirror-portal into our world. Somehow, the clean Californian setting that Carpenter so excellently transformed into pure enclaves of Hell in Halloween (doubling for Haddonfield, Illinois, of course), The Fog's Antonio Bay and the urban no-man's land South Central LA for Assault On Precinct 13 just doesn't lend itself to the last line of humanity's defence against the Devil. Bringing back both Dennis Dun and Victor Wong from Big Trouble In Little China adds to Carpenter's “family” of familiar faces, alongside Pleasance, but casting the likes of TV's Jameson (Simon And Simon) Parker as the curiously useless hero of the piece marked a real low for a director who was normally so damn good at attracting character actors and strong ensembles to his projects. But it is hard to imagine any cast pulling an ace out of the sleeve of this unforgivably dull affair.
Committing the cardinal sin of totally and unutterably diffusing the film's tension with a ridiculous mid-way point lull - having built up the suspense as more members of the team become possessed and penned up the terrified survivors in separate, barricaded rooms, he then opts to let the atmosphere totally dissipate as they are then left to while the long, peaceful hours of the following day before the action recommences the next night - Carpenter then drops the ball with one of the most “so what?” endings of his entire career. This coming from the man who helmed Michael Myers' quintessential vanishing act from the patch of bloody grass outside Tommy Doyle's house, Snake Plissken unravelling the tape that could have averted World War III and a frozen MaCready and Childs facing one another in an ice-bound détente amid the wreckage of a Thing-blighted research outpost, is unforgivable and a sure sign of the wretchedness that was to follow with his next batch of productions. All dramatic build-up and a complete misunderstanding of exactly where to go with the narrative - this was to become the new trademark of John Carpenter. With quantum physics, theological debate and carbon dating being spouted by the unconvincing gang of Pit-fodder, the film descends into one of its own sub-particles and implodes in a bubble of implausibility. A neat idea, admittedly - part Kneale, part Lovecraft - but one that swiftly comes undone with Carpenter's mishandling of his set-pieces and his wildly pretentious screenplay.
But the score was another good one, though perhaps it was the last good one that he managed to come up with. Once again working with his trusted musical collaborator, Alan Howarth, Prince Of Darkness was synthesised and built out of passages of sustained ambience, pounding, insistent themes, deep, swirling electronic experimentalism and a profound and driving sense of fatalistic relentlessness. But the pair eschewed the dominant heroic main theme that had become so symbolic of their work in everything from Assault, Escape, Halloween and The Fog in favour of something much more primal, eerie, penetrating and thickly embroiled in electro-gothic fugue. The ever-present sense of menace and grim anticipation is wonderfully spread across the score, Carpenter's repetition of theme and heavy portentous chords capturing the frisson of trapped souls locked in battle with something supremely eeeevilllllll that is lurking at the threshold. This release, from Alan Howarth's own label, is the first time that the full score has been made available. A two-disc edition, what we have is the complete score - filling disc 1 and tracks 1-4 of disc 2 - and then the original album version of the soundtrack, which amalgamates some tracks and deviates slightly in overall tone as a result, whilst not actually adding any material. The full score makes for a powerful, if dated, listen. Carpenter's insistent syncopation, meandering esoterica and ominously heavy wall of sound becomes the music of devilry and despondency. There isn't a whole lot of fun to be found here, that's for sure. Whereas Jerry Goldsmith tackled the Devil with Oscar-nabbing savvy with his score for The Omen - and carried on with amazingly power, aggression, beauty and grace with its two sequels - Carpenter takes the Tangerine Dream route, but mixes his slow, spellbinding music with fire and brimstone, driving his themes into ever darker dimensions.
Full of swirls, whooshes, echoes and unnerving wind effects, the score is even backed-up with choir-samples, although this element is surprisingly kept in check, with Carpenter sensing that to over-indulge in something so typical of the genre would probably lessen the cumulative propulsion of his own sonic grand guignol. It could also be that he, and Howarth, realised that electronically altering and tampering with human voices was, perhaps, going a step too far with synthesised scoring. I mean, nothing is going to compare to the real thing in this peculiarly supernatural game, is it?
Although I like this score, it is not a work that lends itself to deep written analysis. The flow is the important thing here and Carpenter and Howarth maintain the undulating theme of diabolism bubbling throughout the majority of the score, with periods of glacial eloquence punctuate the darkness and the melancholy from time to time and frequent spells of jarring discord when effects and “stingers” run rife. If there is a precedent for what the pair achieve here, it is possibly the moody weirdness that made up their score for Halloween III: Season Of The Witch, which abounds with similar textured lashings of haunting ambience amidst its Casio-keyboard whimsy, and the toe-tapping exotic ethic of Big Trouble's more fantastical moments. But where many of Carpenter's earlier scores, with the exception of The Thing (scored in the style of Carpenter by Ennio Morricone), had a sort of simplistic sound that made them very up-front and easy-going (and they're not bad things, mind), Prince Of Darkness is deliberately processed with echoes, depth, resonance and the kind of spectral vastness that a spooky old church and the burgeoning pressure of another dimension undoubtedly conjured within the filmmaker's fertile imagination. Perhaps here, for this score, the actual sound design mattered more to Carpenter than any of the essential rhythms that went into its composition. The sense of distance is acute for much of the time and effects and sounds emanate and chime from deep within the score. Played through a good system, the experience is actually quite incredible, the clarity of these multi-track masters almost glistening, the weight of the bass rumbling like the heartbeat of the Beast, himself. Having Alan Howarth, himself, produce the album was obviously worth its weight in gold.
The original album was quite a popular release, but it was shorn of an awful lot of material, all of which is reinstated here. What surprises most of all is the complexity and duration of many of the cues. Prince Of Darkness certainly seems to have been a determined labour of love for the two collaborators, the impression made when hearing the full score that neither really wanted the process to end. Some lengthy tracks become atmospheric longuers in their own right, commencing with the more measured, more tranquil themes and then gradually opening-up to let Carpenter's pounding main beat surge through, taking the listener by the throat and hauling them off into a hellish squall of escalating dynamic swagger. Tracks 2 (Opening Credits), 6 (The Team Assembles), 14 (Hell Breaks Loose) and Disc 2's Track 3 (The Devil Awakens) are perfect examples of this. Carpenter loves to soak you up with such deep and inescapable cues. Whilst Assault and Halloween were much punchier and relied a lot more on thematic repetition - with some key changes and tempo shifts thrown in for good measure - Escape incorporated a lot more individual themes and set-piece action cues, making it one of his most audaciously conceived scores. Big Trouble was also built around a hugely eclectic assortment of fizzingly exciting heroic cues, wild Oriental magic and not a small degree of playful, tongue-in-cheek counter-cues, and it was here with his off-the-wall martial arts and supernatural-shenanigans crossover that was possibly where Carpenter first embraced a bigger sound, a more lush presentation and the courage to wrap up his film in literally wall-to-wall musicola. Prince Of Darkness is cut very much from the same cloth. It enjoys the steady and inexorable climb to each individual crescendo, milking that delicious ambience of fear and menace for all they are worth and delivering spectacularly exhilarating pay-offs at every opportunity. It is such a shame that the on-screen visuals couldn't even come close to matching the uncanny qualities cavorting around within the score.
Despite many atmospheric indulgences, when broken down into its essentials, the soundtrack covers all bases. A quiet recurring two-note motif, that is somewhat recalled by Trevor Rabin in his score for Renny Harlin's Deep Blue Sea, seems to denote the love between a couple of the characters, but also depicts the calm before the storm. By absolute contrast, bleating blasts of glassy sampled shrieks, that would reappear in Howarth's score for Halloween 4: The Return Of Michael Myers, lurch into the proceedings to jangle the nerves with pure malice. Long passages appear to go nowhere fast, vague beats blithely serenading a mystery tour. Yet, the ultimate sensation, once such a cue has ended, is of another chapter having passed by, the impression being that the track has actually left a deeper tingle deceptively injected into your mind. Elements not too dissimilar to Italian rockers, Goblin, and their unparalleled work on Dario Argento's classic Suspiria can be perceived too, but, rest assured, this score is still mostly quite unique and seemingly untouchable - hardly derivative, and less likely to be pilfered from. It is loud and enveloping and determined to remain on the spookier side of the tracks. Each track is detailed and produced with the overall picture in mind, thus the score keeps on stacking up the tension as it goes along, providing jolts aplenty and performing some sublimely ghostly manoeuvres to keep you on your toes.
One of the absolute stand-out tracks is The Devil Awakens which,after some leisurely building, is a tour de force of blistering action, hyper-stylised suspense and some downright soul-shatteringly creepy effects. Listen out for a couple of exceptionally cool sampled blasts that sound like the most ferocious light-sabres in the galaxy violently malfunctioning right in your face! What works so well with this track is the thoroughly infectious beat that keeps on intensifying, getting faster and faster and more and more pronounced. Only John Carpenter can create music that is both terrifying and enormously catchy at the same time.
Another nice touch is the use of the time-travelling messages that, in the film, are viewed as dreams by the protagonists. Here, on the album, we get these audio sound-bites and they make for quite chilling little addendums to the score. Track 1, on the first disc, offers us the full dream theme, scratchy, off-tune and crackling like an old radio broadcast that has wandered off-channel. The first track on the second delivers us a clearer and more immediately foreboding rendition, which is quoted at the top of this review. Although backed by some of the effects and ambience that Carpenter and Howarth crafted, these two snippets actually seem to hark back more to Halloween III's Silver Shamrock advertising jingle in that they can't help but seem a tad gimmicky. That said, they still add to the atmosphere of unforgiving dread, though.
Yet whilst Carpenter fans can rejoice in the full majesty of this dark and demented score - especially nice since it has followed on from the full score for They Live, which came out a short while ago - it is, perhaps, undeniable that many people would find this score somewhat boring. The lack of spontaneity, musical flavour and of any orchestral embellishment can certainly be off-putting for some score fans. Carpenter, though, in his own idiosyncratic and single-minded fashion, always seemed to find a way to present the mood and character of his stories in much more mesmerising, but no less rewarding manner with the apparent limitations and minimalism of keyboard and mixing desk and it is certainly relevant and, indeed, telling, that the composers he has hired at other times in lieu of himself - Ennio Morricone on The Thing, Jack Nitzsche on Starman - have strived to capture the exact same style of haunting, insidious beauty of stark synthesiser. Garnering a cult reputation for his scores, as well as for the movies that they accompany, his canon is distinctive, appealing and ever-popular. As I said before, Prince Of Darkness is arguably the last score that he came up with that properly suited the film in question and lent to it its own vigorous identity. It is also one of the longest scores that the duo came up with. I may not be a fan of the movie, itself, but its music is one of the purest explorations of the dark side that you could ever hope to hear. Boldly experimental - Carpenter and Howarth finally had the opportunity to work with the MIDI sequencing stack, which lent the score that amazing depth and array of samples - and designed to scratch beneath your skull with mischievous intensity, Prince Of Darkness is a wonderful listening experience ... for a dark and stormy night, that is.
It will never be mentioned in the same breath as Halloween, Assault, Escape or The Fog, but they were awesome milestones in the history of synthesised film-scoring. Arguably, however, Prince Of Darkness is a more complete score that reveals a maturity to Carpenter's composing and a heightened level of attention to sound design. Sadly, like the movies, themselves, the scores that followed dropped off quite drastically in style and quality, making this work all the more important, and bittersweet.
The accompanying booklet is merely a promotional pamphlet that charts the plot of the film. Alan Howarth supplies a few words regarding the production of the score and we are treated to a handful of rather lacklustre stills from the film. But the quality of the recording is what counts most of all, and here the release wins hands down. The original album sequence is a nifty reminder of how released scores used to be so confined by length, and the inclusion of an alternative version of the track entitled The Underground Church is a marvellous little bonus for completists.
Full track listing is as follows -CD ONE
1. Dream Theme 0:57
2. Opening Credits 9:15
3. The Underground Church 4:01
4. Love at a Distance 2:11
5. Will No One Tell Us 1:39
6. The Team Assembles 9:11
7. Translation 2:19
8. Cross Bar :57
9. Susan's Intuition / We Were Salesman 2:31
10. Psychokinesis :43
11. Darkness Falls 8:22
12. Bug Man :36
13. A Message From The Future 8:09
14. Hell Breaks Loose 9:57
CD ONE TOTAL TIME 61:21
1. A Warning :42
2. Mirror Image / Only Thing 8:13
3. The Devil Awakens 9:50
4. The Underground Church - Alternate Version 3:53
THE SOUNDTRACK ALBUM
1. Opening Titles 4:11
2. Team Assembly 4:29
3. Darkness Begins 2:52
4. A Message From The Future 5:21
5. Hell Breaks Loose 4:22
6. Mirror Image 6:44
7. The Devil Awakens 8:51
8. Through The Mirror 5:31
CD TWO TOTAL TIME 70:50
It should be mentioned that Alice Cooper's track “Prince Of Darkness”, which he actually wrote for the film and can be heard briefly through a doomed character's headphones, is not on this release.
Very dark and remarkably broody, Carpenter and Howarth drag us through a musical tour of a hell so hypnotic that, in the right frame of mind, can be quite infectious. The pair sought out a depth of sound that they hadn't reached before and their experiments with the MIDI definitely produce something deep, sinuous and melancholic. The trademark catchiness is very much in evidence, as is the pulsing, ambient undertone that wraps the whole score in a smothering blanket of cool 80's synth. The film was a bit of a dud, but the scoring double-act of Carpenter and Howarth came up with the atmospheric goods again. The seeds of Big John's demise as a movie-making wunderkind were sown here, though, both as a director and as a composer. Nothing he has made since, barring the daft but fun In The Mouth Of Madness, has matched the class, originality and uniquely patented look and sound of his immortal earlier string of hits.
Sprung from Alan Howarth's own record label, Prince Of Darkness can now be enjoyed in its full entirety and with a much better sound quality than ever before. Fans of the film and score should be quick to snap it up as the release is severely limited to 1500 copies worldwide.
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