Audiences are still discovering John Carpenter's cult classic 'Prince of Darkness' 35 years later

Audiences are still discovering John Carpenter's cult classic 'Prince of Darkness' 35 years later

Alice Cooper in John Carpenter’s 1987 movie “Prince of Darkness.”

Source: Shutterstock

John Carpenter is the king of Halloween. And not just because he directed “Halloween.”

He’s the creative force behind spooky season classics like “The Fog,” “Christine” and “The Thing.” A lucrative new trilogy of “Halloween” sequels to his 1978 original just wrapped up with “Halloween Ends,” which Carpenter helped score and executive produce. He and his spouse, the writer and producer Sandy King Carpenter, oversee Storm King Comics, which just turned 10 and features dozens of horror and science fiction titles, including special releases each year for Halloween.

But this year, one of Carpenter’s more obscure movies, “Prince of Darkness,” which teems with insects and metaphysical dread, is having a moment and finding new audiences.

The movie’s 35th anniversary was just last weekend, in the heart of the peak time for scary movies. Highbrow film-streaming service The Criterion Channel is featuring it this month as part of its Halloween programming. And it’s been released three times on boutique home-video company Shout Factory’s horror-centric Scream Factory label, the most recent edition being an acclaimed 4K high-definition disc last year. (Carpenter is the most represented director at Scream Factory. “We tried to get all his films,” marketing executive and co-founder Jeff Nelson said.)

That’s quite a turnaround for “Prince of Darkness,” which critics panned when it was released in 1987. New York Times critic Vincent Canby called it “surprisingly cheesy.”

The movie is now regarded as one of Carpenter’s best and most interesting movies. Phil Hoad of The Guardian called it “maybe the director’s most underrated film.” Gizmodo’s Cheryl Eddy said it “contains one of the most disturbing depictions of evil ever.”

The reappraisal sits just fine with Carpenter.

“It makes me feel good. That’s a good feeling, as opposed to a bad feeling,” he said, with a dry emphasis on “good” and “bad,” in a recent interview with CNBC.

Liquid assets

“Prince of Darkness” tells the story of how Satan, in the form of demonic green liquid, breaks out of his cannister-slash-prison in the bowels of a Catholic church in Los Angeles, brutally murdering and possessing a series of graduate students and scientists. It was a modest hit, grossing about $13 million on a mere $3 million budget.

At the time, Carpenter was coming off a streak of bigger Hollywood films, such as “Starman” and “Big Trouble in Little China,” and wanted to get back to his indie roots.

“He shows how great he is when you don’t have a huge budget and you have to be creative,” said Cliff MacMillan, Scream Factory’s other co-founder.

Director John Carpenter and co-creator Sandy King sign copies of comic book “Asylum” held at Golden Apple Comics on October 27, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.

Albert L. Ortega | Getty Images

Carpenter agreed to a multi-movie distribution deal with Universal Pictures and independent studio Carolco. All the filmmaker had to submit to the studios were one-paragraph synopses for the movies, according to Sandy King Carpenter, who was the script supervisor on “Prince of Darkness.”

The first project was “Prince of Darkness.” The second, 1988’s “They Live,” a bitter sci-fi satire of Reagan-era politics, consumerism and economics starring pro wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, has become a cult favorite in its own right. (A planned third movie, called “Victory Out of Time,” wasn’t made.)

Because of the small budget for “Prince of Darkness,” Carpenter and his crew had to pull off some tricks to achieve the movie’s ambitious imagery.

“That’s where you get innovative, when you have no money,” Sandy King Carpenter told CNBC.

The script called for tons of bugs to swarm all over characters, so that meant real insects. Thousands of beetles, Sandy King Carpenter said. It was such a spectacle that the band Aerosmith showed up one day to watch the filming of their longtime friend Robert Grasmere’s big, disgusting insect scene, she added.

Aerosmith weren’t the only rockers who showed up to watch the gnarly special effects in action. Shock rock icon Alice Cooper, whose manager Shep Gordon executive-produced “Prince of Darkness,” visited the LA set to watch Carpenter and crew film a scene involving a mirror that acts as a doorway to another dimension.

That’s when you get innovative, when you have no money.

Sandy King Carpenter

producer and writer

Next thing he knew, Cooper told CNBC, Carpenter was telling him to put on a stocking hat and act in the movie as the de facto leader of killer demonic street people who swarm outside the church as the plot unfolds. He became one of the most prominent images in the film and its marketing, even though he didn’t have one word of dialogue.

Carpenter also asked Cooper to repurpose one of his notorious stage show gags – using a microphone stand to “impale” someone – for a death scene that would end up featuring the rock star’s title song for the movie playing in the background.

“‘Can you put a bicycle through this guy’s chest?'” Cooper said Carpenter asked him. “I said, ‘Sure, you’ve come to the right guy.'”

Cooper also stuck around to watch the filming of the mirror scene, which showed how far Carpenter was willing to go to get the right shot on a tight budget.

“We needed a shot of the hand coming out of the mirror,” Carpenter said. So he and his crew dumped out the mercury that was serving as ballast for a camera crane and used it to simulate liquid glass.

“It was very dangerous,” the director said. But Sandy King Carpenter was quick to explain that it was a fake hand, not a real one.

“We weren’t psychotic,” she said, “just a little daring.”

Disclosure: CNBC, Universal Pictures and Peacock, which is streaming “Halloween Ends,” are part of NBCUniversal.