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34 Things We Learned from John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness Commentary

Seeking some knowledge from the Master of Horror, Rob Hunter sits down to explore what we can learn from John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness.
Cult Prince Of Darkness
By  · Published on January 20th, 2016

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter revisits John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness.

John Carpenter celebrated his 68th birthday a few days ago, so it felt like a no-brainer that I should cover one of his films this week. We here at FSR are big Carpenter fans and have already covered several of his films on Commentary Commentary ‐ Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live ‐ but while those titles are beloved I’m turning this week to one of his less-respected titles that I happen to love.

1987’s Prince of Darkness is a fun mix of gory horror and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, and while some sketchy acting hurts it the film as a whole is terrifically creepy entertainment. The score is fantastic, the film ends strong, and the cast includes a bevy of Carpenter favorites including Donald Pleasence, Victor Wong, and Dennis Dun.

Keep reading to see what I heard on the Prince of Darkness commentary.

Prince of Darkness (1987)

Commentators: John Carpenter (writer/director), Peter Jason (actor)

1. The film was budgeted at $3 million, shot in about thirty days, and was Carpenter’s “return to horror” after Starman and Big Trouble in Little China.

2. Actor Peter Jason joins Carpenter for the commentary and takes the blame for momentarily confusing the director as to which film they’re there discussing. “I probably confused you because I was in Ghosts of Mars also,” he says, to which Carpenter replies “I know, you’ve been in almost everything I’ve done. Well, not really.” For those keeping track, Jason starred in seven of Carpenter’s twenty-one films: Ghosts of Mars, Escape from L.A., Village of the Damned, In the Mouth of Madness, Body Bags, They Live, and Prince of Darkness.

3. Jason recalls being given the script by Carpenter and asked what he’d “like to do with the character.” He was thrown by the director’s question. “Well you’re an actor aren’t you?” says Carpenter, “so what did you come back and do for me?” Jason went and got some tips from his friend, David Warner, including the idea of returning from the dead and being in great pain.

4. Jason had suggested having the seven people who return as zombies represent the seven deadly sins, but Carpenter nixed it as it would have required to many rewrites.

5. Carpenter refers to the priest who dies during the opening credits as “a Sentinel-type guy” in a nod to 1977’s The Sentinel.

6. The opening university scenes were filmed at Carpenter’s alma mater, the University of Southern California. “I spent many happy years at SC as a film student. I learned everything about how to make movies there.”

7. The church used in the exterior shots is located at 1st & Los Angeles St in L.A. according to Jason. “I was born in Hollywood, but I went down there.”

8. Jason says IMDB lists him as being born in New York in 1950, but he was actually born in Los Angeles in 1944. The page has since been fixed.

9. Victor Wong died shortly before this commentary was recorded, and both men show a real affection for their time spent working with him. He had a tough childhood ‐ the left side of his face was paralyzed, he suffered from tuberculosis, he spent time in a sanitarium ‐ but he was an energetic joy as a performer. “And he always had a great story, and you never knew what it was about,” adds Jason.

Shout! Factory

10. This was Gary B. Kibbe’s first film as director of photography, and he would go on to shoot seven more Carpenter films ‐ eight if you count Blood River, a TV western written but not directed by Carpenter.

11. When Martin Quatermass’ name appears onscreen as the film’s writer Carpenter points out that “he’s a personal friend of mine, a fine, fine man.” Jason asks what he’s working on now, and Carpenter replies “I think he retired, I heard he’s an alcoholic. He’s writing, but nobody wants to read what he writes.”

12. The church basement is actually in a big, run down building in Long Beach that used to be a popular ballroom. It was falling apart during production, and the cast and crew had to sign waivers stating that they wouldn’t sue if anyone was injured.

13. The green swirling goo is the anti-god’s son, not the anti-god himself.

14. Carpenter’s love of science led to the story idea involving quantum mechanics and the crossroads of science and religion. He had become fascinated with quantum uncertainty after reading several books on the subject, but he ultimately felt it was impossible to explain. “It was all mumbo-jumbo anyway, it was just a horror movie,” he says. Jason suggests that the script touches on just enough of it to catch and hold viewers’ interest.

15. He and Alan Howarth completed the score in 4–5 weeks. “All my scores are basically improvised,” he says. He watches the scenes on a “TV set” and creates the themes on the spot using a 24-track recorder linked into the film to layer in sounds.

16. “There’s two kinds of scoring in movies. One is the kind of, underscore, minimalist idea, and one is Mickey Mousing.” The latter was made famous by Max Steiner (Casablanca, Gone with the Wind). “For instance, in King Kong, every step that King Kong made is scored ‐ bom! bom! bom! bom! Every emotion is scored. That’s Mickey Mousing.” Carpenter’s opinion of the style in general is that “everything is scored so heavily that you haven’t got a chance to miss anything.” He also adds that “John Williams is the biggest, most famous Mickey Mouser of all.”

17. He first met Alice Cooper at Wrestlemania ‐ obviously ‐ and the performer shared his desire to be in a horror film. Carpenter said okay but only if he could use Cooper’s “impaling gag” from his onstage shows.

18. Jason’s first feature “was Howard Hawks’ last, Rio Lobo.” He got to die in John Wayne’s arms. Carpenter had seen the film at a preview in a longer version than what was ultimately released, and he recalls Jason’s death scene lasting longer. “It was a literal replay of the death scene in Only Angels Have Wings.”

19. Donald Pleasence wasn’t keen on driving and got lost once coming to set which caused him to be late on his first day. That incident led to having other people drive him around. “I got to take him back home to the Chateau Marmont one day,” says Jason, “and I’m telling you it was the most fun I ever had. He was scared to death the whole way.”

20. The only time Jason recalls seeing Carpenter “lose it” was the day they shot the group scene of everyone at the church shortly before everything goes to hell. “You got disappointed with one person. I won’t say who it is, but that person couldn’t get their line right. Every movie I’ve ever done with you, I’ve never seen you lose your cool, but you were so upset with this one person.” My gut tells me he’s talking about Peter Jason.

21. The pair share several random tidbits about Jameson Parker. He had an injury from his time on Simon & Simon that was never addressed and that caused him daily pain. The mustache is real. He’s a devout Christian. He was shot by a man who called Parker’s wife a “whore.” He has two dogs, and Jason called him “a double dog gent.”

22. It’s at the 45:57 mark where I slapped my forehead and realized the young Dirk Blocker here is the old Dirk Blocker on Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

Shout! Factory

23. The insert shot of the bag lady raising the knife in the air while running (at the 51:03 mark) was accomplished by having the performer stand in one spot while a truck loaded with bricks rolls past in the background.

24. The dreams were shot on video and then filmed off of a TV set.

Shout! Factory

25. The bruise symbol that appears on Kelly’s arm was swiped from a Blue Oyster Cult album cover.

26. They both agree that their next project together should include a love scene for Jason.

27. The card trick was Parker’s idea. “See? I use actor’s ideas when they bring me good ones,” says Carpenter. “Come up with something good, I’ll use it.”

28. Jason hurt his shoulder at the 1:07:46 mark, and he still complains about the pain to this day. “That?” says an incredulous and unimpressed Carpenter as the scene plays.

29. They did post-production work including the editing and sound mix at Walt Disney Studios.

30. Jason seems unable to grasp the concept of bug-wranglers and asks multiple times ‐ every time bugs appear onscreen ‐ where the bugs came from, how they were shot, and who picked them afterwards. He’s doing it in part to mess with Carpenter, and it works.

31. The mirror gag was accomplished in part using mercury. They drained the poisonous material from their on-set hydraulic dollies and cranes and used it for the bit where the character dips her fingers and hand into the reflective pool. (They returned the mercury to the machinery afterward.) The arm is a prosthetic, which also answers my decades’ old question as to why the character’s watch didn’t fit. The reverse of the shot ‐ her fingers poking through into the darkness ‐ was shot inside a covered swimming pool.

32. Lisa Blount was scared to shoot the scene where she and Susan Blanchard dive into the dark water. It was very dark, and she was uncertain about holding her breath for the shot of her reaching towards the surface. He’s since apologized to her.

33. “It’s one of my most-controlled films visually,” says Carpenter. “Every shot I can see, every shot is basically set to a purpose, where in some films I will let things go. I will let it be more loose, I’ll let actors improvise. Every shot in here is specifically designed to communicate something.” He credits the budget with forcing him to be more precise.

34. Carpenter lights and smokes approximately three to four cigarettes during this commentary.

Best in Context-Free Commentary

Final Thoughts

This is yet another fun listen from Carpenter, and while Jason is no Kurt Russell ‐ who is?!? ‐ he still does a great job offering anecdotes, having fun, and asking questions to annoy Carpenter. He inquires about unnamed characters and things that would have happened before the film begins, and Carpenter has no answers. His frustration is humorously apparent. The two are clearly friends and comfortable bantering with each other making for a lively listen. Highly recommended.

Check out more commentary commentary in the Commentary Commentary archives

Images courtesy of Shout! Factory

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.