John Carpenter’s cult basic Prince of Darkness turns 35

Alice Cooper in John Carpenter’s 1987 film Prince of Darkness.

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

He’s the creative force behind spooky seasonal classics like The Fog, Christine and The Thing. A lucrative new trilogy of Halloween sequels to its 1978 original has just ended with Halloween Ends, which Carpenter helped score and executive produce. He and his wife, writer-producer Sandy King Carpenter, oversee Storm King Comics, which has just turned 10 and features dozens of horror and sci-fi titles, including Halloween special releases each year.

But this year, one of Carpenter’s more obscure films, teeming with insects and metaphysical angst, Prince of Darkness has a moment and is finding a new audience.

The film’s 35th birthday was just last weekend, in the middle of peak scary movie season. Top-flight movie streaming service The Criterion Channel is featuring him as part of its Halloween schedule this month. And it’s been released three times on boutique home video company Shout Factory’s horror-centric Scream Factory label, with the latest release being an acclaimed 4K HD disc last year. (Carpenter is the most featured director at Scream Factory. “We tried to get all his films,” said marketing director and co-founder Jeff Nelson.)

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

The film is now considered one of Carpenter’s best and most interesting films. Phil Hoad of The Guardian called it “perhaps the director’s most underrated film”. Gizmodo’s Cheryl Eddy said it “contains one of the most disturbing depictions of evil of all time”.

The reevaluation fits well with Carpenter.

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

Cash and cash equivalents

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

At the time, Carpenter was coming off a string of major Hollywood films like Starman and Big Trouble in Little China and wanted to return 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, the other co-founder of Scream Factory.

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

Albert L. Ortega | Getty Images

Carpenter agreed to a multi-movie distribution deal with Universal Pictures and independent studio Carolco. According to Prince of Darkness script supervisor Sandy King Carpenter, the filmmaker only had to provide the studios with one-part synopses for the films.

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

Due to Prince of Darkness’s tight budget, Carpenter and his crew had to use a few tricks to achieve the film’s ambitious imagery.

“This is where you innovate when you don’t have money,” Sandy King Carpenter told CNBC.

The script called for tons of bugs swarming over the characters, so that meant real bugs. Thousands of bugs, said Sandy King Carpenter. 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 see the gnarly special effects in action. Shock rock icon Alice Cooper, whose manager Shep Gordon produced Prince of Darkness, visited the LA set to watch Carpenter and his crew film a scene in which a mirror serves as a gateway to another dimension.

Then you become 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 appear in the film as the de facto leader of murderous 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, despite not having a single word of dialogue.

Carpenter also asked Cooper to repurpose one of his infamous stage show gags — using a mic stand to “skewer” someone — for a death scene that would end up featuring the rock star’s theme song for the film playing in the background.

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

Cooper also stayed nearby to watch the mirror scene filming, 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 the mercury that served as ballast for a camera crane and used it to simulate liquid glass.

“It was very dangerous,” said the director. 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 risqué.”

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

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