ANALYSIS: “This is not a dream” – Finding meaning in PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987)


All hail goo Satan, for he towers before you in liquid form and will unleash the will of the Anti-God on this Earth, bringing destruction and death in his wake… Join Iona Smith as she tries to unravel one of John Carpenter’s most divisive films

A priest (Donal Pleasence) invites a professor (Victor Wong) and his class of quantum physics students to investigate a mysterious pipe in the basement of an LA monastery. This ominous cylinder contains a green swirling liquid and is etched with text that claims that this is the vessel for the spawn of Anti-God. It is also revealed that Jesus was a space traveller who was killed for the crime of heresy, warning people of the satanic danger they will face in the future…

This is just part of the convoluted plot of the second film in John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy (the others being  1982’s The Thing and 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness). Influenced by a book on quantum mechanics that he had read the summer before its conception – as well as Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass series – Prince of Darkness was Carpenter’s answer to combining scientific theory with religious rationale. It also leaves many viewers stumped as to its meaning, even after multiple watches. 

Carpenter himself may not have fully grasped what he was trying to say with Darkness. Aesthetically and thematically it pays loving homage to German expressionism with its lingering shots and ideas such as intellectual madness, betrayal and the insanity that can occur from witnessing the inexplicable. Unfathomable Lovecraftian terror is in play here too, as Satan is alive and comes to possess people – even the level-headed scientist – entering their bodies as a liquid and taking control. But is that all there is to this narrative? Gentle references to reality beyond reason intertwined with “Star Trek-style science speak” so that audiences can pretend to understand the mostly made-up logic?

The meaning behind the messages could be found in the dream sequences that the group of scientists share. As they begin their investigation, each member of the team dreams of a figure emerging from the church where liquid Satan has been hidden for millennia. This figure is accompanied by jumbled radio broadcasts which warn the researchers that they must change the course of future events before this comes to pass. Once the mirror doorway to the alternate universe of anti-matter is closed – following the sacrifice of Catherine (Lisa Blount) who launches herself at Satanic vessel Kelly (Susan Blanchard) through the rift and the priest breaks the gateway with an axe (stay with me) – Brian (Jameson Parker) finds himself seeing the dream in full for the first time. The difference now is that Catherine is the shadowed figure in the doorway, seemingly a new vessel for Satan, and the radio transmission is no longer broken into segments:

“This is not a dream… We are using your brain’s electrical system as a receiver. We are unable to transmit through conscious neural interference. You are receiving this broadcast as a dream. We are transmitting from the year one, nine, nine, nine. You are receiving this broadcast in order to alter the events you are seeing. Our technology has not developed a transmitter strong enough to reach your conscious state of awareness, but this is not a dream. You are seeing what is actually occurring for the purpose of causality violation.”

In physics causality is the relationship between cause and effect, meaning that an effect is unable to occur before a cause and thus it belongs in the future. Causality violation is therefore the notion of an effect being witnessed before the corresponding cause, such as an object travelling faster than the speed of light and yet still being observed as doing such. The transmission from the future that the group of scientists receive in their dreams is a warning, proof of a sequence of events that will lead to the potential apocalypse: the effect being witnessed before the cause. However, it’s proven by the final dream sequence that no matter what happened, the end of times is going to come, Anti-God is not going to stop trying to cross over into our realm and all of humanity is therefore doomed.

Conversely causality could be argued as being irrelevant when it comes to matters of faith and religion. This removal of logic and the cut to black just before Brian touches another potential gateway into the anti-matter universe leaves audiences with an unnerving sense of dread: even if they don’t fully understand what they’ve just watched, they know it isn’t over and are left with their own imaginations to interpret what will happen next. 

To find more meaning in this chaotic film further consideration should be given to this relationship between religion and science. Darkness blurs the lines between these schools, proposing that they are one and the same, both based in a grounded sense of physical existence on Earth whilst also believing in forces yet unseen. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; for every God, there is an Anti-God. Evil as a physical entity – rather than a spiritual influence – is portrayed through the existence of this Anti-God, with liquid Satan as its lackey, serving to return the truest opposition of good to this realm through a reflection. With light, darkness is always just around the corner. 

There are also connections to real-world events in Darkness, such as the AIDS epidemic which was at its peak during production. In the film Satan’s demonic possession of his victims is achieved by the transmission of this green fluid which sprays from the cylinder into people’s mouth, nose or eyes; a fluid which can then be passed on by the possessed person, infecting others. Although the HIV/AIDS virus doesn’t spread this way (rather through unprotected sex, contaminated blood transfusions, needle sharing or mother-to-child during pregnancy, delivery or breastfeeding) the fear of the virus being passed by saliva was at its height via rumours in the 1980s, leading to mass homophobia and fear-mongering. Although these connotations within Darkness were not received positively by those who read the film this way – and Carpenter did not confirm whether such similarities were intentional – it nevertheless explores anxieties which were in the public imagination at the time.

Although some elements of Darkness haven’t aged particularly well – such as Alice Cooper being credited as “Street Schizo” (with the implication that the mentally ill are homeless, Satan worshipping murderers who will become possessed when their master awakes) – the film has nevertheless gathered a cult following who defend it as one of Carpenter’s greatest works, even though general audiences tend to disagree. In any event many enjoy a good old-fashioned apocalypse, which Prince of Darkness certainly delivers in undeniably gruesome, 80s terror-fest fashion. 

© Iona Smith

Enjoyed this piece? Check out our recent mini-series on the films of John Carpenter over on our podcast here.

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