Prince of Darkness
directed by John Carpenter
screenplay by Martin Quatermass
Universal Pictures.

When they hear about Prince of Darkness, unsuspecting moviegoers may envision a thrilling story of the occult. Some person will probably release Satan from his underworld domain, either deliberately or unwittingly; the demon will run rampant over the globe for a short time, and finally be sent back—quite unwillingly, of course—to where he belongs.

In contemporary stories of Satanism and the occult, from Rosemary’s Baby through The Exorcist to The Witches of Eastwick, Hollywood almost invariably treats the Evil One as a personal force, with a mind and will of his own. Prince of Darkness, however, marks a deviation from this tradition. The film opens quite intriguingly, with a priest (Donald Pleasance), a physicist (Victor Wong), and several brilliant graduate students (led by Jameson Parker) gathering together in an old church to investigate a bizarre phenomenon. In the basement of the church is a cylindrical, 10-foot tall glass chamber, filled with a green liquid, which writhes and roils sinisterly.

A cryptic manuscript provides some clues to the nature of this weird chamber and the mysterious substance. The manuscript, written by a group of monks over the course of hundreds of years, is in Hebrew, Latin, Greek, and other tongues, and, when translated by one of the scholars gathered in the church, suggests that the object in the basement is the jail in which Satan is being held. The manuscript frequently mentions “The Beast,” and paraphrases passages from the prophecies of Isaiah and Daniel and the Book of Revelations, including Rev. 20:2-3: “He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years; and he cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal on him, so that he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years were finished.”

In a conventional film of the demonic, this would set up the release of Satan from his bondage, providing a look into his personality and thereby an examination of the nature of evil, as in The Omen. But in Prince of Darkness Satan’s “personality” turns out to be considerably different from the traditional Christian understanding of it. Further translation of the aforementioned manuscript reveals a decline in the influence of biblical prophecy and the substitution of something very different.

The manuscript characterizes “The Beast” not as a powerful being living in deliberate rebellion against God, but rather as a “negative force” found in all matter. Just as a positron is the negative counterpart of an electron, and an antiproton is the negative counterpart of a proton, so, says the film, the Prince of Darkness is to God. Neither force is personal or willful; each is found in all matter, and all matter is charged with spiritual power.

This is clearly not Christian theology, then, but rather “New Age” philosophy—the latest attempt in Western society to incorporate ideas from Eastern philosophy and the occult. Prominent aspects of the New Age movement are the interest in reincarnation; spirit channeling; the “power of positive thinking”; and the use of drugs, meditation, and hypnosis as “mind-expanding” experiences.

It’s easy to see how the theology of Prince of Darkness fits into this scheme. The New Age declares that “All is One,” that there is no death, that man is God, and that all matter is charged with spirituality. Similarly, we find the notion of Satan debased in this film into a simple conception of the Yang to what we are to understand as God’s Yin.

But while Shirley MacLaine’s book and TV-film (Out On a Limb) have been presented as “one woman’s personal odyssey,” which the reader or viewer can accept or dismiss as he chooses, Prince of Darkness incorporates its New Age ideas into a fictional narrative which, in this biblically ignorant society, is very likely to confuse viewers. If the narrative were honest about its New Age ideas and didn’t try to give them scriptural sanction, this uneasy mixture of biblical prophecy, the pseudoscientific ideas of Gurdjieff and his ilk, and the theology of George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogy would be as unpalatable to orthodox Jews and Christians as it is to materialist atheists and agnostics.

The film is particularly offensive to Christians. The manuscript revealing the truth about the substance in the glass chamber posits Jesus Christ to have been an extraterrestrial, who presumably came to our planet to teach us how to defeat the negative force in all matter through the power of positive thinking. This, of course, is a fairly straightforward presentation of the New Age notion of “Christ consciousness,” which sees Jesus not as mankind’s personal Savior, but rather as one in a long line of great prophets, whose teachings are on a par with those of Confucius, Buddha, Muhammed, and the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. While the film’s idea of Jesus will obviously not persuade an orthodox Christian, in the context of the film it could easily confuse those who are less firm in their beliefs.

fact, the New Age ideas of Prince of Darkness are not only theologically deceptive, but also aesthetically bad. As Aristotle noted, drama is based on the choices the characters make—whether those characters are people, animals, angels, demons, or whatever. But in Prince of Darkness the characters make few choices of any importance, spending most of the film’s last half merely scrambling to survive. It could hardly be othervi^ise, with the characters fighting a completely impersonal force about which they know very little. In fact, Satan never does achieve release from his prison, and all we ever actually see of him is half of his right arm protruding from a mirror.

Thus the film quickly devolves, after its clever beginning, into a typical John Carpenter production. Carpenter, while occasionally directing inventive action-adventure films like Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China, is best-known for Halloween, The Fog, and the 80’s remake of Howard Hawks’ The Thing. Like most of Carpenter’s work, Prince of Darkness is liberally dosed with random violence and mayhem, including deaths by impalement and bludgeoning, a man’s body consumed from within by insects, green slime spewing from people’s mouths, and a woman whose body decays horribly while she still lives. In Prince of Darkness Carpenter again weds undeniable filmmaking talent with only the haziest sense of what ideas he wants it to express.

This bit of filmic mayhem would be of little interest if it weren’t the first example of New Age thinking in a very popular genre, the horror film. If Prince of Darkness follows the usual release pattern of contemporary Hollywood films—which it almost certainly will—its short theatrical run will be followed by a release on videocassette, a tour of the cable movie channels, and, finally, syndication to broadcast TV stations. By the time the film finishes its run, literally millions of people will have seen it, and have been exposed for perhaps the first time to an organized, fairly comprehensive introduction to New Age theology. For those who don’t subscribe to the New Age movement, Prince of Darkness will be seen as the first shot across the bow. It probably won’t be the last.