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By JASON COMERFORD

Every horror fan has his favorite John Carpenter film, and for this one, it’s Prince of Darkness. John Carpenter’s 1987 thriller may not have the big-budget sheen of The Thing or the elemental simplicity of Halloween, but it more than makes up for its shortcomings with a fascinating blend of hard science, theological speculation and supernatural horror. The plot concerns a group of scientists who gather in the subterranean chambers beneath a Los Angeles church to investigate the effects of a strange container -- a container which contains the Antichrist.

Most Carpenter films can’t stick their landings, and to be blunt, Prince of Darkness is no different; the plot eventually devolves into Carpenter’s umpteenth Rio Bravo rehash, with a series of characters barricaded and under siege by an anonymous horde. But the windup is splendidly effective, with a particularly chilling recurring image provided by an eerie dream -- a dream, as it turns out, that’s being delivered from the future -- depicting the newly-reborn Satan emerging from the front of the church. Carpenter’s script, steeped in theoretical physics and quantum mechanics, layers on the tech talk with impressive clarity, creating an array of intelligent characters (a typically Howard-Hawksian assembly of masculine men and the women who match them bullet for bullet) who slowly work their way through a complex and baffling problem.

Carpenter’s do-it-yourself methodology famously extended to his scores, and his groundbreaking electronic music for Halloween showed Hollywood how a financial limitation could be turned into a key creative asset. Carpenter’s electronic soundscapes became the standard template of 1980s horror music, and his score for Prince of Darkness, composed with his usual associate Alan Howarth, represents his finest work in that style. In an interview with FearNet to celebrate the release of the deluxe 2CD edition of the film’s soundtrack, Carpenter explained more about the process that went into the music:

The signature sound of Carpenter’s films from the late ‘80s (including also “Big Trouble in Little China” and “They Live”) owes to some new equipment acquisitions that Carpenter and Howarth put to excellent use. “The equipment that I most depended on for the ‘Prince of Darkness’ score, as well as many others, were the Emulator and the Kurzweil keyboards,” Carpenter recalls, “but my personal favorite is the Oberheim. What a cool sound!” It’s most likely the Oberheim SEM synthesizer that’s behind that creepy, low triplet theme that creeps along beneath the extended opening-credits sequence, but Carpenter couldn't recall… “I believe that was the Oberheim, but that was over 20 years ago,” he remarked.

Howarth also recounts the new setup in the CD's liner notes: “We had the full power of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) sequencing and multi-track recording with automated mixing, giving a sonic quality to our scores that rivals anything today,” he wrote. “We were able to to play instruments in big MIDI stacks, giving the score real sonic depth.”

Howarth also noted the new changes to their sonic palette: “We had digital samples of choir vocals that created the haunting themes for the final coming of the 'Son of the Devil,'” he writes. “The semi-religious overtones work well even today.” Though not Carpenter & Howarth's first example of sampling, that eerie black-mass choir is definitely among their most memorable uses of the then-emerging technology, with a distinctly Gothic flavor underscoring scenes in candlelit, crucifix-lined catacombs of the film’s church location – even though Carpenter admits he didn’t deliberately aim for that mood… it just turned out that way. “I really didn't set out to create a Gothic-sounding score,” he explains, “I actually don't know what that means!”

Carpenter and Howarth’s hypnotic, pulsating score for Prince of Darkness arguably reaches the zenith of its effectiveness early on, with the ten-minute cue “The Team Assembles,” as the various members of the team converge on the church and are faced with their horrifying dilemma. The cue begins with the triplet theme first heard in the extended credit sequence, with a relentless synthesized drumbeat emerging to power the remainder of the cue, eerie vocal effects and keyboard motifs sprinkled throughout. Prince of Darkness was initially released by Varese Sarabande on LP and CD in 1987, and Howarth’s 2009 double-disc expansion of the score (containing the original album assembly as well as the complete film score) is still available from the usual online outlets.

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The Moment in Question:

Click [here] to listen to a sample of
"The Team Assembles" from
Prince of Darkness, composed by
John Carpenter and Alan Howarth.

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Night of the Demon Silva Screen Horror! album cover


Prince of Darkness bluray packaging


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Soundtrack by AHI Records

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Next Installment:

Nathan Barr finds the beauty
in darkness. Hostel: Part II

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READER COMMENTS:

David W.  
The age of the Keyboard! New Wave was here to stay, or until Europe had their final countdown!
     
Peloquin  
I remember seeing the film and not being scared too much, more of just being freaked out. Sitting in the show as the score builds and then felt it "this is not a dream"... you are receiving this broadcast... this is not a dream...

...It was a very entertaining score, it helped the film along... for me at least and I am glad they expanded it.
   
Scott  
Believe it or not...I have never seen the movie. Something I should probably rectify at some point. So while I can't comment on the scores effectiveness in the movie or on the movie itself, I can comment on the score as a stand alone work. I have the 2 disc complete release, and I enjoy it...maybe not quite as much as some of Carpenter & Howarth's other works though. Maybe I will change my mind on that point when I do finally see the movie.
   
Ivan  
Well, for many film-fans "score from 80s" means "synth score." My collection don't have too much synth scores from that period, it's really not my type of music. For my sense, it make big effort in movie, but it's rather hard to listen that type of scores as albums. But I always admire how good this music works in movie! Here the same situation (for me) - fantastic experience in movie and not same as separate listening.
     
Josh  
Just listened to this the other day while driving to work and back. To my ears, it's one of the darkest of the Carpenter/Howarth collaborations. Great stuff.
     
Jonathan   Good stuff from those 2 composers. I like the expanded set, it sounds typically 80s. 
     
Mike  
One of the very few Carpenter films I haven't seen, but the music of Carpenter's films never disappoints. Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing...I love them all, and I like the dark groove sound going on in the sample here.
     
Jeff   Until recently, I only really was familiar with Carpenter's Halloween scores. It wasn't until I started listening to movie scores more frequently that I finally discovered his unique sound. I love most of the stuff that I have heard. Right now (aside from Halloween, obviously) The Fog is my favorite Carpenter score. But Prince of Darkness is still up there! 

I forgot to include Alan Howarth in my praise. He seems like the one who took John Carpenter's music to the new level and I really like what he did with future Halloween scores. However, the suites on the Halloween II 30th Anniversary release... that's another story.