No public temple or church gathers Satan’s faithful in worship. Kept in the catacombs and shadows of monotheism’s bright light, Satan’s presence throughout history has been of perpetual occultation and concealment. In Prince of Darkness (1987), writer/director John Carpenter draws the viewer into religion’s creche only to spit out cosmic evil from a shabby, rusted prison guarded by ineffectual symbols. By transplanting an ancient religious relic to 20th century Los Angeles, Carpenter subverts the viewers’ expectations through the juxtaposition of millennia-old devices within an unostentatious ecclesiastical building. Prince of Darkness imprisons an ancient evil and contextualizes Armageddon in a distinctly faded American way.
Prince of Darkness consistently maintained a cult-status, and while not a commercial success, the film is a masterclass in budget filmmaking and high concept screenwriting. While built on ingenious energy, Prince of Darkness ultimately takes pedestrian routes to climax. That should not diminish the profoundly troubling and existential themes effortlessly wound through the film. Key to the film’s success is Carpenter’s skillful use of scientific themes tied expertly into a Christian setting. Linchpins of Prince of Darkness are the vacant Catholic church, insertion of 20th-century science, and an inexplicable vessel of swirling energy in its catacombs. Without the ecclesiastic setting and the weight of ancient, unholy power, the Apocalyptic tone might have otherwise floundered in sunny Los Angeles.
Science is the unconventional aid to Californian Catholicism seeking answers to a strange luminescent prisoner bound underground. The fictional church at the center of the film, Saint Godard repurposed from the real Japanese Union Church, is populated by laboratory equipment and crucifixes. The film’s first half steadily, teasingly examines the churning cylinder in the Spanish-era catacombs specifically built to house the vessel. When science provides answers, like chemical compounds and carbon dating, we are led to a questioning of the church, god, and the pressing corporeality of evil. While the Catholic hierarchy in Prince of Darkness questions their faith, we see a similar crisis in the scientists who observe forces breaking the laws of thermodynamics.
Carpenter’s transformation of a real church into the shabby Saint Godard makes it the strange antipode to the spiritually ornate temples throughout history. Visually, Saint Godard is more a prison capstone than a church. With empty spaces and cell-like rooms, peopled by sporadic sculpted angels and saints, the church’s simplicity focuses the viewer’s attention on the story and aids in the suspension of disbelief. As a structure, it does not distract the way cool architectural modernism might nor idly demand a dour tone through an overbearing gothic façade.
A survey of the religious architecture setting of Los Angeles, particularly Christian declaratory designs, and you are swept up by styles new and old. Churches like the Westwood United Methodist’s blend of soaring Spanish-Gothic-Deco style on Wilshire Boulevard or the sun-bleached stucco of Lincoln Height’s Romanesque Church of Epiphany are distinct and striking.
The real church hosting Saint Godard served as home to successive generations of Japanese American Catholics and possessed a simpler architecture. Saint Godard’s deconsecrated simple brick box, and columned appearance allowed Carpenter to etch a story into the church’s frame, stripped of direct connections to actual worshippers. In effect, Carpenter questions the faith while not disrespecting the faithful. The church’s anonymity magnifies the desperate foreboding which carries the film. The house of worship is not a sanctuary, a place of redemption, and an amplifier for faithful voices, rather the prison of an evil that ultimately dictated and defined centuries of church governance.
The spectacular and unsettling aesthetics of the fictional church are carved into the earth, not built into an altar or stations of the cross. Prince of Darkness’ faux Saint Godard is stripped of most of its Christian symbols, and the lightness that usually floods classic stained-glass windows is sapped from the church by filmmakers. The church is without hope or light, as a place and system, it is lost, decayed, and symbolic of a rot gnawing at its foundations. There is a somberness that grows, made more desperate by the spartan architecture of an abandoned church, not as much deconsecrated, instead shunted and hidden from the faithful, left to whither. There is no hope to be found in devotional candles or prayers to saints. They are powerless in this once holy husk of a building. Only in the church’s darkest heart does desperate piety cling on. It is as if the whole of Los Angeles’ crosses and crucifixes flooded the Spanish-era catacombs lacing the church’s foundation.
The cruciform symbols of Christ’s sacrifice become corrections officers. The lowest levels are cavernous, a crucial sanctum for the evil within, possessing not a holy spirit but more like a womb-like prison for evil. The darkness of the interior sets could also be within the heart of Carpenter’s perspective on the Catholic Church, which is interrogated and indicted by the Prince of Darkness.
The church, with its simple, unostentatious design, perfectly fits new roles assigned by Carpenter. Altars become labs, and confessors turn into physicists. Arrangement of scientific instruments turns the place of spiritual revelation into empirical discovery, realizing Martin Heidegger’s concept of equipment and place, “When equipment for something…has its place, this place defines itself as the place of this equipment.” Paraphernalia of the servants of God are replaced by servants of science and their equipment, the Periodic Table of Elements supplant Bibles. The spartan use of religious symbols or iconography in the above-ground spaces allows the scientific equipment a preeminent place. Where statues of saints define the space as religious, stripping them reveals a vaguely consecrated form that is redefined by the inclusion of electronic apparatus.
The catacombs, however, retain their purpose as a prison, despite the intrusion of both crucifixes and lab equipment. Carpenter’s underground space actively rebuffs Heideggerian conversion as attempts to confine and define through science or sanctify it by way of Christ, fail. Carpenter effectively subverts Heideggerian equipment and placemaking, by meticulous detailing of overbearing amounts of scientific and religious apparatus and material. The social, psychological, and aesthetic impacts of the below-ground spaces enhance Carpenter’s subversive juxtaposition.
Subterranean space, Rebecca Lambert describes as a link “between the routine every day, and the more than human world,” an observation perfectly aligned in Prince of Darkness. Both the underground prison and the abandoned church. The twisting, umbilical rooms linked to Saint Godard also exemplify Lambert’s idea of a place where “all acts are significant, but also where interactions with forces, both benevolent and, potentially, malevolent, take place.” The energy of scientific discovery in Prince of Darkness, exercised as a benevolent duty, shifts into chaos and bloody possession, realizing the malevolent essence trapped beneath Los Angeles.
The sanctity of the church is physically stripped away, with its boarded up or shattered windows, cleaned out and emptied halls, despair, and disillusionment from church leadership. Science attempts to understand the evil within and finds only the impossible. Yet without the trappings of a millennia-old faith, the film’s conclusion would lack eschatological gravitas. Through genetic material and isotopic decay, science in Carpenter’s film finds the root of original sin, in the form of alien evil. The Catholic Church in Prince of Darkness is not a foil, but a disoriented character and physical setting within the larger story of life, death, evil and goodness, a faith seeking to explain the preternatural as supernatural.
Watching the film with fresh eyes allows one to see conscious decisions: gone are the pews, replaced by banks of scientific equipment, the faithful replaced by the skeptic. Prince of Darkness demands the viewer to embrace the sanctity of space while actively undermining the faith’s physical and spiritual structure. Science, in Carpenter’s “what if” world, pierces darkness in service of religion, and by extension, spare humanity from an evil more exceptional than Satan’s power or the lingering stain of original sin.