John Carpenter has some good ideas, but he's finding it increasingly difficult to translate them into effective films. Take "Prince of Darkness" (please). If not the greatest story ever told, it's certainly a familiar one to horror genre buffs: The Devil's looking to break out of the prison he's been hermitically sealed in for 7 million years. This Satan in a Can has been guarded for centuries by a religious order called the Brotherhood of Sleep, and guess what: The sleeper awakens and he wants out.
The task of keeping him contained falls to a Catholic priest (Donald Pleasence, a Carpenter veteran from the "Halloween" films) and an applied physics professor (Victor Wong, a Pat Morita clone). The professor enlists some of his graduate students, and they all troop off to the abandoned church to Figure Things Out. They slowly come to realize they're not just up against an errant can of, say, Drano, especially since the hints are somewhat broad -- the zombie-like homeless folk surrounding the church, their own rapidly diminishing numbers and, of course, the ancient alternate Bible that spells it all out, thanks to an ancient-languages expert who types the translation into her computer.
Carpenter being Carpenter, he vacillates between overexplanation -- his are the most verbose horror films -- and cheap shocks. Pleasence and Wong spend many furtive moments trying to give the film an intellectual sheen, only to have some gross-out negate it. And in case we miss either point, Carpenter the composer overscores everything with some of the most cliche'd genre music since "Halloween III." In fact, he allows that music to do all too much of the film's work, though he's not averse to shots of maggots squirming, roaches swarming and zombies spitting an evil liquid into their victims' throats.
Carpenter may think he's saying something about the hollowness of religion and the roots of evil (there are a lot of strained "supposes" and "what ifs"), but in the end he's just after cheap thrills. Just because he provides them doesn't make them any cheaper.
Pleasence sleepwalks through his part; Wong, Dennis Dun and Ann Yen suggest the Oriental element that dominated Carpenter's last failed film, "Big Trouble in Little China"; and Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount provide some uninteresting romantic interest. The script isn't even as good as the scriptwriter's name -- Martin Quatermass. At one point Pleasence vows that "it's a secret that can no longer be kept." Here's another: " 'The Prince of Darkness' stinks." It too deserves to be shut up in a canister for 7 million years.
Prince of Darkness, currently playing at area theaters, is rated R and contains scenes of violence and gruesome special effects.