By the time he made Prince Of Darkness, John Carpenter had seen the best and worst of Hollywood film­mak­ing. He had made it to the major-stu­dio lev­el and made sev­er­al smart, styl­ish gen­re films with A-movie bud­gets — The Thing, Christine, Starman and Big Trouble In Little China — but none of them pro­vid­ed a break­through hit. He returned to his low-bud­get roots, mak­ing Prince Of Darkness for around $3 mil­lion. It would have been easy, may­be even smart from a career stand­point, to make a sim­ple hor­ror roller­coast­er that would turn a quick prof­it and make him look bank­able again. Instead, Carpenter chose to make what is per­haps the most chal­leng­ing and defi­ant­ly quirky film of his career.

Prince Of Darkness begins with the death of an old priest who hides a secret. Another priest (Donald Pleasance) is entrust­ed with that secret — and he enlists the help of quan­tum physics pro­fes­sor Birack (Victor Wong) in deal­ing with it. In turn, Birack assem­bles a team of gift­ed grad stu­dents, includ­ing some from oth­er scholas­tic dis­ci­plines, to deal with this secret. Along for the ride are quan­tum sci­ence stu­dents Brian (Jameson Parker) and Catherine (Lisa Blount), who have begun a ten­ta­tive love affair at the out­set of the sto­ry.

The group descends on an inner city church and dis­cov­ers what might be “the ulti­mate truth” in its base­ment — with­out giv­ing away too many details, it involves the true nature of evil and earth-shat­ter­ing rev­e­la­tions about what we per­ceive as God and the after­life. Unfortunately, as the group begins to ana­lyze the sci­en­tific ele­ments of what they have found, the evil awak­ens and begins to man­i­fest itself in sev­er­al forms of pesti­lence — and the heroes have to fight all the­se man­i­fes­ta­tions in cir­cum­stances that test both their log­ic and their san­i­ty.

If that syn­op­sis sounds a lit­tle hard to fol­low, so is the film — by design. Carpenter uses his low-bud­get sta­tus to indul­ge in a cere­bral, eccen­tric vari­a­tion on famil­iar “Satanic hor­ror” movie con­ceits, off­set­ting them with a sci­ence fic­tion-derived skep­ti­cism about the super­nat­u­ral that comes right out of a Quatermass movie (it’s not for noth­ing that Carpenter uses the pen name “Martin Quatermass” for his screen­play cred­it here). Carpenter is tough on the audi­ence, with­hold­ing key plot ele­ments for the first half of the film and scram­bling the view­ers’ minds with sci­en­tific jar­gon and the­o­ries through­out the film. It’s as if he set out to test the audi­ence.

In a lesser filmmaker’s hands, such a chal­leng­ing script could have made for an unwatch­able film. In Carpenter’s hands, Prince Of Darkness suc­ceeds on its own defi­ant terms as an eerie mood­piece with an intel­lec­tu­al under­tow. His sense of craft and econ­o­my as a direc­tor real­ly helps here, allow­ing the film’s more out­landish con­ceits to play well because they are deliv­ered in a clean style with a method­i­cal­ly steady pace. As is often the case with his films, he uses the Cinemascope frame to pow­er­ful effect and sup­ports his imagery with an elec­tron­ic score that is so promi­nent it prac­ti­cal­ly func­tions as a char­ac­ter in the film, guid­ing the audi­ence through the film’s hel­ter-skel­ter plot with its con­sis­tent­ly chilly and creepy atmos­phere.

Prince Of Darkness is also skill­ful­ly act­ed by a cast of vet­er­an char­ac­ter thes­ps who play the film’s out­ré plot straight. Parker and Blount ground the film, cre­at­ing brainy, like­able char­ac­ters who the audi­ence can iden­ti­fy with as the plot’s crazy turns pile up around them. Pleasance and Wong bring a sense of grav­i­tas to famil­iar priest and pro­fes­sor roles, with their world-weari­ness adding dimen­sion to what could have been stock char­ac­ters. Amongst the sup­port­ing cast, scene steal­ers include Carpenter reg­u­lar Peter Jason as a charm­ing­ly goofy pro­fes­sor, Dennis Dun as the wiseass of the stu­dent group (he gets the film’s best one-lin­ers) and Alice Cooper, who is gen­uine­ly sin­is­ter in a silent role as the defac­to lead­er of the pos­sessed street peo­ple.

The cin­e­mat­ic results are very dream­like — there’s even a plot thread involv­ing a night­mare shared by the heroes as the evil unfold around them — and it often con­nects strong­ly in sur­re­al­is­tic terms. Carpenter packs the film with unnerv­ing sur­re­al images: ants crawling on the back of a tele­vi­sion, a pigeon cru­ci­fied on a makeshift cross, a home­less wom­an greet­ing the priest with a cup full of mag­gots, etc. There’s at least one such image, often more, every reel in the film — and you’ll find them hard to shake off after watch­ing the film.

Carpenter uses the film’s off­beat ideas with the same sense of aban­don, casu­al­ly throw­ing out wild con­cepts like quan­tum physics explain­ing the nature of evil or the idea that video trans­mis­sions from the future can be received in the past via dreams. Some crit­ics com­plain about Carpenter not giv­ing such ideas enough explo­ration but that’s real­ly besides the point: he uses the bizarre ideas the way he uses the creepy imagery, giv­ing the audi­ence plen­ty of mate­ri­al to haunt them long after the cred­its roll. What you do with it is up to you — but chances are the film’s defi­ant, ghost­ly style will stick with you no mat­ter what you think of it.