Friday, October 17, 2014

The Prophecy (1995)

(R, Dimension Films, 98 mins., theatrical release date: September 1, 1995)

Imagine John Milton writing a B-noir screenplay taking off apocalyptically from the Angelic War premise of Paradise Lost. Lo, you have just foretold the coming of The Prophecy, Highlander and Backdraft author Gregory Widen's 1995 feature debut produced for the mid-1990s Weinstein boutique label Dimension Films. The Prophecy seems to have been lost in the shuffle coming from the cash-cow indie company who also gave you countless DTV sequels to Children of the Corn and Hellraiser, but if you were there in the '90s, The Prophecy remains engrained in your memory banks even if only for one reason:

Before he caught the fever only more cowbell and Fatboy Slim could subside, Christopher Walken was drafted to play a modern-day incarnation of archangel Gabriel, a roguish castaway from God's graces who seeks a mutiny in Heaven (that's not a half-hearted reference, as Walken could plausibly resemble an aged, American ringer for Nick Cave). Looking suspiciously like a character from Mirimax's hottest non-horror property, Pulp Fiction (in which he, Amanda Plummer and a still-unkempt Eric Stoltz also appeared in), Gabriel doesn't do as much hovering as he does strutting through the landscape. With a magnified sense of smell as well as a sardonic nihilism to his decrees, Gabriel may be mortal (angels on Earth aren't exactly invincible) but is possessed of a jubilantly swollen Godhead. Also, when he plays his trumpet, best to keep at least 100 yards away from him to avoid the debris.

Walken's continual cachets to his cultism also managed to include The Prophecy, whose modest success at least allowed Dimension to bring him back for the film's initial, non-theatrical sequels. But does The Prophecy work without him? Well, sort of...

The Prophecy is as graven and sunken-eyed as its antagonist, hinging on the brutal loss of faith, the animosity towards the Almighty for man's ascension, the dark soul of a war criminal imprisoned within an Indian girl's body, and the appearance of Lucifer himself, played with equally dangerous zeal by a pre-Tolkien Viggo Mortensen. The central character isn't even a celestial being, but a fallen man named Thomas Daggett, played by another major indie film star of the time, Elias Koteas (Exotica, Crash). Daggett was once set to be ordained into priesthood until grim visions caused him to break down on the pulpit and drive him into working as a detective. But his doubts will be put to the test when a crime scene investigation turns up evidence of an anatomically-incorrect cadaver and an unabridged copy of St. John's Revelations.

The corpse in question is the angel Uziel (Jeff Cadiente), and he was murdered in self-defense by another not-quite-ancient figure, Simon (Eric Stoltz). Simon sets out to the economically-depressed town of Chimney Rock, Arizona, to guard the spirit of local hero/Korean War occultist Colonel Hawthorne, but transfers it into the body of orphaned Mary (Moriah "Shining Dove" Snyder) as a contingency plan. This doesn't prevent Gabriel from tracking Simon down and slaughtering his nemesis, finally leading Gabriel to terrorize Mary, Daggett and schoolteacher Katherine (Virginia Madsen) in pursuit of Hawthorne's soul, which he needs to ensure his victory in the second war on Heaven.

The rationale is that even though angels may carry savage weapons, they are still novices in the ways of wickedness compared to some of God's most beloved creation. And yet here is Christopher Walken, who as a Bond villain (Max Zorin from A View to a Kill) mowed down an entire swath of henchmen with sick glee as well as pushed Sean Penn to the brink of madness in the domestic crime drama At Close Range, needing to possess someone else's power. Even as a dejected seraphim, Walken is already a master in cool menace. He relishes every threat to tear apart little Mary like a human Cracker Jack box just to get his prize, and his many matter-of-fact taunts about his "talking monkey" enemies are believably bitter.

Gregory Widen could have stood to put some more soul into The Prophecy, which, while not completely humorless, is still weighed down by a portentous essence, circling the action regularly like buzzards might swarm the desert scenery. Elias Koteas and Eric Stoltz are not without charm, as anyone who can remember Some Kind of Wonderful can attest for sure, but they play the roles with a solemnity that is stoic to the point of wooden. It doesn't help Stoltz's case when he has to finally unload Hawthorne's soul into the virgin Mary, a moment which will leave many scraping their jaws off the carpet. Virginia Madsen brings earthly sex appeal and pluckiness to the undervalued role of Katherine, making for a less oppressive form of gravity. Also in the cast are Adam Goldberg and Amanda Plummer as Gabriel's homosapien slaves, suicide cases stuck in depressed limbo to carry out the angel's every destructive whim.

It should be noted that Widen's story, whilst a peculiar and perverted twist on religious iconography which often stares at its own navel for long stretches, is not completely stupid, just not fully convincing. There is black humor in Walken's every scene and a sense of integrity to Daggett's conflicted ideals. Furthermore, as a director, he makes great use of angelic sculptures, Native American scenery and the ever-reliable special effects team. Most major studio genre films are not known for being ambitious and imaginative, mostly because of dollar-chasing skepticism, but Widen gets his vision across in mostly unfettered terms.

The trouble is that without the canny casting of Christopher Walken or the charmingly nefarious Viggo Mortensen ("God is love. I don't love you"), you'd be hard-pressed to call The Prophecy particularly entertaining or involving. Widen doesn't quite find a satisfying middle ground between intellectual and inessential. Maybe it's for the better as this is not exactly a bad movie, and it fits snugly in the middle ground between Dimension's more rewarding Scream series and the shameless schlock of those endless Leprechaun flicks. The premise is also fresh enough to make those later Prophecy sequels, even the ones which resurrect Walken as Gabriel, seem more cynical and dopey in contrast.

The Prophecy, meanwhile, isn't as sacred as it takes itself to be, and it's a shame Walken's irreverence didn't bless the rest of the film. This could have sincerely been manna from Hell.

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