Almost ten years ago, in my review of Constantine (2005), I coined the term “theological thriller” in reference to scary movies that draw inspiration from religious iconography. Declaring it one of my favourites, I praised the horror subgenre for putting romance and imagination ahead of violence. Then, as if by fate, Hollywood began releasing uninspired schlock like Gabriel (2007) and Legion (2010), making me regret those accolades. In hindsight, I don’t think I love theological thrillers so much as the film that inspired them: Gregory Widen’s The Prophecy.
The high concept: it turns out the reason we haven’t heard from God these past couple of centuries is because his messengers are at war. On one side, we’ve got Simon (Eric Stoltz) and the angels still faithful to the “word”; on the other, Gabriel (Christopher Walken) and those who’ve grown jealous of “talking monkeys” and their precious souls. How the latter faction differs from Lucifer’s (Viggo Mortensen) is left unclear, but I suppose it’s got to do with their blaming humanity for their neglect, whereas the Prince of Darkness points the finger firmly at his creator. Most therapists would say he’s more in touch with his emotions.
Perhaps to emphasise its humanist themes or simply out of budgetary concerns, The Prophecy only shows us glimpses of this celestial crusade, focusing instead on the earthly Thomas (Elias Koteas), a police detective plagued by visions of angels spilling blood. Hoping to steer clear of heaven’s light, he works the night shift in Los Angeles (of course) but ends up investigating the death of Uziel (Jeff Cadiente), a seraph in Gabriel’s army. The case leads him to Arizona, where Simon has hidden the spirit of Colonel Arnold Hawthorne (Patrick McAllister) in the hopes of preventing the apocalypse. Incidentally, the ghost is stashed in a little girl named Mary (Moriah Shining Dove Snyder) because important little girls are always named Mary in movies like this.
Some of you may be wondering how the soul of a deceased war criminal concealed in the body of a twelve-year-old could engender the end of the world. I’ve watched The Prophecy over a dozen times and still can’t figure it out. In fact, it occurs to me the plot doesn’t make a lick of sense. How, for instance, do the angels know what divination to follow if God has stopped talking to them? Does Hawthorne’s ghost truly present a threat in a world wherein a simple ceremony can activate God’s sky beam? Also, how is it that Thomas has jurisdiction outside of California? While we’re at it, why was the car that killed Uziel speeding in a dead-end alley?
It speaks to the romantic allure of Widen’s ideas that I find myself willing—nay, eager—to overlook such basic questions. Incorporating elements of film noir, Christian mythology, and good old-fashioned horror fantasy, The Prophecy brims with far-off concepts that favour poetry over plot mechanics. True, this sometimes results in lengthy exposition (whispered in a needlessly somber tone), but that seems a small price to pay to partake in his dream about warrior angels, soul-eating monsters, Native American exorcisms, undead caddies, and a vision of heaven and hell that echoes our own religious doubts.
What truly endears me, though, is the soulfulness with which Widen treats this material, the way he uses every fantastical element to discuss the role of faith in a world with fewer and fewer signs of God. Whereas most films of this type would simply manufacture a miracle to provide religious viewers with an easy, feel-good answer, The Prophecy focuses solely on the angst that comes with existential uncertainty. Consider the subplot in which Gabriel enlists the recently deceased to drive him around (even though he can fly). From this conceit, one might’ve expected an army of zombies for Thomas to battle, but here the undead are presented as genuine characters whose distress over missing eternal bliss proves all too palpable.
I also love Christopher Walken’s portrayal of Gabriel as a child-like being blinded by feelings of abandonment. “God doesn’t speak to me anymore,” he complains at one point in The Prophecy, breaking the hearts of viewers who previously saw him as just a villain. Similarly, Viggo Mortensen makes Lucifer strangely sympathetic by adding a layer of bravado to his open hostility toward humans. “I do not love you!” he insists, shortly before offering mankind his help. Me thinks the devil doth protest too much.
With such a wealth of talent and creativity, it’s no wonder The Prophecy spawned four sequels and an endless parade of copycats. The imagery alone proves worthy of its own subgenre, from the eerie shots of Simon perching on wooden furniture to such wondrous sights as Lucifer turning into a murder of crows or heaven opening up to reveal an army of seraphs. I only wish the subsequent slew of theological thrillers had captured the spirit of Widen’s movie along with its fantasy. The angels here may not look as majestic as those in Legion or shoot bad-ass machine guns like in Gabriel, but, damn it, I could swear they’ve got souls.