When it’s on: Tuesday, 27 October (9.00 pm)
Channel: Movie Mix
There have been numerous attempts to portray the Devil on screen over the years. Two films in this week’s Halloween run of write-ups feature Old Nick, my favourite coming on Saturday, and personally I prefer my Satan to be a subtle and persuasive presence. You can keep shouty Al Pacino from The Devil’s Advocate. Give me Robert De Niro as a mysterious, sinister Louis Cypher in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart any day, or play him for dark laughs as Peter Cook did in the Faustian Bedazzled.
In The Prophecy, a young, pre-Aragorn Viggo Mortensen essays Lucifer as an almost businesslike fallen angel, turning up on the unlikely side of the humans because the Archangel Gabriel is trying to capture an unmitigatingly evil soul that will create a second Hell, which is one Hell too many. Beautiful and malevolent, there’s an undeniably sinister aura to his Satan. Everyone who comes across him knows who he is on sight because the Devil is an unmistakable character, and he comes out with outrageous lines like ‘I can lay you out and fill your mouth with your mother’s faeces, or we can talk‘ without missing a single beat. Lucifer appears in the film for the last ten minutes, but it’s a brilliant cameo from Mortensen who plays him completely straight and conveys everything that’s both attractive and terrible about the character.
Mortensen is just one member of a finely chosen cast of characters in this movie, a rather silly (but no less compelling) entry about the war between angels spilling over into events on Earth. Eric Stoltz, who always strikes me as one of those perenially ‘under the radar’ actors, plays Simon, a ‘good’ angel who passes on the soul of the cannibalistic General Hawthorne – a veteran of the Korean War who treated the conflict as a personal playground for his atrocities – to a little girl in order to shield it from forces that would use it for evil. Simon might be on the side of right, but he’s also practical and the seedier side to his interactions with the girl have real power. The villain is Gabriel (Christopher Walken), attempting to end his war with God by releasing Hawthorne’s soul into Heaven and allowing the essence of evil in to finish the favouring of humankind. This could be a concept treated with hopeless solemnity, but instead director Gregory Widen and actor Walken have fun with Gabriel and turn the plot into a pulpy thriller, never taking itself too seriously. Walken in particular has a whale of a time, dealing with the recently dead people he’s reanimated as servants to be toyed with, and using his powers with wild abandon. There’s a brilliant scene where he’s chatting with a bunch of schoolkids as he’s checking each one to see if they contain Hawthorne’s soul. He’s actually great company for the children, but with that element of being able to smite them with one wave of his finger if he so chooses.
If any characters come across as lesser presences, then it’s undeniably the human ones, played by Elias Koteas and Virginia Madsen, and it’s unfair on them because the angels get all the best lines and scenes. Koteas, like Stoltz one of those reliable performers who’s never received the plaudits his work deserves, plays a detective who earlier in his life was training to be a priest, only failing to be confirmed when his visions of the war in heaven overtake his faith. His career turn of joining the police is an inevitable development, turning down the priesthood for a job in the most earthly role possible, one where he gets to experience human horrors on a daily basis. When his character interacts with Simon and later the bad angel that tried to destroy him, he finds himself being sucked into the story and becomes opposed to Gabriel, an uneven battle but one in which he’s determined to play a part. Madsen is yet another ‘what if’ actor, here playing a schoolteacher who by association with the luckless young Mary and her encounter with Simon fights alongside Koteas.
The daft, overblown plot runs more like an action/crime thriller with horror overtones, which favours it as the whole thing plays like a knowing wink with the audience, the sort of gesture Gabriel himself would no doubt make. Widen cut his teeth as a screenwriter, coming up with the screenplay for Highlander, which proved his talent for producing high concept drama that has no idea of a ceiling – the story only really unravels with its sequel, which tries unsuccessfully to make more of the characters than the plot can support. A firefighter, he experienced personally a backdraft, which led to his writing work on Ron Howard’s film of the same name.
It’s a shame that Widen didn’t get to do more work in film – The Prophecy is lots of fun and definitely holds together. He uses an actor like Walken exactly as he should, taking advantage of the actor’s unearthly, pallid look to present Gabriel as a white-faced spectre with a shock of black hair. Walken shifts through the film with real grace. Even scenes where he enters a room and looks around are attractive because, with a glance, he can get across his character’s otherworldly quality, and I love the way he and the other angels perch on the edge of chairs and other objects like birdlike, weightless sprites, emphasising their unreal natures that seem impossible to humans, without the need of special effects to make the point. On the whole, it relies on good actors over storytelling with the heavy use of CGI or practical effects. This betrays The Prophecy’s relatively low budget (despite its strong cast, most of the actors were recruited without great cost, a stroke of fortunate timing), but the quality of the performances transcends most shortcomings.
The Prophecy: ***
P.S. Another shout out for Multitude of Movies, the magazine I’m proud to be part of and that has recently published its third and best issue to date. Running over 100 pages and featuring articles on such diverse topics as Sean Connery’s Bond movies, the non-horror work by Mario Bava and spaghetti western Black Jack, there’s something for everyone and as always I’m impressed with the scope of the features and the quality of the original writing and artwork. A lot of heart goes into this publication – you can purchase it from the website, which also features a growing series of original content reviews. I have contributed to this with a look at Alec Guinness in The Scapegoat, a title to which I owe Colin my thanks for introducing me to it.