Pop culture is full of angels. There are TV shows where angels walk the Earth in human form and help everyone to learn important lessons. There are books full of thirdhand stories of people being aided by mysterious people or coincidences that they choose to interpret as angels. Soft, wistful songs with child choirs singing the chorus talk about “angels among us”. Fat cherubs and blond people with wings smile gently from every possible decoration.
I honestly wonder how it all happened.
If you read your Bible, the first thing an angel says upon approaching a human is generally some variation on “Don’t be afraid”. Angels are the messengers, warriors and servants of God, beings of awesome power in their own right, and it shows.
Those cherubim? They’re the second-highest order of angel, and they’re generally depicted in art with four wings and a face on all four sides of their heads: an ox, an eagle, a lion, and a human. Sometimes their wings are covered with eyes to indicate that they’re all-seeing. The only order of angels more powerful are the seraphim, who have six wings, so they can still fly while they cover themselves with the other two pairs of wings, so any mortal spectators aren’t burned to ash by their light.
An individual angel may be nice, or polite, or kind, but they are not soft, and they are not cute. Angels as a whole are unquestionably Good (depending on what you think about God), but they’re the kind of capital-G Good that cauterizes whole cities that have fallen into cruelty and greed.
It’s this older, more terrifying vision of angels that is recalled in the 1995 film The Prophecy, starring Christopher Walken.
Spoilers begin now.
The movie begins with a voiceover, which is almost always a bad mistake. In this case, the voiceover is the thoughts of the angel Simon, who has come to Earth – “Where we are mortal” – to seek out a dark soul, not yet Lucifer’s, to serve their cause now that The War has come again.
No, Lucifer hasn’t invaded. Yet another group of angels has rebelled.
As usual, this could easily have been dispensed with. The information given in the opening voice-over has to be given again later anyway. It would have been better for us to be in mystery and suspense for a while until we learned what was going on along with the human characters.
Still, this prologue scene is visually gorgeous. Simon is standing in a red-lit desert that I personally suspect is some sort of transitional plane between Heaven and Earth – Limbo or Purgatory or something like that – and it’s a place of desolate beauty.
We meet our human protagonist in the next scene, which is pretty much another prologue. His name is Thomas Daggett, and he’s undergoing an (accurately-depicted) ordination ceremony to become a Catholic priest, but when he prostrates himself before the altar, he has a vision of the angels at war in Heaven. This, as you can imagine, has a bad effect on him. As he himself puts it in a (well-handled!) voice-over:
“Most people lose their faith because Heaven doesn’t show them enough. How many people lose their faith because Heaven shows them too much?”
(Could this maybe give us a hint of a cinematic rule of thumb? Voice-overs to give exposition that could be given some other way are bad, but voice-overs that reveal a character’s inner monologue are okay? Hmmm. Maybe if there’s no other way to show it in action or dialogue with another character; movies and tv are the ultimate “show, don’t tell” medium.)
The story picks up some years later. Thomas has become a detective in – I’m guessing – the LAPD. He comes home one day to find Simon perched on a chair in his apartment.
Not seated. Perched. Like a bird. On the back of the chair, not the seat.
I’m going to take a moment to compliment this movie on the incredible job it does in portraying the angels as convincingly non-human without a lot of budget-busting special effects. With a budget of $8 million, I suspect they had little choice.
I doubt that it took much in the way of movie magic to create the “perching” image. Maybe gluing the chair’s feet to the floor, a few wires…but without that movie magic, it would probably be nearly impossible for a human being to squat on the back of a chair like that without tipping it over. And yet every angel we see clearly finds such a perching position not only easy, but comfortable. Simon is casually reading when Thomas enters, and when we encounter the angel Uziel a few minutes later, he stays perched on a sawhorse for hours. Between the two, and the fact that Uziel looks exactly like some sort of blackbird in profile while he’s perched, a bird motif is created for the angels that lasts the rest of the movie.
Similarly, there are multiple scenes where it’s clear that the angels have different senses than humans do – or at least, can detect different things with the ones we share. For example, they can track souls by scent.
Getting back to the plot, Simon makes a few cryptic remarks that reveal that he knows things that he can’t possibly know about Thomas, but doesn’t give any actual useful information. I suppose you could chalk this up to laying the groundwork for Great Revelations to come. Simon then leaves. The movie doesn’t show him leaving, which is disappointing, because while I don’t doubt that an angel could leave a detective’s apartment whether the detective wanted him to or not, I suspect it would require magic, violence or recourse to his wings. And it would have told us a lot to see which one Simon chose.
After he leaves Thomas’s apartment, Simon apparently spends the night wandering the city, performing errands of his own. As he does so, another angel descends from Heaven and stakes out his apartment. This is the aforementioned Uziel.
As soon as Simon arrives home, Uziel jumps several stories, crashes through his window, and attacks. Uziel comes out the worse in the fight, but Simon is badly wounded; during the struggle, the Uziel dug a significant hole in his chest.
As luck – or, more likely given the topic of the movie, Providence – would have it, Thomas is the detective assigned to investigate the crime scene.
The apartment contains a few newspapers that give hints as to Simon’s destination and plans, but for the moment, the body of the victim is far more…interesting.
The two most obvious anomalies are the fact that the John Doe is a hermaphrodite, and that he (despite his genitalia, Uziel dressed and behaved in a mostly masculine manner) has no eyes. No, he didn’t lose them in the process of dying; he never had them. His eye sockets are just two decorative holes in his skull with no lids, connection points for nerves, or anything else.
But the weirdness doesn’t stop there. Where the ribcage was sawed open for the autopsy, the corpse’s ribs had no growth rings, as all human bones do. Strangest of all, the body’s blood composition is completely normal…for an aborted fetus.
The body also has an odd scar or brand on it. Thomas recognizes it as angelic script (perhaps another case of Providence, as it’s unlikely that any other detective in the LAPD would have done so) and, upon looking it up, discovers that it’s the personal sigil of the angel Uziel, a follower of the archangel Gabriel.
It’s not clear why Uziel’s body is such a mess. The bones and the blood are probably because an angel’s body – having been created ex nihilo by the angel’s will – hasn’t gone through the processes of growth and development that an adult human’s has. The hermaphroditism may be something inherent to angels…or maybe not. We know that Simon has eyes, but we also saw him will them into existence in the intro.
It seems that eyes aren’t something that come easily to angels when they materialize. Perhaps – and this is just my personal hypothesis – Uziel is less skilled and experienced at putting a human body together than Simon.
Among Uziel’s effects is a Bible – a Bible from the second century, which means that it’s actually older than the Christian Bible as a single, organized book (unanimous agreement on which books should be included in the New Testament wasn’t reached until the fifth century). What’s more, this Bible has an additional chapter to its Book of Revelation, a chapter that tells us pretty much what Simon told us in the prologue, though, to be fair, it does elaborate a bit. It seems that a significant number of angels – led by the archangel Gabriel – are infuriated by the favor that God has shown to humans (they’re particularly jealous of our souls) and have raised a second rebellion in Heaven over it. The war has continued throughout the entire existence of the human species (which means that everyone who has ever died still lies in wormy earth…except for the damned; Heaven is closed, but Hell is always open) but has finally reached a tipping point: Uziel’s Bible speaks of a “dark soul…who will eat other dark souls and so become their inheritor”. Whichever faction claims this soul will win the war.
Speaking of Gabriel, he chooses this moment to enter the situation, in the form of Christopher Walken. Using the angelic senses I mentioned before, he tracks Uziel and Simon to Simon’s apartment, finds the same newspapers that Thomas did and, after a quick taste of the blood at the scene, traces Uziel to the morgue.
Gabriel uses more magic than any other angel we see in the movie, which is probably appropriate given his status as an archangel – he has far more power to throw around than grunts like Simon and Uziel. Upon arriving at the morgue, he puts the guards to sleep and, after performing what looks like some sort of rudimentary angelic funeral, incinerates Uziel’s body.
After that, he goes out and gets a human servant, since there are some things that he doesn’t know how to do to function on Earth – like drive.
What Gabriel does when he needs such a servant is seek out someone on the very edge of death (in this case, a hard-luck fellow who hanged himself over a breakup) and stop them from crossing over. They’re still dying, but can’t cross over until he chooses to release them – which will be when the stars burn out, if they don’t do as he says.
Yes. This is, in fact, a very effective way to convince us quickly that an archangel with the witty charm of Christopher Walken is an unspeakable monster.
(Interesting note: while Gabriel is willing, even eager,to commit acts that humans would consider atrocities, he is deeply offended by profanity. By which I mean literally profane speech, not mere vulgarity. He could care less about us talking monkeys and our fixation on our eliminatory and reproductive functions, but taking the Lord’s name in vain in his presence gets him very. Very. Angry.)
As you can imagine, all of these shenanigans convince Thomas that he needs to look into this, and right soon, jurisdiction be damned. Fortunately, he has a name and an address: Arnold Hawthorne, a Korean War veteran who recently passed away in Chimney Rock, Arizona.
Unfortunately for Gabriel, Simon has already arrived in Chimney Rock and retrieved Hawthorne’s soul.
Still badly wounded and perhaps sickened by the effort of containing Hawthorne’s tainted soul, Simon takes shelter in the town’s public school (Chimney Rock is in the final stages of withering up and blowing away since its copper mine closed, and as far as we can see, there seems to be only one classroom still in use, and one teacher. The teacher’s name is Katherine, and while she’s an important character, she doesn’t get a last name.). The next day, a few children are playing hide and seek in an abandoned wing, and find where Simon is hiding. Thinking he’s just a hobo, they bring him some food. It’s not quite clear if he needs it, but he does seem to appreciate the kindness (probably gives him a little reassurance about what he’s fighting for), though he does seem to have a moment of sad memory when he learns that the kindest is named Mary. Nevertheless, he doesn’t hesitate to hide Hawthorne’s soul inside her body. Gabriel is coming, and he just can’t run anymore.
Gabriel does in fact arrive shortly thereafter, having tracked Simon and Hawthorne’s soul by scent.
It’s not much of a fight. Simon is still badly injured from his fight with Uziel and ill from containing Hawthorne’s evil soul, but even if he’d been healthy, he would have been doomed from the moment that Gabriel showed up. An archangel vs. a standard front-line schlub like Simon? Not a contest. Oftentimes when I watch this scene, I imagine it done in an anime style, with both angels manifesting in their full glory to fight, all holy light and elaborate armor. Simon would be human-sized, if tall. Gabriel would be a pretty daikaiju.
After a few hours of torture, Gabriel finally gives up on getting any answers out of Simon and rips his heart out, which is apparently the only way to kill angels on the mortal plane. Looks like somebody watched Highlander before they sat down to write the script.
At about the same time, two important things happen: 1) Mary, whose will is doubtlessly much weaker than Simon’s, begins to show signs of possession by Hawthorne; and 2) Thomas arrives in town.
Thomas is well outside his jurisdiction in Chimney Rock, but he’s still able to use his badge (and the courtesy of the local police) to get a look at Simon’s (charbroiled) body, a few minutes to question Katherine, and permission to poke around in Hawthorne’s house to see if he can get any clues as to what makes this particular “dark soul” so important.
Boy howdy, does he find some, in the form of a box full of evidence from Hawthorne’s war crimes trial, which includes accusations of cannibalism (there’s your “he shall eat other dark souls”) and skinned, tanned human faces. Rattled, Thomas retreats to a church…where he is rattled further by a visit from Gabriel.
Still, Gabriel doesn’t get any useful information from him, so the next day, he (Gabriel) resorts to talking to the school children, even going so far as to let them play his famous trumpet (a well-played note shatters several nearby windows). Katherine interrupts, saying that she doesn’t know what’s going on, but it’s time for the strange man letting children sit on his lap and looking in their mouths to leave.
Gabriel responds with “You’re right. You have no idea what’s going on.” – he’s clearly at the end of his patience with these talking monkeys and ready to Sodom-and-Gomorrah the whole place into a glassy crater – but he leaves peacefully. For the moment.
Katherine hurries out to Mary’s home, where she finds Thomas already there, and learns that Mary’s condition is worsening. They’ve already been to a doctor, who found nothing, so Mary’s grandmother has called in a hand trembler to find out if Mary needs a Sing.
This scene, like the Catholic ordination ceremony at the beginning, and several more to follow, impresses me greatly. Someone on this movie really did their homework on both Catholic and Navajo tradition.
(I don’t think it’s ever directly stated, but based on the traditions we see, Mary and her grandmother are of the Dineh.)
Research and detail, people. Just like I’m always talking about. This scene and the others to come could have been hideously racist and inauthentic. Instead, we get something that brings a touch of depth and truth to the movie.
Thomas and Katherine take a quick side trip to an abandoned mine where Katherine has spotted Gabriel’s car. The inside of the mine is covered with angelic script (Gabriel passing a bit of time, perhaps? Or was there Something Terribly Wrong with this town before any of this happened?), and our two heroes are treated to a horrific vision of a battlefield in Heaven, with thousands of angelic corpses impaled on stakes.
While disturbing as all unholy fuck, this scene serves no purpose other than to get Thomas and Katherine away from Mary’s home long enough so that they can get back just in time to save Mary from Gabriel (removing Hawthorne’s soul would involve tearing the girl apart).
From this point on, the movie follows a familiar pattern as our protagonists try to stay one step ahead of the unstoppable juggernaut that is Gabriel, desperately seeking for a way to stop him for good.
They retreat to Mary’s ancestral village, where the shamans perform an Enemy Way rite for her, which should remove Hawthorne’s soul from Mary – and from Gabriel’s reach – but the rite takes days. There’s no way Our Heroes can hold off an archangel that long.
Fortunately, they get a bit of help from an unexpected quarter. At one point, Katherine is taking a bit of a break to get some air (that Hogan does look like it would be a bit stuffy) when she finds, perched on a rock like any other angel: Lucifer himself (Viggo Mortensen, a few years before Lord of the Rings came along and made his career).
Lucifer is surprisingly honest and straightforward with them: he is not good. He is not nice. He does not like them. But if Gabriel wins, Heaven will just become another Hell, and he can’t have that.
While he doesn’t offer any immediate help, Lucifer gives them some important tips, then vanishes into the night. When Gabriel arrives, our heroes use whatever traps and weapons they have to slow him down, but it’s less effective than the psychological weapons that Lucifer gave them:
“Why don’t you just ask Him?” Thomas asks. “Why don’t you just ask God?”
“He doesn’t talk to me anymore,” Gabriel answers.
And with that, we’ve finally reached the heart of the problem.
Of course, even that sort of armor-piercing psychological attack isn’t enough to stop a primordial being who’s been working toward this moment since the beginning of the human race, if not the beginning of time, but a bit of vehicular homicide softens him up enough to get Lucifer to intervene.
First, he orders the shamans to continue the rite (was that…? Well, of course Lucifer knows Navajo. Why wouldn’t he? Rather polite of him to speak the language of the locals, since he can), then he goes to town.
As in the battle between Gabriel and Simon, Gabriel has no chance as soon as Lucifer shows up. Standard angelology puts Lucifer on a level as far above the other archangels as they are above the front line grunts. As for Hawthorne, well, he doesn’t have much of a chance either. The tribal shamans may not have much hope of affecting the outcome of a brawl between two archangels, but malicious ghosts? That’s what they do. That’s their job.
The fight over, Lucifer tries to revert to temptation mode, but everyone has seen far too much for that to work, so he settles for a final threat and then brings the bird motif to its ultimate expression by exploding into a murder of crows and flying off, leaving the heroes with their faith renewed, which was the whole point of the movie.
(…until the sequel. This series has a depressing habit of killing off the protagonists from the previous movie in the first ten minutes of the next.)
There have been a lot of movies that included angels somewhere in the cast. In most of those, the angels were the same saccharine-sweet goody-goodies that can be found in most of pop culture. As I’ve pointed out before (and will go into greater detail soon), much of cinematic history has been beholden to the vaguely Protestant Christianity that dominates the United States and most other English-speaking countries. The same goes for such small-screen sugar-fests as Highway to Heaven and Touched by an Angel. Very few have tried to capture the fundamental terror that should accompany angels. And of those, very few have done it well. 2010’s Legion was little more than a zombie movie; 2007’s Gabriel was a low-budget, direct-to-video Crow wannabe; and this movie’s own sequels rapidly decayed in quality. If I had to choose one that came closest to capturing how alien and terrible angels could be (other than this one), I’d have to go with Kevin Smith’s Dogma. The angels are as witty and funny as the rest of the characters…but every so often, we’re reminded of just how old and powerful they can really be, and when they manifest in the full glory, even the weaker one becomes an unstoppable monster.
I would like very much to see a movie that used The Prophecy’s themes, as done with an actual budget. If it is indeed still an archangel that’s running amok, it could be played like a kaiju movie, with his brothers working with humanity to try and stop the destruction without unleashing their own powers, which would just make it worse. Gabriel would be a bad choice for the villain, though. Of the archangels, he’s one of the ones who seems to be friendlier to humanity. Raphael is right out for the same reason, and Michael is too much of a noble paladin type. Maybe Uriel. Even in the source material, he’s about one ray of Divine Grace away from psychotic. It wouldn’t take much to convince him that those sinning humans needed exterminatin’.