Friday, 17 December 2010

Prophecy (1979)


Prophecy: The Monster Movie

Prophecy is one of the more hysterical and stupid of the ‘Revolt of Nature’ horror films that achieved major prominence in the years following Jaws (1975). On paper at least the talents behind this $12,000,000 Paramount Pictures production are easily a match for Spielberg’s aquatic opus. In the directors seat was veteran John Frankenheimer, a filmmaker of some repute who had distilled the paranoia of cold war politics to such devastating and conspiratorial effect in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and who had interrogated questions of identity in the little seen Seconds (1966). The writer was David Seltzer who had achieved enormous prominence with his apocalyptic exploration of the return of Satan in The Omen (1976). For the themes of Prophecy however the more important Seltzer film is The Hellstrom Chronicle, a frantic and panic-stricken documentary about the possibility of humanities dominion over the planet being challenged by insects. Having explored this territory before with some measure of success one would assume that with Prophecy Seltzer was about to make a major ecological statement. It does make a statement, but the manner in which this proclamation is made is both preachy and pretentious. This is the worst type of Hollywood film, one that assumes its audience has the attention span of a goldfish and the intelligence of plankton. With films that have a ‘message’ to convey, the most important thing becomes the way in which that ‘message’ is delivered, and it is in its delivery that Prophecy fails miserably.

After a promising opening sequence in which a rescue team meet their doom in a weather beaten woodland, the action shifts to a centre of inner city urban decay and disintegration. This is quite a change in territory and in it we are introduced to the hero of the piece the environmentalist Dr. Robert Verne (Robert Foxworth). In just a few minutes the liberal position of the film is indicated by the central characters attitude to the poverty, the exploitation of the poor families by greedy landlords, ghettoisation, and issues of birth control, unwanted pregnancy and abortion. When you also add into the mix industrial negligence and ecological ruin you have an absurd melting pot of weighty political issues that the film is totally incapable of doing anything with. Seltzer shows us these things without offering remedies, instead we are forced to endure the holier than thou attitude of the thoroughly dislikeable lead character. These themes and the transparent (but highly compromised) attempt to make political capital out of so many different social anxieties makes Prophecy an unwieldy and confusing mess. What makes it more of a failure though is how it desperately tries to hold out for most of its running time from becoming the B monster movie it clearly is. After a while the honourable intentions of the writer can withstand the pressure no more and the film becomes little more than a clone of William Girlder’s Grizzly (1976), a film with a significantly lower budget and less pretension.

When Verne and his wife Maggie (Talia Shire) travel to Maine to investigate a land dispute between a logging company and the native Indian population the film does at least make excellent use of the beautiful natural landscape. The film was actually shot in British Columbia, Canada - and the woodlands, swamps, tributaries and mountainous terrain make for some visually exciting set pieces. The early indications that something is amiss comes when Verne briefly glimpses a gigantic Salmon when out fishing. After having consumed fish that is laced with mercury the flaky couple must do battle with a furious Racoon (I kid you not!), and final confirmation comes with the discovery of both a giant tadpole and a hideously mutated baby bear. The decision to use mercury as the cause of both the mutations and the erratic behaviour of the native populace illustrates that Selzter’s inspiration was the tragic events that occurred in Minamata, Japan in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Although the film attacks industries that seek profit over environmental and human safety, the owner of the logging company Isley (Richard Dysart) is actually let off the hook by denying knowledge of the pollutants. He is still punished later in the film though, when he becomes a light afternoon snack for the mutated bear that is stalking the Maine woodlands.

The Indian characters rarely rise above simplistic caricature, and the clashes with the employees of the logging company are remarkably lacking in tension. The film singularly fails to make imaginative use of native mythology and superstition, only one character represents this and he is played for laughs, ultimately becoming another meal for the hungry mutant bear. Only rarely does this creature generate the required chills, and the final shots of him in a misty lake are so obviously a man in a bear suit that it becomes rather laughable. The mutant baby is slightly more successful, but the groups efforts to keep it alive are utterly ridiculous. Verne is so desperate to hold onto this evidence that he seems to completely miss the fact that the giant mutant bear is stalking them because it wants its baby back. Prophecy also tries to say something about pregnancy and birth through the character of Maggie who forms a close bond to the mutant baby, and who herself is pregnant and has also digested mercury laced fish. But there is simply too much going on here, each social anxiety the film mentions merit’s a film of its own. Perhaps the greatest crime of Prophecy is that it doesn’t look like good value for money. The budget is not visible on screen, and the effects are unconvincing. I do believe that their were honourable intentions with this film, but this is essentially a very traditional B monster movie with ideas way above its station.
© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. Dumb flick, but who didn't love that moment when the brat kid in the sleeping bag was sent flying into a tree by the monster?

  2. I like the film, but agree with all that you've said, Sean. For me, the strengths in the picture are its sprawling photography and Leonard Rosenman's score. It's also likely the most violent PG rated movie I've seen. I think what puts people off to the film is how deathly serious it is, but yet the creature costume defies this tone set up before the monster makes its appearance known. I still enjoy the movie, though. I think I remember the monster in the film being heavily touted, too, at the time. Frankenheimer did a far worse monster movie after he took over for a fired Richard Stanley on ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU in '96 I think it was. His MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE is a great, great film, too.

    An insightful and reasonable review, Shaun. I was sure you'd tear this one apart, lol.

  3. I forgot about that rather enjoyable moment Lazlo, thanks for reminding me!

    Hi there Brian - I agree about the photography, the beautiful landscape of British Columbia is probably the highlight of the film. I must ask though, what on earth did they spend $12,000,000 on!, any ideas? Yes it is the serious tone that lets it down, its very preachy. This is why I prefer GRIZZLY, it doesn't need to make its intentions so plain and obvious, because it is happy within its skin as a simple monster movie. I haven't seen Frankenheimer's version of MOREAU, and won't bother now! I tore it apart a little lol - but yes as you point out, there are actually some enjoyable moments in this. Thanks for the comment :-)

  4. Although they lay the message on thick, I still don't mind that it took an ecological stance, and I give it credit for portraying the deplorable conditions that many of the Native Americans face living in the reservations. Not a favorite by any means, but I enjoyed it as a cheesy monster romp.

  5. The problem I have with it Carl, is that the filmmakers didn't intend it to be a cheesy monster romp, if they had I'd be far more generous towards it.

  6. Well, the bloated budget could have been from going over schedule, I suppose. Possibly weather problems. It does take itself VERY seriously. I used to not like much at all, but it grew on me over the years.


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