Written by: D.S. Ullery
By 1979, environmentalism was a full-fledged tour de’ force in American cinema, with movies of various genres addressing the terrifying notion of sickness and mutation from either chemicals or nuclear radiation. This was the year of The China Syndrome and other such movies warning humankind that our unnatural tampering with Momma Earth would eventually rise up to figuratively (and in some cases literally) bite us on the ass.
Well, whenever there’s a trend in Hollywood, you can be assured that with the cream comes the cheese. Prophecy falls so squarely into the latter category that it could be sealed in red wax and put on the shelf next to the Gouda.
The film unfolds something like this: A search party running through a thick forest in the dead of night is attacked and slaughtered by a large, unseen something.
Then we switch to an inner city ghetto, where physician Dr. Robert Verne (Robert Foxworth, seen prior to this as satanic apostate Paul Buher in Damien:Omen II) is approached by a colleague to head to a logging community in Maine where the indigenous Native American people are protesting the expansion of a logging mill which the tribal folk claim is poisoning their land. This is the same geographic location where we just saw a group of men get turned into about six hundred combined pounds of ground chuck, so you know there’s trouble brewing.
Verne – accompanied by his wife Maggie (Talia Shire, who at least had the excellent Rocky II on her resume for the same year) – arrives and meets with the head of the logging mill (Richard Dysart) and, after seeing a dog (the sole survivor of the ill-fated search party) being air lifted to safety , heads to the cabin where he will be staying. It’s revealed that Verne is oblivious to the fact that his wife is pregnant and is afraid to tell him because his cynical world view clearly states he has no desire to bring a child into a world where overpopulation has already left millions of people starving (One has to wonder whether the good doctor considered these convictions when he was slipping it to his wife sans protection).
What does Verne do the following morning after his arrival? Go investigate the mill? Test the water and surrounding soil for possible contamination per the tribal claims? Nope. He goes salmon fishing. Because, y’know, nothing says “dedicated environmentalist” like a good bout of early morning salmon fishing. While out on the water, the doctor witnesses a five foot salmon leap from the waves after having just devoured a duck. Yes, you read that correctly.
Here’s where the film starts to really get goofy: A physician sent to investigate claims that a logging operation is contaminating tribal lands in Maine arrives and sees a five foot salmon leap out of the water after swallowing a duck… so what does this guy do? He catches a load of fish from the same body of water inhabited by the clearly mutated salmon and brings them back to the cabin, where he and his wife proceed to prepare and consume them. Yep, this guy is alternately validating that doctorate status and doing his Alma Mater proud.
Anyway, en route to finally check out the damned logging mill, Verne and the foreman run afoul of a band of Native Americans headed by a perpetually pissed off Armand Assante. This guy has to be seen to be believed. He’s not just angry, he’s violent. Never does he smile and he frequently lashes out in a psychotic rage. Why anyone would be willing to be anywhere near this man armed with anything less than a fully loaded double barreled shotgun is beyond me. Just to clarify: He’s one of the primary protagonists of this film.
From here, Prophecy develops into your traditional monster movie. Verne meets the locals, discovers that something is making tadpoles grow to the size of bullfrogs and (in the single most unintentionally funny sequence in the film) also causing aggressive raccoons to invade cabins and begin accosting the occupants.
Some tribal lore is espoused about a creature named Katani that is one part every creature on earth. The requisite tribal Grandfather is trotted out to make known his opinion that the thing running around knocking off mill workers and search parties is the embodiment of this myth (thus the title), but actually it’s a mutated bear.
The problem with Prophecy isn’t the premise itself. It’s not a bad idea and director John Frankenheimer (who had directed classics such as The Manchurian Candidate, Black Sunday and later on the terrific Ronin) tries to imbed a sense of flavor and style into the picture. The film is beautifully shot and the effects are the late 70’s prosthetic and latex kind that are cheesy but no more so than in other movies. The gore is actually pretty decent for a PG flick. Even the performances are okay.
Where the film goes wrong is on the screenplay level, a lamentable surprise as the film is written by David Seltzer, the man who wrote The Omen. I guess Seltzer was either a one trick pony or he was just having an off day when he cranked out this narrative mess. Every time the film manages to introduce a halfway decent idea, it’s almost immediately countered by some asinine character action or event that pushes the needle on proceedings past “absurd” and straight into “the fuck?”
Some shining examples:
After Verne discovers the source of the contamination and that the water and soil were affected locally, his wife – as in the character who doesn’t have a medical license – is the one who realizes that eating the fish he caught was potentially dangerous. Once again, way to represent the AMA, Doc.
Classic WTF moments:
– Adrian – I mean Mrs. Verne – is during one scene part of a group fleeing the mutant bear. At one point, the group is attacked by the monster’s offspring and a mutant bear baby is seen biting into her throat. These people run for about five minutes across a half a mile before anyone notices the monster bear cub attached to this shrieking pregnant woman’s neck, despite the fact that they are traveling in a linear pattern, with at least one person in front of her and another directly behind her.
– The group clears a lake they are crossing and ends up on a dock. The mutant bear is in close pursuit, chasing them into the water before submerging. All of three seconds later, the doc screams “Yeah! It drowned!” while the others watch a series of bubbles rise from the underneath the surface of the lake, clearly indicating that something is making its way towards them while underwater. Despite the fact that they have all seen this thing knock over armored transports, tear roofs apart with one swipe of its claws and mutilate everyone in its path, they actually stand there and wait until it rises from the water eight feet from them to start running.
– The cliched and (in this instance) entirely inexplicable “hero takes on the beast“ moment. I’ll say only this: It involves a not-at-all physically imposing man hurtling thirty feet through empty space like some sort of ninja warrior while brandishing an arrow. Not a bow and arrow, mind you. Just an arrow.
It may seem as if I loathed Prophecy but, to be honest, nothing could be further from the truth. After not having seen the movie for almost two decades, I was surprised by how much fun I had revisiting this cheesy, jacked up B-movie.
For all the stupidity (and there’s more, not covered here), this is a genuinely entertaining flick. It’s definitely a bad movie, but it’s a bad movie with a good heart and a somewhat good flick trapped inside of it. I suspect any B-movie fan will find a lot to love here and I definitely recommend the film for fans of “Nature rises up/ Monster-on-the- loose” junk cinema.
This review is for the widescreen DVD. No extras at all, but a crisp, beautiful sound and picture transfer. Filled with terrific aerial shots of North West forests (where the film was presumably shot instead of Maine), this movie really does look gorgeous.
The definitive “so-bad-it’s-good” horror movie.