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Prophecy (1979) is a socially-conscious “environmental” horror movie from prestigious director John Frankenheimer (1930 – 2002), the talent behind cinematic classics Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seven Days in May (1964) and, more recently, Ronin (1998).
All those films have in common a brand of technical precision and visual brilliance that isn’t often paralleled, especially in today’s cinema.
So the clumsy nature of Prophecy indeed remains a baffling puzzle. The film is alternately brilliant and inept in terms of staging, editing, direction, and pacing. Some scenes of suspense are absolutely spell-binding, whereas many of the more visceral moments -- including an animal attack on unsuspecting campers -- play as unintentionally hilarious.
Recently, I reviewed another environmental horror movie from a “mainstream” director, The Bay (2012) by Barry Levinson. That film, however, managed to maintain a consistent tone throughout, even if in the final analysis the director’s message (about water contamination) played as more important than the movie’s genre trappings.
The odd thing about Prophecy is that the film is so damned inconsistent. It’s a work of art of great, praise-worthy highs and sad, sad lows.
On one hand, the movie intelligently charts the uncomfortable nexus of big business/government/environment/pollution, and on the other hand, it consumes itself with gory moments of decapitation, bloody mutations, and other macabre tricks of the trade. Now, I happen to like such tricks of the trade, but Prophecy proves jarring at significant junctures because it can’t stick to a particularly tone, either the high-minded “cerebral” horror route, or the messy pathway of bleeding viscera.
As I wrote in a Memory Bank post before Christmas, here, I remember well the year 1979 and the cinematic battle royale between Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and Prophecy, two horror films that involved (at least in their ad campaigns…) horrible monstrosities hatched from eggs. Alien, however, ascended to masterpiece status while Prophecy remains a cult oddity. Watching the two films back-to-back, one can see why one effort succeeded and the other effort failed. Scott’s film maintains a consistent tone of suspense, surprise and curiosity, while Prophecy lurches from environmental polemic to soap opera, to mad monster party.
At the time of the film’s release, critics were generally unkind to Frankenheimer’s genre film too.
In The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote: “Mr. Frankenheimer treats this material with the kind of majesty usually reserved for movies about Cleopatra, Napoleon and General Patton. "Prophecy," which opens today at Loews Astor Plaza and other theaters, is full of lingering lap-dissolves and elegant camera movements that suggest history is being made. Leonard Rosenman's soundtrack music is so grand it could be played at a coronation, and it's so loud that it pierces the ears and threatens the head. None of this fits the movie, which includes a fight between a man with an ax and a man with a portable power saw, and a number of attacks by the mutant monsters on random campers and forest rangers as well as on the film's principal players. For extra gore, there's the obligatory decapitation and the strong suggestion that one fellow is bitten in half at the waist.”
Writing in The New Yorker, Susan Lardner likened the Frankenheimer horror film to an “ill-cut jigsaw puzzle re-assembled by force by someone who has lost a few of the pieces.” (July 2, 1979, pages 66-67).
And writing for The Progressive, Kenneth Turan noted the goofiness of the monster: “Unfortunately, Prophecy begins to unravel the first time we get a good look at the monster, a berserk mess that resembles a nightmare version of Smokey the Bear.” (September 1979, pages 38 – 39).
Still, the film had at least one prominent defender in Master of Horror Stephen King, who copped to having seen the film three times. He felt that “settling into Prophecy is as comfortable as settling into an old easy-chair and visiting with good friends.” While he noted that the monster is “pretty hokey looking,” he admitted to loving the “old monster” as a spiritual sister to Godzilla, Mighty Joe Young, or Gorgo. (Danse Macabre; A Berkley Book; 1981, pages 205–206).
I should admit that I have seen this particular film, myself, considerably more than three times, and that I possess a kind of love/hate relationship with the bloody thing. Portions of Prophecy are extraordinarily rendered, namely a scene of high-suspense set in an underground tunnel, while other scenes are either cringe-worthy or intoxicating in their badness, depending on your love of bad movie tropes. Prophecy is self-important and preachy, yet it also possesses wondrous bad taste in terms of what it reveals on screen.
Some might (accurately) note that I have often praised horror movies on the blog that showcase just such lack of decorum. The problem arises, for this viewer anyway, in balancing the film’s incredible highs and lows. I can appreciate bad taste as much as the next fellow, but Prophecy is schizophrenic in approach.
“Here everything grows big. Real big.”
In a forest in Maine, a rescue expedition is murdered by an unseen monster.
Not long after, an environmentalist named Rob (Robert Foxworth) is assigned to determine the destiny of that very forest, because it is at the center of a dispute between American Indians and a local, industrial paper mill. Rob visits the forest with his wife, Maggie (Talia Shire) a cellist who has just learned that she is pregnant, but is reluctant to reveal the information to her husband.
In Maine, Rob and Maggie meet Mr. Isely (Richard Dysart), the paper mill owner, who tells them that lumberjacks and rescuers have disappeared in the woods and that he feels the Indians are responsible. He thinks they are attempting to bring to life an ancient legend about a monster with the eyes of a dragon, called Katadin. Rob soon meets John Hawkes (Armande Assante), the leader of the local Native Americans, and is not so certain his motives are impure.
Upon deeper investigation of the forest, Rob learns that the Indian people are suffering from a host of unusual maladies. Their babies are being born deformed, and many locals are losing their mental faculties, as if suffering from brain damage.
When Rob sees several mutated examples of the local wildlife (including a giant tadpole…) he becomes convinced that the paper mill is somehow contaminating the water supply. He finds evidence that mercury is being used in the mill’s refining process because it is cheap and effective. However, mercury contamination can also decimate healthy nervous systems. Worse, it can jump the placental barrier and deform a developing fetus, a fact which terrifies Maggie since she has eaten contaminated fish.
As Rob, Maggie, and Hawkes investigate further, Katadin -- a giant, mutated bear -- strikes again and again, even murdering a family of campers.
After Rob and Maggie take possession of one of Katadin’s mutated offspring, the Mama Bear turns her murderous eye towards their party, and a night of terror and death ensues.
“It’s not the hours. It’s the damned futility.”
Bad reputation to the contrary, there are moments of pure beauty and sleek terror in Prophecy. The film was lensed in gorgeous, mountainous British Columbia, and Frankenheimer and cinematographer Harry Stradling Jr. certainly have an eye for capturing the picturesque terrain. The movie features moments of breathtaking natural beauty, particularly in long, establishing shots. Much of the film’s running time is spent outdoors, in mysterious terrains of heavy mist, or impenetrable black lakes.
In contrast to those moments, the film also features moments of pure human ugliness. The paper mill is first seen in a long, moving establishing shot (from the vantage point of a helicopter in flight, approaching), and its dominance over the natural landscape is evident immediately. The approach to the environment-destroying paper mill is accompanied by Leonard Rosenman’s Wagnerian score, and the moment achieves a kind of portentous, ominous feel.
Similarly, I can’t write enough positive words about a sustained scene, late in the film, during which Rob, Maggie, Isely, Hawkes and a few others hide from Mama Katadin in a subterranean tunnel system.
These shots of terrified survivors are artistically composed, making extraordinary use of foreground and background fields, to capture the terror of those trapped in the caves. Frankenheimer’s editor (Tom Rolf) cuts brilliantly from one shot of worried survivors’ faces to another shot, to another…and the suspense builds and builds until it feels palpable.
I admire this sequence in Prophecy in large part because it remembers that horror films must possess peaks and valleys, cacophony and silences. This scene represents the (brief) calm between surrounding storms, but every moment of apparent “peace” is spent worrying about the next attack.
Just look at some of these beautiful shots, pictured below. The blocking, the color palette, the focus on faces near and far, big and small, sell the terror of what remains unseen in the frame.
Note as well the image of the old Indian man, Ramona’s grandfather M’rai (George Clutesi) as flames are reflected upon his eye glasses. This is a shot that visually reveals how his world has been destroyed; how his people’s “protector” (Katadin) is actually but another destroyer, a monster.
Again, you’ve got to give the devil his due here. Frankenheimer knows how to stage and execute powerful visuals, and Prophecy features many such compositions.
Yet for every such moment of eloquent, sterling visualization, Prophecy also features sequences of horror that are, in a word, laughable.
The most ridiculous (and yet beloved…) of these sequences involves the giant bear attack on a family of innocent campers. The bear approaches the sleeping campers, and one young camper -- wrapped up in a yellow sleeping bag and resembling nothing so much as a giant banana (or perhaps a condom…) -- tries to hop away from danger.
The hopping away from danger is funny enough on its own, but then Katadin’s tail whacks the unlucky lad, hurtling him into a rock at warp speed…where the camper literally explodes on-screen.
After the camper and sleeping bag are pulped, feathers (from the sleeping bag, apparently), rain down, blanketing the frame. Generously speaking, the moment plays as high camp.
Or to put it another way, this scene is hilarious in a way the filmmakers surely did not intend. We were not meant to laugh at the murder of an innocent child, yet all the creative decisions in the scene are questionable…and risible.
Why make the unfortunate camper hop about vainly in the sleeping bag, instead of unzipping the bag, exiting it, and running from danger?
Why does the strike of Katadin’s tail hurl the camper through the air at speeds defying the laws of Physics?
And why make the camper and bag literally explode, and include the ridiculous sight of what appear to be chicken feathers falling to Earth?
Listen, I love horror movies and also boast a tremendous love for “bad” movies, or even genre movies that violate decorum. But the sleeping bag scene is so ridiculously vetted that it actually damages the credibility of Prophecy.
Similarly, the film’s valedictory moment -- with a rubbery second mutant rearing its ugly head -- ends Prophecy on a low note. The monster looks awful in the light of day, under the full glare of sunlight, and the moment is simply a pitiful “sting in the tail/tale” hoping against hope for a sequel. Like the sleeping bag scene, the final punch of Prophecy is humorously inept.
I wrote in Horror Films of the 1970s (2002) that Prophecy is “sometimes obvious, sometimes clever” in its approach to its thematic material, and over a decade later, I feel I can stand by that assessment.
The film’s best scene is actually one far away from the “monster movie” material, and set at a place of "real-life: human horror: the paper mill. As if shooting a documentary, Frankenheimer’s probing camera tours a real-life factory, a massive industrial park dedicated to transforming nature’s logs into shredded pulp.
Filmed in both exterior and interior with long informative pans across its grotesque girth, the mill is revealed to be an ugly, dehumanizing place dedicated solely to environmental destruction. Chemicals such as chlorine are deployed here, and the plant’s interior is bathed in an ugly, sterile, green-white light.
No preaching is necessary here because one of the prime gifts of film as an art form is its ability to reveal things to audiences that they have never seen before, but which nonetheless exist. I’ve never been to a paper mill, but Prophecy certainly makes a compelling case about one's capacity for destruction. I also like how the film attempts to portray Isely’s character in less-than-villainous terms. The paper mill owner makes a memorable speech about supply and demand, one that reminded me of my own career as a professional writer and consumer of paper.
I’ve written how many books? And how many copies have been sold? How many pieces of paper is that, exactly?
How many trees destroyed is that?
I’m also on the fence here regarding Frankenheimer’s treatment of Maggie. This is a character that learns she is likely carrying a mutated fetus in her womb. Maggie becomes so obsessed with this (horrific) idea that she takes Katadin’s youngling as her own, essentially, during the film’s last act, carrying it round on her shoulder and protecting it from harm. At one point, the monster baby seems to nurse from the blood on Maggie’s neck-wound, furthering the metaphor of mother-and-child. Yet the film gives the audience no catharsis regarding Maggie’s ultimate disposition.
Does she deliver the baby or undergo an abortion? Is the baby born mutated or healthy? If it is mutated, can Maggie and Rob love it anyway?
Prophecy doesn’t provide any information or dramatic closure on this key character/plot point, instead focusing on that rubbery final sting-in-the-tail/tale. In the end, the dopey monster movie aspects of the film thus win out over the excavation of character and theme. I sure hope Talia Shire complained, because it's clear from her performance she gave the film her all.
Prophecy is one of those horror films that I return to at least once or twice every five or so years, and I suspect that is the case because there’s so much potential evident in the film. In certain moments, Prophecy possesses a kind of undeniable visual poetry. In other moments, it is pure, unadulterated schlock.
I suppose that as an optimistic film reviewer I return to Prophecy again and again because I keep hoping to see something that I’ve missed or overlooked, or to discover that somehow the balance of poetry to schlock has changed for the better. So far, no luck.