Prophecy (1979)

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*. Prophecy fills almost all the boxes on the checklist of what you want to see in a movie that’s so bad it’s good. It’s a shame it doesn’t manage to pull it off, pace Stephen King, who, in Danse Macabre, uses it as an example of the “really horrible movie” that is nevertheless irresistible.
*. There is only one irresistible moment. This is when the creature swats a little boy swaddled in a ridiculous yellow sleeping bag, sending him flying into a rock. Whereupon the sleeping bag explodes with a sound like popcorn popping, shooting downy feathers all over the campsite.
*. What makes this scene so remarkable is the way it seems clearly designed to be played for laughs (the boy attempts to bounce away from the creature while still wrapped up in his sleeping bag), and yet ends with such a shocking and emphatic way. You don’t often see children being killed, then or now, in horror movies. The result is a true WTF? moment, and I mean that in the best sense. But it’s not enough to save the rest of the film.
*. Things start off on a decent enough note. There’s a chase through some dark woods with a trio of hunters and a pair of hounds. They are attacked by something in the woods. There are roars and screams. So far, so conventional for the intro to a monster movie. But then there’s a nice transition to a tableau where we see the bodies of the hunters decoratively arranged at the foot of a cliff while some classical music plays, music we later see is being performed by Talia Shire.
*. That’s a good intro, but from here things go downhill quickly. We next mee our hero, a public health doctor who is clearly a crusader for whatever cause needs crusading for. He’s played by Robert Foxworth, who might almost be a double for Donald Sutherland in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). Ladies and gentlemen, that’s what a leading man looked like in an SF-action/thriller in the late ’70s! Can you dig it?
*. Foxworth and Shire (who, I’m sorry to say, looks as hard done by as always), are sent to the woods of Maine to do some work for the Environmental Protection Agency. This introduces the movie’s main theme, which is eco-horror. There were a lot of movies like this in the 1970s. For some reason they fell out of favour. I’m not sure why. It’s not like the world’s environmental problems went away.

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*. I have nothing against eco-horror, but the Message here is so obvious and laid on so thick you just want them to drop it and move things along. The natives (or Original People) are in the right. The white man and his dirty industries are destroying the beautiful Maine wilderness (which is actually British Columbia). Mother Nature will be sure to bite back. So let’s get on with it!
*. The heavy Message is just one way the movie bogs down in self-importance. As Kim Newman puts it: “Prophecy is merely silly, but its throat-clearing, significant title and definitive ad line (‘The Monster Movie’) elevate it to the status of overambitious annoyance.” We’re talking about a mutant killer bear, people. No need to get all fancy about it.
*. Then, after half the movie has been spent setting up the ecological and mythological back stories, we finally get the monster. King thinks it looks “sort of like a skinned pig and sort of like a bear turned inside-out.” Most viewers found it disappointing. What bothered me most was that it walks around upright. That’s quite a bear (or boar) mutation. And it’s not scary because let’s face it: a bear walking on its hind legs just looks silly.
*. As an aside, I have to register a complaint against a horror cliché that I’ve always found particularly annoying. This is the idea that any man or animal poisoned with toxins or radioactivity doesn’t get sick but is instead blessed with supernatural size and strength. I mean, how did those pathetic mutant bear cubs, which look like the baby in Eraserhead, grow up into the fearsome Katahdin?
*. King: “George Romero’s film Dawn of the Dead came out at about the same time as Prophecy (June-July 1979) and I found it remarkable (and amusing) that Romero had made a horror film for about two million dollars that managed to look like six million, while Frankenheimer made a twelve-million-dollar movie that managed to look like about two.”
*. Why does this movie look so bad? One thing I’ll flag is the way the scenes of the great outdoors are only establishing shots for action sequences that in turn often seem to have been filmed on studio sets. At least that’s what a couple of the campfire scenes look like to me. And studio “forest” sets always look cheap.
*. The raccoon attack starts off with a good jump scare, but (as was inevitable, because raccoons) turns into something unintentionally hilarious. Plus Foxworth should know that tossing a dead coon into his fireplace is going to stink up his cottage for weeks.
*. I should add that the raccoon scene got the production into trouble as they were apparently mistreating it very badly. Which is kind of ironic, given the movie’s message about respecting the environment.
*. It’s hard to think of anything this movie does well. Frankenheimer blamed his heavy drinking at the time for the film not realizing its potential, but I think another big problem was that he just wasn’t a natural fit for the material. I hear the novelization is actually quite good, but the script is dreadful, with lines like “You were too busy playing God to be a human being!” and important plot points, such as Shire’s pregnancy, simply forgotten.
*. I’d like to say this one is a guilty pleasure, but the fact is that it’s mostly just stupid and dull. It takes too long to get going, then once it does it forgets all about what came before and just throws a cheesy monster on the screen and calls it a day. At the half-way point there is a little moment of magic, but it’s just a pop of popcorn in the woods.

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