In the biography of his life, director John Frankenheimer said that his alcohol problem had gotten so out of hand, he started to do work below his own standards. The movie that the director of The Manchurian Candidate, Black Sunday (the one with the blimp, not the one with the magical eyes and evil of Barbara Steele) and 52 Pick-Up picked as the one where he started to slide? 1979’s Prophecy…and that’s the film you’ll be reading about, so buckle up. One could argue that the slide went the whole way to the abortive (and that’s being charitable) The Island of Dr. Moreau, but since this issue is all about movies from 1979, let’s concentrate on the flick at hand.
Let’s start with the poster: “She lives. Don’t move. Don’t breathe. There’s nowhere to run. She will find you.” The ad copy and artwork that hyped Prophecy may be among the finest works of horror film art. I’ve been obsessed by it since I was a kid. I’d shoot glances at it while thumbing through issues of Creepy, Eerie and Famous Monsters. In fact, the second issue of Fangoria had a cover story and feature on the film and the photos alone are nightmarish. What’s even crazier is that this is a PG film. Don’t let that rating hold you back — it’s a definite mistake, The Baby. The image of a strange bear mutant embryo stuffed into a sack were too much for my seven year old mind to comprehend. I was both excited to see it…and totally afraid of it.
Billed as “the monster movie,” this film has a hell of a pedigree beyond Frankenheimer. It has an A-list cast, including Talia Shire (Rocky, The Godfather, Rad), Armand Assante (Little Darlings, Judge Dredd), Robert Foxworth (Falcon Crest, TV-movie The Devil’s Daughter), Richard Dysart (The Thing and Meteor) and Kevin Peter Hall as the Mutant Bear (Hall was THE guy for monsters, playing everything from Predators to Harry of Harry and the Hendersons and the monster that is pretty much a Predator in 1980’s Without Warning). Toss in a script from David Seltzer (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and The Omen series) and the film seemed poised for success.
The film starts with a gorgeous shot of lights bouncing off a river as a rescue team search for two lost men, only to be murdered by some unseen force. Cut to the stark light of day and we have a horrifyingly beautiful composition of their decimated corpses in the sun.
Cut to Dr. Robert Verne, working as a doctor in the tenements of the city, giving kids medical care. This scene is rife with that feeling 1979 gave you, that we were living in the end of the world. Verne feels like he isn’t making any difference, especially after hearing how the rats keep biting the kids. That’s why he decides to take a job with the Environmental Protection Agency (again, very 70s as is Foxworth’s reddish white dude fro and full beard. Sex symbols were…different at the time), which means heading up to a logging town in Maine and solving a dispute between the loggers and Native Americans (Wow, again, this movie is just rife with issues that today’s now generation is ready to tackle!).
Maggie, Verne’s wife, comes along. She’s pregnant but since he has no interest in kids, she is planning on just having an abortion (Do I need another parenthesis to shout out the 70s issues? Yes, I do.) and not telling him. We meet Travis, his kids Paul and Kathleen and paper mill director Bethel Isely.
Isely blames the missing rescue team and loggers on the Opies, or Original People (Native Americans). The accused have their own suspect: Katahdin, the spirit of the forest. We barely have time to process that before the Opies block our main characters path, leading to a battle between lumberjack Kelso and Opie leader John Hawks that ends with Hawks facing a chainsaw vasectomy. Cooler heads prevail, but Verne and Maggie are aghast at the violence in the woods.
What follows is a slow burn toward our big monster reveal, which was a huge secret at the time, as the film had tight security, barring even studio personnel from the set. Crew and actors had to sign NDAs that they would not reveal any elements of the story under any circumstances. A retired CIA agency supervised the whole shoot, only allow one camera for the official still photographer.
There’s a giant salmon snacking on a duck. An insane raccoon that attacks Verne. A gigantic tadpole. And of course, a litany of stillbirths, birth defects and people going crazy. Verne thinks mercury is the culprit, but it’s too late to save that lovely Nelson family we met earlier, who are attacked by Katahdin, who is revealed to be a female mutant bear that swats Paul into the rocks, killing him.
Of course, the loggers blame the Opies for this and we arrive at one of the real shocks of this film: upon going to the crime scene, two mutated cubs are discovered screaming and trapped in a fishing net. Beyond simple gore, this scene is just plain uncomfortably awesome to watch. It’s about this time that Maggie realizes that everything she has eaten is contaminated and her pregnancy is in danger. Man, nowadays they don’t even allow pregnant women to eat sushi. The 70s were a rougher, harder time.
Katahdin shows up just when it gets kind of boring and goes off, attacking everyone, sending them fleeing into the night. Soon, the mutant bear has pretty much wiped most of the cast off the face of the polluted earth one after another. Even that venerable staple of horror movies, the Magical Native American, can’t stop a mutated melted bear. Only Verne can, stabbing it again and again and again with arrows.
As the survivors fly away, the great shock of this film — it caused me nightmares for weeks — shows up. There’s a male bear in the woods and he wants revenge.
Sadly, he would never get the chance. Prophecy did well enough in theaters but isn’t remembered or sought out by many film lovers. Perhaps it’s because so much violence and gore was chopped out, a decision made by either the studio or Frankenheimer (depending on who is talking). Cut shots included a headless body, Isley getting his guts torn out and Maggie and Verne having sex. Even the original look for the monster (as seen on the posters) was made less frightening, as Frankenheimer wanted something that looked more like a bear.
If you’re looking for a message film — Native Americans good! Pollution bad! — you could do a lot worse than Prophecy. Through no fault of it own it remains a somewhat forgotten classic. The good news for you is that you can easily find it, making this one less film that needs a blu ray megabuck reissue that will further burden your wallet and/or credit card.
This article first appeared in the Drive-In Asylum 1979 Yearbook. You can buy a copy at https://www.etsy.com/listing/521153136/drive-in-asylum-special-1-1979-yearbook?ref=landingpage_similar_listing_top-6 or visit http://groovydoom.blogspot.com/ or hey, also visit https://www.facebook.com/pg/DriveInAsylum