‘Prophecy’ (1979) Review

“Here, everything grows big… real big.”

Every time I bring this movie up in conversation someone asks, with a light in their eyes, if this is the “Christopher Walken as a badass angel” movie. And then I’m forced to watch that light die when I tell them, no, this isn’t the Christopher Walken as a badass angel movie. This is the one with the giant, skinless bear. At least while I’m writing this I don’t have to see the light die in your eyes when you find out.

Last weekend Sailor Monsoon asked me why I hate William Girdler movies. Girdler, you may remember, is the director who brought us the most successful of the Jaws ripoff movies – Grizzly. The thing is, I don’t hate Girdler films at all. In fact, I can usually enjoy watching them at the time. It’s just that they don’t stick in my mind afterwards. I don’t know why that is, but whenever I think of 70’s creature features I never think of his films. It’s always things like Frogs, Piranha or today’s film.

Prophecy is an old favorite of mine, one for which nostalgia softens the edges and glosses over most (but not all) of its flaws. I’m not sure when or where I first saw it – certainly not at the local movie theater. I grew up in a paper mill town, and the film’s message (overplayed as it is) wouldn’t have gone over well. Odds are that I saw it late at night on HBO, something we probably had access to due to the unintentional largesse of a neighbor. I saw a lot of things I shouldn’t have late at night on HBO (including way too much of Kirk Douglas in Saturn 3).

Prophecy is a deeply flawed film, with indifferent pacing, heavy-handed messaging, and some very sub-par special effects, but it’s a film I can easily watch at any time. It sticks in my mind in a way that Girdler’s films never seem to. I remember things like the confrontation between the Native Americans and the loggers (and the chainsaw), the giant (rubbery) tadpole and the horrified look on Talia Shire’s face as Robert Foxworth goes on about the dangers of methyl mercury to a growing fetus. The only thing I remember about Grizzly is that the arm flying across a clearing. (That was Grizzly, right?)

The Medium
I just picked up the Fear Factory Blu-ray of Prophecy that came out in 2019. The film itself looks great – with some occasionally arresting scenery and shots – and it’s well worth the upgrade from my old DVD. The extras include a number of interviews with various members of cast and crew. Sadly there’s no commentary track and nothing from director John Frankenheimer himself.

For streaming options, Prophecy is available for rent and purchase, but isn’t currently part of any streaming subscriptions.

The Movie
Prophecy is one of those 1970’s ‘message’ monster movies, trying earnestly to say something important about urban decay, the plight of Native Americans, and the rape of the natural world – all while serving up grisly decapitations and mutated monsters. There’s something about this kind of film that tickles me to no end. Humanoids From the Deep, Kingdom of the Spiders, Orca – hell, even William Girdler movies, like Day of the Animals – I’ll happily watch them all, especially if it’s a lazy, rainy, Saturday afternoon.

The basic premise is that Dr. Robert Verne (Robert Foxworth) and his secretly-pregnant wife Maggie (Talia Shire) (he’s against bringing children into such a broken world, she’s… a cellist who’s not) are sent by the EPA (?!) to Maine to help resolve an environmental standoff between a paper mill and the local tribe. SOMETHING is affecting the local fauna and the American Indians in the area – representatives of multiple tribes. There is also a group of missing loggers. Fingers are pointed, as well as chainsaws and axes.

As the doctor investigates, and he and his wife enjoy a little natural living, he becomes convinced that the over-large animals (including a huge tadpole) and nerve damage he’s seeing in the Indian community are due to mercury poisoning from the paper mill. When a tour of the plant fails to come up with any proof he heads into the forest, hoping to find traces of the metal in blood samples from the people and animals. Unfortunately for everyone (including the viewer) the mutations have created a monstrous creature, and no one may make it out of the woods alive.

Frankenheimer is a good filmmaker, and the cast – including Talia Shire of Rocky fame and Richard Dysart of ‘getting my arms chopped off by John Carpenter’s The Thing’ fame – do a generally decent job. It’s hard to buy Armand Assante as a member of the Penobscot tribe, but it’s hard to buy a lot of things in this movie. It’s supposed to be in Maine, but – much as I love my home state – it’s never been quite as scenic as this movie makes it out to be. Assante plays his character with a deadly earnestness that’s representative of the general tone of the film.

The movie actually does a decent job of setting things up, building tension and menace. The cinematography is quite good and Frankenheimer manages to turn the paper mill itself into a growling, gnashing moster.

Unfortunately, Prophecy bills itself as ‘The Monster Movie’ and it commits the cardinal sin of being a monster movie without a decent monster. The giant skinless bear that menaces the northern Maine woods is gross at best. Most of the time it wavers between being pathetic and funny – including a laugh-out-loud moment when it backhands a young boy who is trying to hop away in a sleeping bag. He flies through the air into a rock, whereupon his sleeping bag explodes into feathers (and the audience into laughter). It’s one of the greatest sleeping bag moments in horror. You’re going to say to yourself “what about that scene in Friday the 13th Part 7?” Yes. Better than that. See for yourself.

The final third of the film is your traditional ‘trying to escape the monster’ setup, which tries to build tension only to have it destroyed by any glimpse of the (I’m serious, it’s terrible) monster. There are some great set pieces – including an attempt to escape across a lake – that just die because the creature effects are so terrible and characters descend into caricature. (And make just stupid choices – like continuing to carry an injured, mutant bear cub AFTER IT STARTS BITING THEM IN THE NECK.)

In the end, the white guy saves the day, the paper mill guy dies trying to redeem himself, Talia Shire is still pregnant (with a maybe-mutated baby) and there’s the standard ‘monster shot’ at the very end.

The Bottom Line
It’s very hard to nail down why I like Prophecy so much. I guess because it tries, it really does, only to be let down by its own earnestness and effects. If it embraced the cheese it might be a classic ‘bad movie,’ or if the effects were more similar to the poster it might actually work as a decent monster movie. Unfortunately, it’s does neither and fails itself. Rumor has it that Frankenheimer has disowned the film, saying that he made it at the height of his alcoholism and doesn’t think it’s representative. So maybe it’s just that it feels like a decent movie that was failed by its creators and I just want to cradle it, like those little skinless bear cubs.

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.