‘The monster movie’
Prophecy is a 1979 science fiction horror film directed by John Frankenheimer (Seconds; The Manchurian Candidate) from a screenplay written by David Seltzer (The Omen). The Paramount Pictures production stars Robert Foxworth, Talia Shire (Windows) and Armand Assante.
The film is an ecological fable about the evils of industrial pollution. A novelisation, also written by Seltzer, was published, with the tagline “A novel of unrelenting terror”.
Doctor Robert Verne (Robert Foxworth), an inner-city physician renowned for his compassion and fairness. So he’s asked by the EPA to mediate a dispute between Native American tribes and a polluting paper mill in isolated northern Maine. Accompanied by his pregnant wife Maggie (Talia Shire), a classical musician, Robert journeys to the deep woods, where he meets the tribal leader, John Hawks (Armand Assante) and a representative of the mill, Mr Isley (Richard Dysart).
It transpires that the mill is indeed poisoning the local water supply with mercury, causing illness among tribe members and some mutated local wildlife. The Native Americans and the paper mill point fingers at each other for a rash of recent disappearances in the area, but Robert believes that something more ominous is responsible when he observes a huge salmon eat a duck.
Robert is proven right when he encounters an enormous, mutated grizzly bear with a taste for human flesh. Unfortunately for Robert and Maggie, he has taken one of the creature’s cubs back to camp, leading an angry mother bear to his tent flap…
Some violence/gore and other scenes were deleted not because of the censors but on a decision made by director John Frankenheimer. This included a longer close-up of a man’s headless corpse and a shot of Katahdin the bear (played by Kevin Peter Hall, Predator) graphically disembowelling Isley (both deemed “gratuitous”), a flashback to the night where Rob and Maggie enjoy coitus (deleted for time), and extensions of several scenes, including a longer tour of the paper mill and Rob fishing, which showed him falling asleep and later waking up in the sun.
The original concept for Katahdin was considerably more terrifying than what would eventually show up on the screen. However, when director John Frankenheimer saw the design, he suggested that it should be altered to look more “bear-like”. Interestingly, the original concept was actually quite close to the poster art.
Frankenheimer considered Prophecy a film with far more potential than what he eventually delivered, allegedly due to him being at the peak of his alcoholism.
Prophecy was released on Blu-ray by Scream Factory on November 26, 2019.
Interview with actress Talia Shire (new)
Interview with actor Robert Foxworth (new)
Interview with writer David Seltzer (new)
Interview with special makeup effects designer Tom Burman (new)
Interview with special makeup effects artist Allan Apone (new)
Interview with mime artist Tom McLoughlin (new)
Prophecy is one of those films where a big evil corporation is selfishly polluting the environment and a group of noble Native Americans is convinced that a vengeful spirit of the forest has been awakened as a result.
We’re told that the vengeful spirit is named Katahdin and that it’s “as large as a dragon and has the eyes of a cat.” We’re also told, by someone who claims to have actually seen it, that the Katahdin is a combination of several different creatures, “a part of everything that is God’s creation.”
Sound pretty scary, right?
Well, it is until the bear itself actually shows up on the screen. That’s when we find ourselves confronted with this:
I mean, don’t get me wrong. He certainly is ugly. But he just looks so silly and …. well, fake.
The lesson here, and it’s an important one, is that you should never put your monster onscreen unless it can actually live up to all the hype. Take a lesson from Spielberg. When it became obvious that the shark in Jaws looked like a tin model, Spielberg made the decision to not show the shark. Instead, he gave us a lot of point of view shots and, by the time the shark did appear, audiences were so frightened that it didn’t matter whether it looked convincing or not. Prophecy makes the mistake of having its monster all over the place and it just doesn’t work.
Of course, once the EPA’s Doctor Robert Verne (Robert Foxworth) shows up with his pregnant wife (Talia Shire, who somehow went from The Godfather and Rocky to this), he discovers that one reason why the Katahdinh doesn’t live up to all the hype is because it’s just a mutant bear. It turns out that all that pollution led to some crazy results and now every logger, Native American activist, and camper in the area is in danger! Can Doctor Verne and a team of disposable, forgettable characters end the threat of Katahdinh!?
Prophecy is a big, dumb movie that’s never as much fun as you want it to be. There is one early scene that features a camper trying to hop away from Katahdinah while zipped up in a sleeping bag. That scene — which ends with one ruined sleeping back and a lot of feathers floating around — is just demented enough to be kind of fun (see clip below).
Otherwise, the entire film is slow-moving and rather dull. Part of the problem is that it was directed by John Frankenheimer, a major and important filmmaker who had entirely the wrong sensibility for this film. Frankenheimer was a legitimately great director (among his good credits: The Manchurian Candidate, Birdman of Alcatraz, Ronin, Seconds) but he takes the material here too seriously.
Frankenheimer spends so much time trying to sell the film’s environmental message that he forgets that the majority of the audience for a film like this isn’t watching because they want to become a better person. They’re watching for mutant bear mayhem! This is the type of film that needed to be directed by someone from the Roger Corman school of quick thrills and shameless shlock.
So, here are the twin lessons of Prophecy: know your audience and make sure your monster can live up to its reputation! Otherwise, you’ll just be known for that one scene with the exploding sleeping bag.
Lisa Marie Bowman, guest reviewer via Horror Critic
“…Prophecy has a certain something that just can’t be denied. Prophecy even contains a message (re: don’t mess with Mother Nature or you’ll be sorry), which is more than I can say for most horror movies produced today. Is it scary? No. Vastly amusing? You bet your bottom dollar.” DVD Verdict
“John Frankenheimer is a good director, and even in its silliest moments, Prophecy has some beautifully orchestrated moments. There are some nicely composed shots of the bear creature as it crosses a mist-filled river and some awe-inspiring panoramas of the forest, accompanied by stirring classical music. These moments of taste and beauty stand out amidst the preponderance of schlock.” John Kenneth Muir, Horror Films of the 1970s, McFarland, 2002
” …a big-budget, bottom of the barrel, daft as a brush eco-horror that takes ages to get going and then doesn’t really do anything of interest when it does. None of the characters are especially engaging or likeable, with Foxworth one-note beardy/shouty and Talia Shire as his wife moping around when she can’t distract herself with her cello. The script is by The Omen‘s David Seltzer and Foxworth’s explanation of human embryology is so silly it deserves a place in the Hall of Ridiculous Movie Science.” House of Mortal Cinema
“Despite some lashings of gore and the obviously surreal make-up effects (both of which are strong enough to make one really question the PG rating), the film is really undone by its awkward dialogue and the attempt to wedge some kind of moral into the proceedings.” Mondo Digital
” …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…” Vincent Canby, The New York Times, June 15 1979
Cast and characters:
Talia Shire … Maggie
Robert Foxworth … Rob
Armand Assante … John Hawks
Richard Dysart … Isely
Victoria Racimo … Ramona
George Clutesi … M’Rai
Tom McFadden … Pilot
Evans Evans … Cellist
Burke Byrnes … Father
Mia Bendixsen … Girl
Johnny Timko … Boy
Everett Creach … Kelso (as Everett L. Creach)
Charles H. Gray … Sheriff
Livingston Holmes … Black Woman (as Lyvingston Holms)
Graham Jarvis … Shusette
Jim Burk … Rescuer (as James H. Burk)
Bob Terhune … Rescuer
Lon Katzman … Rescuer
Steve Shemayne … Indian (as Steve Shemayme)
John A. Shemayme … Indian
Jaye Durkus … Sheriff’s Deputy
Renato Moore … Tenement Boy
Mel Waters … Tenement Man
Roosevelt Smith … Tenement Man
Eric Mansker … Tenement Man
Cheri Bergen … Social Worker
Clifford Hutchison … Stage Manager (as Cliff Hutchison)
Tom May … Lumberjack (as Thomas P. May)
Kevin Peter Hall … Mutant Bear [uncredited]
Crofton, North Cowichan, British Columbia, Canada
Aspect ratio: 2.35: 1