After the monumental success of Jaws in 1975, the Man vs. Nature genre exploded. It wasn’t a new genre by any means – King Kong in 1933 was essentially a nature run amok film and the 1950’s was a massive decade for the genre, with 1954’s Them! (a horde of giant ants attacking Los Angeles) being Warner Brothers biggest earner of that year. The 1960s and first half of the 70s saw less entries, but they were still a good, quick way for an exploitation producer to get butts in seats and make that lettuce. However, Jaws turned the genre from B-movie fodder to big time event picture, and the late 70s saw a glut of rip-offs rivaled only by the stampede of Star Wars rip-offs a short time after.
The knock-offs didn’t just concern themselves with water-based beasties (though plenty did.) There were arachnids (Kingdom of the Spiders, Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo), bears (Grizzly), farm animals (Food of the Gods), even worms (Squirm). In 1979, acclaimed director John Frankenheimer had some bills that needed payin’, and Prophecy was born.
Meet Dr. Robert Verne (Robert Foxworth, Airport ’77). Turn-ons include social justice, fishing, and having a gorgeous multi-layered beard. Turn-offs are rat bites, poverty, and being a potential father. When we first meet the good doctor, he is treating a small child in a Washington, DC tenement building. Seems the lad has been a snack for local vermin and not suffering from chicken pox like the scumbag landlord claims. Verne, visibly angered by this, vows to the kid’s mother that he will do something about it.
Before he can get to suing the slumlord (or beating him with a wrench, which is more likely given the level of rage he exhibits), a friend offers him a job working with the EPA. Seems the Pitney Mills paper company in Maine is in dispute with the local Native Americans over some logging land. All Verne has to do is investigate the goings-on, then submit a report. He’ll be making a difference! Seeing as he is a medical doctor and probably has no experience or qualifications to take on such a task, he accepts the gig and heads to the Androscoggin river with his wife Maggie (Talia Shire) in tow.
Maggie, a cellist, is secretly pregnant with Verne’s child. She’s understandably nervous to spill the beans to him, as he’s previously told her he doesn’t want to bring a child into a world already full of starving children (weak, Doc). Talia still has her Rocky II haircut here, which is a nice reminder during this movie how awesome that one is. I might have turned off Prophecy halfway through and watched that instead. Anyway…
The head honcho at the paper mill, the amazingly named Bethel Isley, greets Verne and Maggie and proceeds to drive them to the mill. Before they can arrive and get their complimentary Sticky Notes, they hit a roadblock in the form of John Hawks (Armand Assante) and his posse. Hawks is the no-bullshit leader of the “Original People,” the Native Americans who live in that area and don’t want any goddamn loggers messing with their land. Isley refers to them as “O.P.’s” throughout the film, which is a nice reminder of Naughty By Nature’s 1991 hit “O.P.P” which I might have stopped this flick to listen to on Youtube. Anyway…
The O.P.’s don’t want to let them pass, so Isley calls on his accompanying employees (one who carries a chainsaw because…logger) to hack down a couple trees on the side of the road so they can get past. This leads to Hawks brandishing an axe and there’s a small axe vs. chainsaw battle! Verne, stick in the mud that he is, jumps out and stops the fight before anything really awesome can happen. The O.P.’s retreat.
Later Verne goes fishing and sees an abnormally huge salmon. He tells Maggie about it as they dine on the small wimpy fish he caught. After dinner, Verne attempts to make socially-conscious love to Maggie but is interrupted by a scratching at the door. He opens it to find a raccoon losing its mind. It runs in and attacks them both. Heroically, Verne is able to catapult the beast into the fireplace and save the day, but the mood is spoiled.
The next morning Verne and Maggie are coerced into meeting with Hawks and his lady Ramona (Victoria Racimo, the nurse from Ernest Goes to Camp), who take them to a pond the river is connected to. There they find a tadpole the size of a cat and meet Ramona’s Grandfather, who speaks of all the giant things that come from that area. He also mentions a monster he calls Katahdin.
Verne and Maggie tour the paper mill and grill Isley on the chemicals they use. The pulp magnate denies the use of any and dares Verne to test the river water near the mill. Verne, remembering he’s a doctor and not a water testing expert, sulks away until he notices some mercury on the bottom of Maggie’s boot. Using a few books back at the cabin, he realizes the mill has been using this mercury in their operations, which has infected the wildlife and fish in the area, leading to all the mutations the O.P.’s have experienced. Maggie, terrified that her fetus will be born with two heads due to eating the fish earlier, has a breakdown.
That night, a father camping with his son and daughter are attacked and killed by a guy in a giant mutant bear suit!!!
The following morn, Verne goes to the O.P.’s village to test their blood for mercury poisoning. Isley shows up with some cops and accuses Hawks of murdering the campers. Hawks, more rational than earlier, jumps through a cabin window and disappears into the forest. Verne, Maggie, and Ramona charter a helicopter to check out the attack site. While investigating the area, they find Hawks as well as some deformed Muppet Baby in a poacher’s net. Verne, still dead set on making a difference, takes the disgusting animatronic toy with them on the chopper. The weather turns to shit and the gang is forced to land at Ramona’s Grandfather’s place. Verne takes the squealing, awful hand puppet into a tee-pee to do CPR or something. Maggie, horrified at the sight of the creature, confesses to Verne about the pregnancy which causes him to stare ahead intensely. If things weren’t awkward enough, Isley and the sheriff show up and get their asses chewed by Verne for the whole mercury-making-monsters snafau.
The Man in the Mutated Bear Suit (MIMBS) comes outta fuckin’ nowhere and starts clawing the cast. Verne, Maggie, Isley, Hawks, Ramona, the pilot and the sheriff (whew!) take refuge in some unexplained underground tunnels on the land. Antsy to split, and thinking MIMBS is gone, the sheriff pokes his head out and is instantly decapitated. Lesson learned, the rest of them decide to stay put until morning, where they hop in a truck and haul huge handfuls of ass to get to safety. Isley, feeling guilty, decides to run for a radio tower to call for help. When he gets there, MIMBS is waiting and guts him off-screen. The silly beast then tracks down the truck, knocks it over, chews off the pilot’s head, and chases the gang through the woods.
They reach the river and, assuming MIMBS can’t swim, dive in and head for a cabin on the other side. Unfortunately for them MIMBS has one hell of a breaststroke. Once ashore, Verne grabs a shotgun from the cabin and blasts the costumed stuntman while Hawks uses his bow and arrow (seriously?) This proves unfruitful as our would-be hero takes a claw to the face, which hilariously launches him through the air and kills him. Verne, in desperation, grabs an arrow and begins stabbing MIMBS over and over until it falls dead. Overcome with rage at his futility at making a difference, he leaps onto the carcass and continues to stab it…which was fun as it reminded me of Corey Feldman doing a similar thing to Jason in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, which I might have opted to watch on Netflix instead of finishing Prophecy until the next day. Anyway…
The movie ends with a shot of an airplane whisking Verne and Maggie back to safety. Then another Chuck E. Cheese monster head pops up, letting us know that there’s lots of scary shit still in those woods. Fin.
The Good: For a movie of this genre, Prophecy has some outstanding photography. I particularly dug the split diopter shots Frankenheimer used in the tunnel scene. I’ve always loved the use of deep focus and it works beautifully in the sequence. The aerial shots of the landscape, rivers, and paper mill are gorgeous.
The acting is well-handled. Nobody stands out as cringe-worthy. Robert Foxworth’s character kinda sucks but its not a fault of his performance that he isn’t given a lot to do.
The scene in which the campers are killed…I would consider it the main reason to see the movie. Its actually a terribly handled scene that proves why Frankenheimer was never cut out to be a horror director. Its hilarious in its ridiculousness: the son, completely zipped up to his chin in a bright yellow sleeping bag, attempts to hop away from the monster but is swiftly sent flying into a tree in an explosion of feathers. Absolute gold.
The Not-So-Good: There are two massive problems with Prophecy. The first being how dull and serious it is. The one thing that most nature run amok films are is fun. Its fun to see Joan Collins running from giant ants in Empire of the Ants. Watching Ray Milland stalked by amphibians in Frogs is a good time!These movies are the height of absurdity and are pure B-movie entertainment. Prophecy wants to be both a thoughtful meditation on the dangers of man to nature and a violent monster movie…but it fails at both. It covers cliched ground but operates like its offering something thoughtful and new. You can feel that it wants to be so much more than a horror film, but the reality is there’s not much there to say other than “Don’t use shady chemicals because its wrong for man and beast.” I mean, that’s a great place to start from, but Frankenheimer should have also remembered that no one is watching Jaws of Satan or Day of the Animals for a heartfelt message about being good to the Earth. Give us the horror stuff proper and maybe we’ll also swallow your moral.
The other massive issue is the mutant bear. Its awful. Really awful. Its a man-in-suit, which isn’t a bad thing when its a well-designed suit or the movie is silly enough that we expect and want the monster effects to be cheese. This is not one of those suits. This is Halloween City home haunters corn maze shit. Whats worse is the movie carries itself in such a straight, serious manner that I expected a whopper of a monster to go with the tone, not this Spencer’s clearance rack thing we got.
Dr. Robert Verne is a pretty unlikable character. His social justice warrior schtick, his reasons for not wanting kids, and the pompous, prissy way he questions Isley at the mill just rubbed me the wrong way. Kinda hoped he would have gotten killed instead of Hawks. That beard, though…
There’s no prophecy in the movie. There’s a couple legends, a fable or two, but not one mention of any prophecies. Cheated.
Final Thoughts: As Man vs. Nature movies go, Prophecy is pretty forgettable aside from the sleeping bag kill. Its worth a look if you like the genre or need to see everything John Frankenheimer directed, but average viewers will be bored.
Droppin’ Knowledge: The man in the suit was none other than Kevin Peter Hall, who would go on to being the man in much better suits in Predator and Harry and the Hendersons.