Joel does The Prophecy (1979)

Prophecy poster“Sort of a Bigfoot I guess, only it’s uglier.”

The Scoop:  1979, rated PG, Directed by John Frankenheimer, starring Robert Foxworth, Talia Shire, Armand Assante

Tagline:  She Lives. Don’t Move.  Don’t Breath.  There is nowhere to run.  She will find you.

Summary Capsule:  In the forests of Maine, an EPA researcher investigates a land dispute and finds much more than he expects…there are dangerous things in the forest.

joelbannerJoel’s Rating:  2 1/2 bullfrog sized tadpoles out of 5

Joel’s Review: Just to be absolutely clear, this is NOT about angels and does NOT star Christopher Walken.

Dr. Robert Verne (Robert Foxworth) is a doctor who tends to patients of inner city New York and he feels that he isn’t really doing any good.  He is one of those that believe it is irresponsible to bring a new baby into such a messed up world.  He accepts a short-term job with the Environmental Protection Agency to research the effects a paper mill is having to a wilderness area in Maine as there is a dispute there between the mill and local Native Americans who live there.  Rob takes his wife Maggie (Talia Shire) so they can use the trip as a working vacation.  As soon as they arrives, The Vernes find out that the land dispute has become very tense and violent.  Some search and rescue workers have been found murdered and the authorities are sure the ‘violent Indians’ are the killers.  The Natives believe that a legendary creature to them, Katahdin, has awakened to protect and avenge them.  Not only does Rob look closely at the paper mill, at the request of one of the Natives John Hawk (Armand Assante) he also looks at some strange neurological effects that people who live off the forest are suffering from, and he discovers effects to local wildlife.  Rob is the only person willing to look at both sides of the conflict, but even as he investigates the killings continue.  Soon, it’s all running and screaming and mutant bears and Om Nom Noms!

And that, my friends, was a serious and skillful dance around giving out any Spoilers for the movie, heh heh!

So, a little backstory here:  This was the very first horror movie I ever saw in theaters, and one of the first modern scary movies I had a chance to see.  Back then, cable was new, there was only one movie channel, and it took some time for a new movie to make it to regular tv, so in 1979, most of the horror movies I had seen were old black and white monster movies on Saturday afternoon Creature Feature type shows.  So yeah, I have a soft spot for this film, even if I ran up to the theater door every time the creepy music started and peeked around the corner to make sure something scary wasn’t happening!

And believe me, what we have here is a monster movie, folks, make no mistake.  I find it better than many monster movies but it is still just a beasty out to scare the viewer.  It is an ambitious beasty, though.  I have always loved this movie, but it does have plenty of faults.  I would love to tell you how great it is, how this is the most underrated horror film ever made in Hollywood, how one viewing will scare you more than The Exorcist, Carrie, and Nightmare on Elm Street put together AND cure your warts…but I can’t.

One thing I do appreciate as an adult is that, since it was made at a time when many slasher movie clichés hadn’t been set yet, the Prophecy does not fall into the formula that many horror films did in the 1980’s.  No teenagers on a weekend party trip, no ‘final girl’, and the movie definitely isn’t mindless.    Not everyone ends up dead either; people and characters wander in and out of the movie like, well, real life.  Yes, there are some deaths, but even as we reach the climax of the film, there are people with the main characters that do not get killed and do not end up in the apocalyptic climax battle, so the assumption has to be that they got away with their lives.

I also think one of the strong points of The Prophecy comes from the little details in the film.  If you watch closely, there are a lot of small things added for no other purpose than to make it a little more believable.  All of the main characters and a few of the minor ones have believable motivations for what they do instead of being cardboard cutout stereotypes.  Even our ‘evil industrialist’ doesn’t actually know what is happening and has been complying to the best of his knowledge with the EPA, no ‘Mwa ha ha, we’re saving money’ evil spiels.  There are some eye-rolling moments if you are looking for them, such as during the tour of the paper mill, Rob and Maggie are led through the plant and even right up to the huge, dangerous machinery wearing absolutely no safety glasses or gear (I’m well familiar with OSHA rules and they were in existence back then).  Those moments didn’t ruin the movie for me, but they are there.

The Prophecy came out literally weeks after Ridley Scott’s Alien released to theaters, and comparing the two provides some interesting facts.  Alien was made for less money but ends up looking much more polished and much more suspenseful.  The Prophecy was a box office success but is not considered the classic that Alien is.  I think it comes down to that, while The Prophecy is a fun movie to watch and has some great scenes, it simply isn’t as creepy or outright scary as Alien.  There are points where you see what Director John Frankenheimer wanted to do and what he was going for but where he failed to get the gut-wrenching scare that was intended.  The first onscreen killing, for example, includes a visual with a sleeping bag that kills the tension and might even elicit a laugh from viewers.  The Prophecy builds the story and characters very well, but for some reason it loses the ‘creep factor’ that would have viewers on the edge of their seat.

There are some scenes that are almost brilliantly done.  Not scary, but well done.  The opening scene, depicting what leads to the first deaths, is overlaid towards the end by a classical music score that makes it more poignant, and then slowly dissolves to show Maggie playing an instrument in a group playing the score.  Another extremely effective moment is the first time our main characters see a monster baby; the visual itself is pretty good.  The scene where Rob is slowly figuring out what is happening, his exposition being spoken into a recorder for later use writing his report and Maggie standing in for us, asking for explanations that the viewer needs, was a good way to provide the info and Robert Foxworth does an excellent job in his ‘righteous rage’. Based on The Prophecy, it seems like Frankenheimer was a good film maker but not as good a horror film maker.

Some folks debate the environmental message in the film, but I’ve always been on the fence about the ‘message’.  Yes, there is a message of pollution throughout and yes, much of the film’s premise is based on a true story (The Prophecy was never billed as a true story, just some of the facts presented are true; check out The Intermission below), but I’ve always viewed this as simply the means to an end, just like so many giant bug and mutant monster movies in the 50’s and 60’s (radioactivity, whoooooo!). The writer David Seltzer put more thought into the premise, but it is still just simply the method that gets us to the rampaging monster.  However, I can see why someone else might find the film preachy.  And there is one point, when we first see the paper mill, that the soundtrack plays a song almost as foreboding as the Darth Vader march.  It is totally overdone and goes on much longer than needed.  We GET it, all right?

Lastly, The Prophecy does take its time to build its momentum.  There isn’t a killing every ten minutes here, Frankenheimer takes time to build the story, and tries to make us like the characters before most of the bad stuff happens.  You have to have a little patience and you should pay attention during the first half to get full effect.  I still get a sinking feeling when Rob is piecing together what he thinks is happening to the environment and what is going on in Maggie’s mind with the secret she has been keeping from him.  The Prophecy isn’t a bad film, but while I like to watch it, it really isn’t that good of a film either.  It has some cheesy charm and you could do far worse than watching this movie.  Simply, if you are looking for a fast, body count slasher film, this isn’t for you.  If you are a fan of older horror or monster movies, or just movies that rely on atmosphere and tension instead of action and blood, you will probably enjoy watching The Prophecy.

I'm trying to be the next Grizzly Adams.  I said I needed a Grizzly Bear, not a Grisly Bear!

I’m trying to be the next Grizzly Adams. I said I needed a Grizzly Bear, not a Grisly Bear!

Intermission!

  • While The Prophecy never claims to be a true story, what it says about methylmercury poisoning is all true.  The first and most deadly outbreak happened in Minamata, Japan in the 1950s.  Symptoms include victims losing feeling in their hands and feet, losing fine manipulation in their extremities, slurred speech, and loss of balance, stillbirths, and birth deformities.  Effects on wildlife included animals growing larger than normal size as well.  The disease associated with methylmercury poisoning is named after Minamata.
  • The Native Americans in the movie call the monster Katahdin.  There are stories of a protective spirit called Katahdin in Native American folklore.
  • You have to appreciate Rob’s commitment to his job.  He spend the entire first day in Maine fishing.
  • It may just be me, but the father of the camping family looks a lot like Michael Palin from Monty Python!
  • Several times in the movie, someone asks how far away something is (cabin, town, camp, etc) and the answer is always, “about 10 miles”.  I laughed the second and third time I heard it.
  • The paper mill scene is almost like a school documentary.  It teaches a lot about how paper was made back then, and I would assume it is much the same now but with more computers.
  • Armand Assante, who plays Native American John Hawk, is actually Irish-Italian descent.  The woman who plays his wife Ramona has some Native American in her background…along with Irish and Phillipino!
  • Frankenheimer actually has the guts to kill a kid onscreen.
  • Screenplay writer David Seltzer also wrote the novelization of The Prophecy, which sold fairly well at the time.  Amazingly, though, there are differences between the book and the movie even though the same man wrote both at around the same time!

Groovy Quotes:

Rob:  “I don’t know.  I don’t know about a lot of things anymore.  I feel like I’ve been going around and around on a race track 100 miles an hour and wound up here where I started.  No one else was in the race.”

Paper Mill boss Mr. Isley, talking about Native American legend:  “Sort of a Bigfoot, I guess, only it’s uglier.  It’s larger than a dragon with the eyes of a cat.  They’ve thrown in the kitchen sink.”

Rob:  “These people want us to come with them.  They have…something they want to show us.”

Native American elder M’Rai:  “The forest provides more than a man could possibly need. Things grow big here… real big.”

M’rai, about the legend Katahdin:  “He has awakened to protect us.”

Rob:  “It is also known for its mutagenic properties, concentrating in the bodies of fish and plankton eating crustaceans effecting the fetal development of everything that ingests it.”

Rob:  “Freakism!  Freakism!  That’s what’s been going on out there.  That’s why there is a god damn salmon 5 foot long and a tadpole the size of a bullfrog!”

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Grizzly
  • Food of the Gods
  • C.H.U.D.
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6 Comments

  1. Screenplay writer David Seltzer also wrote the novelization of The Prophecy, which sold fairly well at the time. Amazingly, though, there are differences between the book and the movie even though the same man wrote both at around the same time!

    Novelizations are typically completed well before the final cut of a movie, so a s’load of differences are inevitable even if both are written by the same guy.

    • Very true. I remember a similar thing with Alien. I read that as a kid, too, and since the novel was based on the screenplay before all edits were made to the film. Several scenes either not filmed or filmed and then cut out remain in the book, and it took many years for me to learn some of the cut footage still existed and get a chance to see it!

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