Sunday, July 31, 2011

Does An Inside-Out Bear Shit In The Woods?

1979’s eco-thriller Prophecy and I go way back. Probably to about when I would have been 7 or 8, when I first caught it on ABC’s Friday Night Movie. I have no idea what business I had staying up so late to watch a scary movie at that impressionable young age, but it certainly stayed with me. If you haven’t seen it and have a taste for fine Seventies cheese—that particular vintage that reeks of a respectable director (John Frankenheimer, no less) slumming in a genre that he clearly didn’t understand, and a major studio trying to cash in on the decade’s horror craze—then you might want to seek out this environmentally conscious wedge of fromage.

Robert Foxworth plays a magnificently permed and bearded doctor of the socially conscious variety investigating the effects of mercury poisoning from a paper mill in the woods of Maine (this particular Maine has lots of mountains, go figure—apparently the movie was shot in British Columbia). The kindly paper mill manager (Richard Dysart) insists that everything they do is up to code, but the mutated critters roaming the forest beg to differ; there’s a crazed, spastic raccoon, a six-foot trout, and a ravenous bear-thing with a ruined face and a penchant for laying waste to mill employees and hapless campers alike. The local Native Americans, who are locked in a bitter struggle with the mill owner over the carelessness of their toxic byproduct disposal, think that this beast is the latest incarnation of Katahdin, a kind of Sasquatchy forest protector come to drive out the evil white man. Unfortunately for them, Katahdin isn’t too picky about who he chows down on in the end.

Make no mistake, Prophecy (subtitled The Monster Movie, which always struck me as a bit uppity) is a very silly movie. The characters—idealistic doctor, friendly-but-ultimately-sinister company man, heroic Native American (a very not Native American Armand Assante)—are all pretty thin, and the story is all kinds of preposterous. The effects are, largely, extremely goofy and unconvincing, and the monster attacks are shockingly inept in their presentation. Surely the director of The Manchurian Candidate should have some idea of how to create and maintain suspense! The most promising subplot doesn’t go anywhere; the doc’s wife (Talia Shire), having eaten some tainted fish, is terrified about the effects of the mercury poisoning on her unborn child, but we never get to find out if she gives birth to some kind of crazy mutant or something. However, a lot of unintentional laughs arise from the doctor’s complete cluelessness—his wife hasn’t told him she’s pregnant yet, and all of her not-so-subtle hints about her condition sail right over his curly head.

I say all this, and yet I still heartily recommend Prophecy, if you’re at all into this sort of thing. I have a much bigger tolerance for lousy '70s horror than any other decade, so that helps, for me at least. The cinematography by Harry Stradling Jr. is pretty sharp. It’s a good movie to crack a few beers over, and have some laughs with friends. There is at least one very shocking and gross special effect that’s worthwhile—a couple of Katahdin’s horrible offspring are discovered in a fishing net, and the animatronic creatures—the kind of slimy special effect that my friend Aaron Bower calls “wet Muppets”—are suitably, fascinatingly, disgusting. They also add a layer of suspense to Talia Shire’s delicate condition, possibly foreshadowing what she can expect when she gives birth. She even tries to save one of the creatures, but is rewarded by nearly having the ugly critter tear her throat out. The real reason to watch Prophecy, though, comes when a family of campers—a father, his teenaged daughter, and a young boy—are attacked and killed by Katahdin. The boy is wrapped up in a bright yellow down sleeping bag, and he tries to hop away from the crazed beast. One swing of Katahdin’s mighty paw later, the kid is fired across the campsite like a banana fired out of a bazooka, and he fairly explodes against a tree stump in a bloody mushroom cloud of feathers (don’t take my word for it, check it out here). This scene, more than any other, stayed with me as a kid, and as an adult, I was convinced that I remembered it wrong. How could that scene have possibly played out that way? Turns out I remembered it exactly right. I love when that happens. Prophecy also has a delightfully gross one-sheet, which adorned the VHS version and the earlier DVD release. I finally ordered a DVD copy of my own recently, though, and was bummed out to see that the most current version (it’s still not out on Blu-Ray, and I can't imagine it ever will be) has a shitty new cover that does use the original artwork, but has a stupid new tag line and a butt-ugly design. I expect better reissues of my charmingly lousy monster flicks! This isn’t just ANY Monster Movie, after all, it’s THE Monster Movie.


Burnt Lobster said...

Man, you might be the only other person I know who will go to the mat for Prophecy. Love that stinking hunk of cheese. And the banana-bag death? One of the best sight gags of all time.

Chris said...

My father draw a pencil drawing of this when I was 5 or 6 and hung it on my bedroom wall to scare me. His skills were great back then, but he never became an artist. I did, because of this cover art and his drawing. I have not yet seen it, but will find a copy soon! Just thought I'd share. I've been looking for this cover art for years now to draw it myself and frame and send it to him as a way of saying thanks!