Review: Prophecy

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Prophecy is actually two films, one of which I like. In the first hour or so the creature that’s been terrorizing the Maine woods is posited as both victim and avenger, much in the spirit of the put-upon creatures of Jack Arnold’s monster movies of the Fifties. Prophecy’s creature, an outsized mutant bear whom the local Indians name Katahdin, is triply righteous: it is the victim of industrial man’s incursion into nature, it is a defender of the sacred forest primeval, and it is out to reclaim its stolen young. Its sympathetic position is reinforced by association with the same morally justifiable rage that characterizes the Indians, who assert their land rights and environmental concerns against the encroachment of an expanding timber company. Verne (Robert Foxworth), a public health doctor, on an ecological mission to seek environmental reasons to stop the timber company’s growth, finds himself in the middle of a series of bloody killings for which the timber people hold the Indian activists responsible, while the Indians attribute the slaughter to Katahdin, their avenger. The essential dishonesty of David Seltzer’s script is revealed in several too-pat occurrences that exemplify Seltzer’s tendency to give mere lip service to the metaphors and moral dilemmas of his plot, in favor of getting on to more sensational matters; and it’s here that the film turns sour.

Seeing a giant salmon, then an enraged raccoon, and finally an oversized tadpole, Verne makes a quantum leap from these anomalies to the assumption that (a) they are due to human interference, and (b) the timber company must be responsible. He soon discovers that mercury effluent released from the company’s pulping plant is creating another Minamata in Maine, and he gives a quick lecture on how ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny so we’ll understand how all these mutated creatures result from metal poisoning. The film’s metaphoric level, so carefully built up, collapses hopelessly as the creature ceases to be a symbol and becomes just another mindless monster, crashing through the brush, killing anything in its path. Katahdin, it turns out, regards the Indians the same way she regards anything else—as food. Equally lame is the sudden conversion of Isely (Richard Dysart), the timber company spokesman: he fights Verne and the Indians all the way, until Verne shows him just one mutant bear cub; suddenly he’s a total believer, repents, and even does penance by trudging six miles through the forest to radio for help, before getting eaten by the monster.

There are a few characteristic Frankenheimer touches: classical music playing over sweeping crane shots of the Maine forest, with two dead bodies a jarring note in the frame; a trio of campers bringing rock music into the forest via transistor radio, and getting eaten for their presumption; and a tense faceoff between an Indian activist with an axe and a logger with a chainsaw. But by midpoint Prophecy turns into just another running-away-from-the-monster movie. The climax is the death and defeat of the avenging monster—by Verne, of course—proving that all that nature stuff was in there only to justify the gore, not to create a genuinely environmentalist horror film like those of Arnold and some of his contemporaries. The absurdity of the finish—one victim killing another, while the company responsible for the damage never gets a true comeuppance—may satisfy Seltzer’s fatalism; but it doesn’t meet the demands of a well-wrought film: What about Verne’s wife’s baby, subjected to mercury poisoning by the fish she ate? What about the effects of the mercury poisoning among the Indians? What about the land rights issue? What about the pulping mill? What about the other mutant creatures that, by film’s end, we know are out there waiting? One doesn’t ask for a pat ending, just for a last couple of reels consistent with the world the film creates during its first half. The fault is both with Frankenheimer, who settled for the copout, and with Seltzer, who here repeats the exploitiveness of The Omen, raising moral and symbolic motifs as an easy nod toward the altar of Significance, then just as easily discarding them in favor of silly sensationalism. And in Prophecy the final insult-to-injury is that the sensationalism isn’t even very sensational.

© 1979 Robert C. Cumbow

PROPHECY
Direction: John Frankenheimer. Screenplay: David Seltzer. Cinematography: Harry Stradling Jr. Production design: William Craig Smith. Editing: Tom Rolf. Music: Leonard Rosenman. Production: Robert L. Rosen.
The players: Robert Foxworth, Talia Shire, Armand Assante, Victoria Racimo, Richard Dysart, George Clutesi, Evans Evans.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.


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