Prophecy - (1979)
John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy is pretty much a piece of shit from the word go, but the more it goes, the more enjoyable this piece of shit gets, till it can officially be classified under that beloved category, enjoyable piece of shit.
Now-a-days Prophecy is thought of as John Frankenheimer’s ecological horror film fiasco with a goofy bear monster. But in 1979 when it was released, it wasn’t thought of or advertised as The New Frankenheimer Film. But as screenwriter David Seltzer’s follow up to his smash hit The Omen.
Richard Donner’s film of Seltzer’s screenplay was one of the biggest hits of its day. And while Donner did a good job (it’s easily his best directed movie), and Gregory Peck gave his all in a terrific late career lead performance, the reason the movie worked so well was due to Seltzer’s script. What most people who talk about The Omen now lose sight of, was forty-five years ago, when audiences first saw the movie during its original theatrical engagement, like Gregory Peck’s character Robert Thorn, we (the audience) didn’t know little Damien was the anti-Christ. We, along with Peck, pieced together that Information through the film’s first two acts. What made the movie so compelling was Seltzer’s storytelling, the mystery he laid out, and the mythology he created (the three sixes on the body, the parentage with a jackal), and those amazing set pieces (David Warner and the sheet of glass, the Rottweilers at the graveyard, Lee Remick’s fall, the baboons). When the sequel came out Damien: Omen Two, it never had a chance to compete with the original. Because, unlike the first film, we already know Damien is the anti-Christ. We just stare at the screen waiting for William Holden to figure it out. So as opposed to the scary mystery that Seltzer orchestrated for us, the sequel just consists of people finding or figuring out Damien is the anti-Christ, and then they die in elaborate ways (admittedly the elevator cable death of the black doctor was pretty fucking cool). But with The Omen Seltzer didn’t just write a smash hit movie. He was also offered the chance to write the movie novelization based on his screenplay. He accepted and turned his script into a damn fine horror novel (that includes a lot of differences from the film. Including changing the first name of Peck’s character from Robert to Jeremy). Well Seltzer’s novelization became a paperback sensation, turning into one of the best selling horror novels of all time. In the seventies when 7-Eleven store paperback spinner racks were filled with horror novels with lurid covers, there were four books that were always evoked. Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, Salem’s Lot, & The Other. Evoked as in written somewhere on the front or back cover, Scarier than The Other. Not since Salem’s Lot. It starts where Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist leaves off. Well Seltzer’s The Omen novelization sold as much as those genre defining hits. At this date over two million copies. The Omen was such a popular paperback and legit good book, that a lot of people just assumed the movie was based on the novel, and not the other way around. So David Seltzer was on the verge of becoming a horror writer superstar in both pictures and print. The newspaper ads for Prophecy didn’t read, From the man that brought you 99 and 44/100% Dead. They read, From the man that brought you The Omen. Then both Seltzer’s book for Prophecy and Frankenheimer’s film came out, and that was the end of David Seltzer’s major horror career. In the letter pages of Cinefantastique & Fangoria Magazine all the fans complained about make-up artist Tom Burman’s crazy bear monster. At the sneak preview I attended at The Mann’s Old Town Mall Theatre, towards the end when the monster stands at the foot of the lake, back lit by a full moon, people in the audience said out loud, It’s just a bear! Now it’s a monstrous bear, with a face like a cheeseless pizza, but still a bear. In the supplementary section of the newly released Blu-ray of Prophecy, Seltzer swears the creature the Native American characters refer to as Katahdin was never suppose to be a bear.
I read the book. And while Seltzer never gives a complete description of Katahdin, what he does describe sounds a whole lot like a mountain bear. It’s stronger than a bear (it can rip a person in half with one strike of its…paw?) At 20 feet tall it’s bigger than a bear. And it has huge saucer-like eyes. But everything else is exactly like a bear. It’s covered in fur. It has paws and it has a snout. It runs like a bear, it charges like a bear, it reacts like a bear. It reacts to its dead cub the way a bear would. Its cubs are like bear cubs if the fur on their face was ripped off. Besides, that it’s a contaminated bear, is kind of the point of the story.
A forest in Maine is being poisoned by a paper mill factory that’s pouring mercury in the rivers and streams (Seltzer based his idea on an incident that happened in Japan). The poison is killing the fish that the local Native American fishermen live on. But the poisoned fish that the tribe eats are affecting them too. The tribal people are getting deathly sick, they’re going mad, babies are being born dead or deformed. And not just the Native Americans. The animals in the forest that eat the fish, are going crazy and mutating. Trout become as big as dogs. A pollywog is as big as a baby seal (which begs the question where are the giant frogs). And raccoons become as vicious as wolverines. So it seems the whole point of the story is a bear who lives on contaminated fish has mutated into a monster and has had a couple of monster cubs.
But it’s still a bear.
The interviews on the Blu-ray are hysterical, because everybody points fingers at everybody else. Seltzer claims it was never meant to be a bear. But Talia Shire constantly refers to the monster as a bear. Seltzer blames director Frankenheimer and make-up artist Tom Burman for turning his creature into a bear. Tom Burman blames Seltzer’s original design of the creature as unworkable, so a bear creature was designed instead. Now could Burman have made a better bear monster? Yes. But Seltzer’s script is so terrible, if Burman had made a better bear monster, it’s doubtful that anyone would remember Prophecy. It’s the bonkers bear monster that makes the movie memorable. All the horror movie elements, the characters, the dialogue, the pulp plotting are awful. But what really makes the script so obnoxious is how serious and important Seltzer thinks his ridiculous monster movie is. The writer feels he’s making a grand ecological statement, and a stinging angry indictment on industrial pollution.
Instead…what he made is an unintentional comedy that the cast plays so seriously (especially male lead Robert Foxworth) that it plays like dead pan farce. In interviews on the Blu-ray, the two lead actors, Foxworth & Shire, speak about how good Seltzer’s script was. Well after seeing the movie again that seems implausible (But hey, ya’ never know). So I read Seltzer’s book (and remember, his novel version of The Omen was dynamite, and deserved all of its success). Well the book’s even worse. Because it’s even more strident, more pompous, and more cocksure of its own self-importance. And none of it is relieved by the film’s unintentional humor. Which to Frankenheimer’s credit (it’s obvious he didn’t give a shit about this movie) finally catches up with the movie. Because the film’s last twenty minutes, where our heroes are being chased by Katahdin, and they all fight it out together in the woods and the lake are a fucking gas! And sympathetic Talia Shire aside, I was totally rooting for the fucked up hamburger faced bear to wipe everybody out.
And Seltzer even fucks that up!
The only thing not fun about the crazy climax is the stupid way Seltzer and Frankenheimer have Foxworth defeat the monster.
Nevertheless, I kind of have a soft spot in my heart for this stupid ass movie. Aside from the bonkers bear monster, the film’s one saving grace is Talia Shire. Nobody else in the film, not Foxworth, not Armand Assante, not Richard Dysart and not Chief George (Nightwing) Clutesi rises above the fray, except Shire. In the story Shire’s character wants to have a baby, and her husband (Foxworth) is dead set against it for a lot of virtue signaling self-important reasons (the world is too terrible a place to bring a child into, etc.etc.etc). Before the couple travel to Maine and all the monster shit starts happening, Shire realizes she’s pregnant. But because he’s such a pompous ass on the subject, she hesitates telling him. Is she waiting for the right time to spring the news? Is she building up the courage to tell him something she knows he doesn’t want to hear? Or is she so dead set on not getting an abortion, she’s waiting for enough time to pass till that’s no longer an option? We never find out what Talia’s plan was, because before long we learn about the mercury in the water creating mutations. We also learn the Native Americans and the forest animals are giving birth to mutated babies due to eating the mercury effected fish from the river. The scene where Foxworth relates this to both Shire and the audience is really funny. Because as Foxworth blathers on, Shire starts realizing the implications of what her husband is saying (we saw Shire eat some of the fish from the lake), which is she could very likely be giving birth to mutated monster. Why it’s funny, is while Shire never tells her husband about her inner anguish, it’s obvious to everybody in the audience. Beyond obvious. Comically obvious. That is obvious to everybody except her oblivious husband Foxworth. Who’s too busy giving a self possessed three page monologue about the sins of the paper mill to notice his wife is flipping the fuck out.
Yet one dumbass idea Seltzer comes up with works. As our band of heroes make their way through the forest, they come across the two baby cubs of the bonkers bear monster (they have the face of The Incredible Melting Man). Foxworth insists on taking the monster cubs with them as undeniable proof of what the paper mill pollution has caused (it’s why the bonkers bear monster is chasing after them in the first place. She wants her cubs back). Giving it to Shire to carry as they try and escape the forest. Wrapped up in a swaddling blanket, clutching the crying beast to her chest, holding the frightened cub in her arms, Shire’s maternal instincts begin to emerge. She realizes the mutated thing she’s cradling in her arms, may well be a cousin to the mutated thing growing in her belly. And I’ll be dammed if Shire doesn’t make her motherly compassion for the infant monster touchingly poignant.
Almost everything about Talia Shire in the movie is poignant. In the film her character is a concert cellist. Watching her play the cello at the beginning of the film is poignant. Her desire to be a mother is poignant. Her position as wife to Foxworth’s insufferable ass of a husband brings out our sympathy. And it’s her tenderness towards the baby monster that moves us, not Tom Burman’s laughable inept puppet. And the poignancy of Shire’s contribution to Prophecy continues on the Blu-ray special features interview. She speaks lovingly of the bonkers bear monster mother searching for her cub. From the way she speaks it’s obvious she likes the movie. And she seems genuinely surprised when the makers of the special features inform her that horror fans found the monster ridiculous. At the end of the interview she smiles a little sadly and says into camera, we did our best, sorry if you didn’t like our monster. Again giving Seltzer’s and Frankenheimer’s misshapen monster movie the same compassion forty years later that she gave the baby monster on screen. This monstrosity of a movie about a monstrosity that only a mother could love. It makes the smug bastards who made the Blu-ray extras look as insensitive as Foxworth in the movie. She sincerely liked the film and the monster (that’s why she was happy to come back years later and talk about it).
They should of left her tenderness intact. Because Talia Shire’s tenderness, is the films only sincere accomplishment.