Prophecy (1979) Review

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Prophecy (1979): 6 out of 10: A inner city doctor (Robert Foxworth) and his concert cellist wife (Talia Shire) are asked to travel to Maine to do an EPA report on a new lumber mill run by Richard Dysart. Meanwhile, the local indians lead by Armand Assante are protesting the mill. When lumberjacks disappear and rescue teams are found mauled, the lumber mill owners blame the indians while the indians claim that Katahdin, a monster larger than a dragon with the eyes of a cat, is to blame.

The Good

The Good: Prophecy is an old-fashioned monster movie. This is Stephen King’s favorite movie. At least as of 1981 when he declared such in his non-fiction book about horror, Danse Macabre. (though the Wikipedia page on Danse Macabre claims Tourist Trap with that honor.) I also get the sense that this is a favorite of the South Park creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. One of thier more successful creations, ManBearPig, is a direct homage to the creature in Prophecy.

I recently reviewed Amityville: Dollhouse and claimed I genuinely enjoyed the film on its own merits and this was not a case of so bad it is good. Well, I can put that back in the box. Prophecy is bad. But it’s gloriously bad in the right way. It has a large budget, an A list director (John Frankenheimer The Manchurian Candidate) and writer (David Seltzer The Omen), and a cast that includes some superb and successful actors. (Talia Shire, with the Godfather and Rocky movies, was a box office champ in the seventies).

It is also an important movie with things to say about pollution, overpopulation, urban squalor, Indian rights, and I think abortion pops in at some point. It tells its tale with such overwhelming incompetence one would think this is an Airplane style parody. Prophecy is often a truly funny movie. The only issue is at no point was it trying to be.

There is one scene that got Prophecy just over the recommend line. There is a subgenre I like to call the sleeping bag kills. That is where the antagonist comes across a character asleep in a sleeping bag and, without removing the character from said sleeping bag, viciously kills him or her. Jason Voorhees had perfected this technique in Friday the 13th: Part VII and again in Jason X. But the true granddaddy of said kills is from Prophecy. As funny as Jason’s kills are, they pale at the sincere hilarity of the Prophecy kill. Unlike the Friday the 13th filmmakers, however, it is clear that John Frankenheimer was not going for a tension breaking laugh. Frankenheimer, at no point, had any idea what he was doing.

The Bad

The Bad: I don’t even know where to begin. Let’s start with the setting. The movie begins in urban DC. The ghetto, if you will. Now I know poverty was much worse in 1979 than it is today. And tenements and public housing can be hellholes. But this is a movie that is preaching (there is no other word for it) about urban squalor as Robert Foxworth tends to an African American baby suffering from rat bites. All the while, Foxworth is dialoguing about the sixteen people sharing one apartment among such filth and poverty to no one in particular.

So why does the set look like it came right out of a Naked Gun or Police Academy movie? The set dressing with the graffiti (All PG of course), broken-down cars and tons of African American extras all dressed as if Good Times had an open casting call is so over the top. It is hilarious. If you wanted to make fun of poor black people (say you were a horrible racist, for example) you wouldn’t have to change a thing.

Okay, so maybe no one making Prophecy had actually been to a ghetto or met a black person. I get it. We are making an important movie about environmentalism and Indian rights. Urban decay was not our focus. A swing and a miss, if you will.

So let’s talk about the Wabanaki Confederacy. Rich in history and a presence not just in current Maine politics and culture but certainly well known to any child of the seventies lucky enough to go to summer camp in New England and not be killed by the rash of masked serial killers that roamed such camps. And we look upon a traditional Indian village. Perhaps this is the politically active Penobscot tribe who are exactly the kind of Native Americans who would protest a lumber mill. Here they are in their tipis next to the lake…hold on tipis? Tipis in Maine?

OMFG are you kidding me? A fifth grader knows that there are no tipis in Maine. What are they supposed to be making them out of? Moose? If you are surrounded by trees and your tribe does not follow a herd, why in God’s name would you have tipi? I know I recently made fun of Predator 2 for a Jamaican Rastafarian gang inexplicitly doing Voodoo but this is at a whole other level.

Okay, so perhaps head Indian activist Armand Assante was unfamiliar with the concept that not all Native Americans lived in tipis. It is understandable since Assante was born in New York City and may never have been to Maine before the movie was shot. Certainly someone else on the set could have clued them in? I mean, they are in Maine, right? Hold on, the trees, they don’t look right at all. And now I think about it, where did they get the grizzly bears? There are no grizzly bears in Maine.

Oh God, they are in Vancouver, aren’t they… Yup. Sources claim that Frankenheimer’s film actually started the filming in British Columbia trend that is still with us today. Yay Prophecy. No wonder Stephen King found so much joy in this movie. He was probably laughing harder that the rest of us.

The Ugly

The Ugly: Armand Assante does good work here as does Victoria Racimo as Armand Assante’s love interest or sister (I was unclear). Richard Dysart, as the evil mill owner, puts on a convincing Maine accent and while written as a bad guy, he is so affable, like Tom Hanks in The Circle, you have a hard time seeing him as the heavy.

Our main (and clearly not Maine as we have established) couple does not fare so well. Robert Foxworth has an impossible task to make his Quincy on crack dialogue sound anything other than the preachy dreck it is. He manages not to go full Steven Seagal in On Deadly Ground bad. He survives the performance. And in reality, that is a win.

Talia Shire, on the other hand, is simply miscast. Steven King points out that a monster movie such as this requires the female lead to be threatened in some manner by the monster. Whether it is her swimming in a lake in a white one-piece or taking a shower while the monster lurks outside. Talia Shire needs a neck full of diamonds and Troy Donahue on her arm to even begin to pull off sexy. It just isn’t her thing.

And then we have ManBearPig, or as the Prophecy calls her Katahdin. The movie gets this wrong, of course. The actual monster is Pamola (English translation is Thunderbird) who lives on Mount Katahdin. This is the equivalent of renaming Cyclops, Etna. But I did not have high hopes for a movie putting tipis in Maine to get the Abenaki mythology correct.

What Prophecy probably should have gotten correct is the size of the monster. When the script was written, Katahdin was the size of a dragon. When the movie was shot, Katahdin was the guy who played Predator (Kevin Peter Hall) in a bear suit. You can see the problem.

There is an admittedly fun scene late in the film where Katahdin tears the roof off a cabin. It is a surprising scene. Mainly because she is suddenly Godzilla. She was only eight feet tall a few minutes ago. (Perhaps she grew three times her normal size using the same Indian magic as Apache Chief?)

I have not talked much about the plot. I try to keep my reviews shorter than a novella. But I do have to point out one plot point. Our band of survivors, trying to escape the mutated bear, come across two mutated bear cubs. Thier idea is to take the cubs with them as proof.

These people, who are apparently sharing the one brain cell between them, are hiding from the bear while holding the bear’s crying cubs. I mean, at no point in Jurassic Park does Sam Neill take a baby velociraptor while attempting to hide from the mother. No, apparently you would have to wait for Vince Vaughn in the sequel before a character is that dumb. If Frankenheimer had just gone to summer camp in New England, he would have not just known that Indians do not live in tipis, he certainly would have also learned not to mess with a bear’s cub.

In Conclusion

In Conclusion: Prophecy is a terrible movie that takes itself so seriously and is so utterly incompetent that it is kind of funny. I am not sure I would recommend seeing Prophecy three times in the theater as Mr. Stephen King did. But once on home video is worth a look if you are a fan of the genre or like hyperactive social justice seventies movies.

My current favorite subject (and a mainstay of seventies films) film dissolve transition.

Though usually it is not done multiple times in the same scene.,

And most movies try to avoid setting their heroes face on fire using dissolve.

Tell me a white PA wrote this graffiti without telling me a white PA wrote this graffiti.

A group of indigenous people lead by Irish Italian Armand Assante.

Has Talia Shire spotted the ManBearPig?

Lumberjack vs. Indian… well Irish-Italian Indian spokesperson.

Yup, looks just like Maine. Get you a lobster eh?

This is supposed to be a mutant Salmon caused by mercury poisoning. If Humanoids of the Deep taught us anything, mutant salmon are bipedal, about six feet tall, and very rapey. Unfortunately, the way Frankenheimer frames this shot, the salmon looks normal sized if a bit fake.

I keep checking, but apparently this is not David Thewlis

Is that the Crofton pulp and paper mill? Well, at least Prophecy got this right. I remember when the Barenaked Ladies and Neil Young protested the mill in a clean air concert on Vancouver Island in 2004. It was a proud day for Maine.

Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha…..

ManBearPig in all his glory

Lots of good helicopter action in Prophecy also helps the score.

Is Victoria Racimo playing a werewolf? In my research for my upcoming novel Snowcano, I have discovered many First Nations people of the Pacific Northwest are werewolves. So this tracks.

Really? A bow and arrow? Indians in Maine have been using firearms since at least the 1640s.

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