July 14, 2011
At the height of his bout with alcoholism, acclaimed director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Ronin) turned from his usual suspense-thrillers to direct a pure horror film called Prophecy. Written by David Seltzer (who also wrote The Omen), Prophecy kept with Frankenheimer’s theme of making socially and philosophically relevant movies. In Prophecy, he just used more monsters.
Prophecy is the tale of a paper mill in Maine that is suspected of dumping toxic pollution into the river that feeds its factory with lumber. Robert Foxworth (from T.V.’s “Falcon Crest” and, more recently, the voice of Ratchet in the Transformers movies) is Rob Verne, a doctor who has been assigned to investigate the claims by the Environmental Protection Agency. Rob and his wife Maggie (Talia Shire from Rocky and The Godfather trilogy) investigate the forests, tour the paper mill and meet with the people of the local Indian tribe (called Opies). Right from the start, they notice a few things that are out of the ordinary. Rob learns that the Opies are afraid of a giant mythical beast that they claim lives in the forest. While fishing, Rob sees a huge trout pop its head out of the lake and eat a duck in one bite. Rob and Maggie meet with an Opie couple named John and Ramona Hawkes (Armand Assante from American Gangster and Victoria Racimo from Ernest Goes to Camp) who tell them about illnesses and afflictions that have been plaguing the Opies. After more research and a face-to-face encounter with the monster in the woods, Rob determines that mercury is being dumped into the water from the paper mill, and this pollution is causing mutations in both the wildlife and people who live in the forests around the mill. Rob and John then have two battles on their hands – against the pollution from the paper mill and against the giant mutant creature that is stalking them.
Prophecy is scary on two levels. First, there is the obvious threat of the mutant bear-pig looking creature that dismembers anything and everything in the woods that it comes across. Second, there is the subliminal threat of the effect that the humans’ industrial practices are having on the Earth. Frankenheimer and Seltzer use the giant mutant beast as a symbol of a greater evil, one that is just as dangerous, but a little slower on the attack.
Of course, like most of the films made in the seventies, Prophecy looks dated. And Frankenheimer himself has said that, because of his drinking, Prophecy is not as good of a film as he wanted it to be. Self criticism aside, Frankenheimer does a good job putting his personal stamp on Prophecy. He uses the same camera angles and tricks that he has mastered over the years in Prophecy, and the resulting film is both suspenseful and shocking. The monster attacks are painstakingly telegraphed, yet when they happen, they still scare the heck out of the viewer.
Despite obviously being a stuntman in a monster suit, the mutant in Prophecy is creepy. Built by James Kagel, who brought creatures to life for The Abyss, Child’s Play and the 1998 retelling of Godzilla, the beast is a combination of just about every animal imaginable – the body of a bear, the head of a boar, the gills of a fish, etc. With such a mish-mash of different mutations used, it would be easy for the creature to look silly. Kagel somehow avoids making the mutant look campy, instead opting to make it ugly and terrifying.
Prophecy is a rarity among horror films. The monster has a meaning. It’s a horror film with an important message, but it doesn’t let that message get in the way of a good scare.