Sunday, February 1, 2009

Killer Mutant Mammal Week*: Prophecy (1979)

I make a conscious effort to avoid mixing politics and bad-movie criticism, but as a fan of science and a huge liberal,** Ecological Horror is a guilty pleasure of mine. Even years after becoming a giant cliché, the combination of the Frankenstein narrative with slimy, pollution crazed industrialists plays me an irresistible siren song. It allows me to indulge my hippy urge to see the creators of pollution forced to deal with its consequences through bodily dismemberment, and more importantly, it replaces the troubling Luddism of Frankenstein's literary descendants with a more palatable message. Instead of scientific hubris creating the monster, it is environmental disregard. In Eco-Horror, science becomes the hero, not the villain.

In John Frankenheimer's Prophecy (sometimes given the subtitle "The Monster Movie" to avoid confusion with the more sucessful Christopher Walken-as-Angel of Death franchise) science is represented by bleeding-heart doctor and (judging from the sweet beard and 'fro combination) possible Bee Gees member, Robert Verne (Robert Foxworth). Depressed by the futility of trying to better the lives of squalid tenement dwellers, he accepts a job mediating a land dispute between a paper mill and a Native American tribe. Believing the idyllic setting to do his frayed nerves good, he brings along his surreptitiously pregnant wife.

Representing the evils of unchecked industrialism is Bethel Isley (Richard Dysart AKA The Thing's Dr. Copper), who swears up and down that his mill releases no chemicals into the water, and that even if there was, we are all implicated by our insatiable lust for paper. Opposing his plans to expand the mill's logging is native John Hawks (Armand Assante, in one of the worst bits of trans-ethnic casting since Charlton Heston played a Mexican) who expresses his displeasure with the intruders by bringing an axe to a chainsaw fight. Spoiler: he loses!

Meanwhile, some unseen ferocity has been devouring loggers and the subsequent rescue parties, exasperating tensions between the Indians and loggers, who are apparently ignorant of forensic science and thus can't tell the difference between a murder and an animal attack. Also, there is a hapless family of backpackers who might as well have "monster snack" tattooed on their foreheads.

Dr. Rob quickly grows suspicious of the surrounding forest: the salmon and tadpoles are way too big, the natives are suffering from illness and birth defects, there is a silver, mercury-like substance at the bottom of the lake, and the raccoons are fucking assholes.

Sure enough, the paper mill has been treating their wood with methylmercury (it's fungicidal!), and not only has it poisoned the fish and Indians, it has unleashed the savagery of:


After getting trapped in the woods by inclement weather, our heroes discover a tiny, half drowned, Inside-Out Bear cub and decide to rescue it as evidence of the mercury poisoning. Why its corpse or even just a more thorough testing of the contaminated waters wouldn't be sufficient, is, once again, totally beyond me. Shortly after, they show the loggers the error of their ways just in time to team up against Inside-Out Bear, who is totally pissed off that they have kidnapped child that she left out to die in the rain.

At this point, the movie drops all the messy sub-text/plots, including the possibility that Doc's wife will give birth to an Inside-Out Boy after eating tainted salmon, and devolves into a textbook escape-the-monster movie. Isley redeems himself just in time for IOB to bite his crotch (not in the good way), Hawks is swatted to his death after getting in a few decent shots with his trusty bow and arrow, and Doc discovers that arrows can be used as surprisingly effective melee weapons.

Again I am deeply torn in my feelings for this particular bad movie. The acting and filmmaking are solid. The premise gets an automatic pass from me and the monster effects are charmingly goofy. (The man in the suit is the late, great Kevin Peter Hall) It even has an unexpectedly solid grasp on science (sans the central, mercury contamination = Inside-Out Bear connection) even if it preaches to us like we are dim teenagers from the late 1970s..... oh, right. The problem is that it takes a whole hour to get to the Inside-Out Bear action, and once it does, all the themes and characters that it has been developing (with scattershot success) go out the window in favor of the usual creature-feature tropes. It's a movie that wants desperately for you to think it is smart, but then gives up when it figures out that being smart is hard; which I guess explains how all the relatively intelligent characters suddenly became drooling idiots who never even think to lose the monster by ditching its cub. Perhaps the mercury was already starting to affect them.

Prophecy also forgoes the obvious, Rosemary's Baby-esque conclusion revolving around Doc's incoming mutant child, for the even more obvious "monster head pops into frame right before end credits" gag.

The End?

Oh well, at least it gave us ManBearPig Inside-Out Bear and the following scene:

* By "Week" I mean "Indeterminate amount of time that I will later rationalize as an Egyptian or Venusian week."

** Even though it was created as a term of derision by true libertarians, I like to refer to myself as a "liberaltarian." I think it fits pretty well considering the obvious natural tension between environmentalism and libertarianism.


  1. HA HA! the sleeping bag friggin exploded!!

  2. "…more importantly, it replaces the troubling Luddism of Frankenstein's literary descendants with a more palatable message. Instead of scientific hubris creating the monster, it is environmental disregard."

    i.e. Same old Luddites, different bogeyman. Having fuel and modern amenities moves us further from Mother Earth's plan for us to live in shit for our short, miserable lives.

  3. Surely "Science can possibly save us," is at least a different breed of "luddism" than "there are some things man was not meant to know" or my personal favorite: "Holy shit, science is coming! Everybody head for the hills and hold perfectly still, its vision is based on movement."

  4. Sadly, I must report that this movie actually freaked me out as a kid (it's one of my Kindertraumas!), including the boy in the exploding sleeping bag.

    I watched this on either cable or VHS and then had to run up to the store for my mother in the quickly fading light of a winter's evening and even though I knew I was being stupid (I lived in a city for mutated-bear's sake) I kept glancing around for killer-inside-out-bears.

    Oh, and also... I totally crushed hard on Armand Assante.