Cine Outsider header
front page    disc reviews    film reviews    articles    interviews  
Environmentally unfriendly
Occasional reviewer Gort returns to take a second look at John Frankenheimer's 1979 eco-horror PROPHECY, a film he once dismissed but that this time around found a lot more to like than he was expecting, and he's certainly happy with Eureka's recently released Blu-ray.
 

There’s something nasty living in the woodland in Maine. We know this because, as the 1979 Prophecy begins – atmospherically, it must be said – we watch a rescue team slaughtered by that certain something as they search for two of its previous victims. We don’t know what it is at this early stage, but one thing’s for certain, it’s definitely not human.

We’re then transported to New York City, where cellist Maggie Verne (Talia Shire) is finishing her orchestral practice, just in time for her expositional friend to nag her about telling her husband that she’s pregnant and remind her it’s her body and she shouldn’t allow herself to be pushed into having an abortion. Got that? Good. The hubby in question is Dr. Robert Verne (Robert Foxworth), who has just been called to a slum tenement to attend to a baby that has been bitten by a rat. Sickened by the conditions in which these tenants are forced to live, he seems really keen to have words with the unsurprisingly absent landlord. Frankly, that’s a confrontation I’d like to have seen, as our Robert looks perfectly capable of giving this exploitative dickwad a serious kicking.

As he leaves, Robert is approached by his friend Vic Shusette (Graham Jarvis) from the Environmental Protection Agency. Vic’s here to ask Robert if he’ll come on board for two weeks to investigate the conditions of a woodland region close to the Androscoggin River in Maine. Wait a minute, isn’t that where…? It’s also land that the Pitney Mills Paper Company and their chainsaw-happy lumberjacks are anxious to exploit but that the local Native American tribespeople claim is rightfully theirs. Robert’s not keen to play political football (his words), but is ultimately enticed by the prospect of a fortnight away from the city, and he and Maggie thus head north for what they’re hoping will also be a refreshing break. They should be so lucky. They’re met at the airstrip by Bethel lIsley (Richard Dysart), the PR man for the Pitney Paper Mill, who’s rolled up with a handful of his men to drive Robert and Maggie to the isolated cabin in which they’ll be staying. Also arriving on the same light aircraft is a man and his two children, one of whom cheerily informs Robert that they’re camping in the local woodlands. Uh-oh…

A chainsaw is held to John's throat to force him to open the barrier as Robert and Ramona watch on in horror

En route to the cabin, the startled Robert and Maggie get a taste of the severity of the conflict their report is designed to settle when their path is blocked by a group of Native Americans, or as they are called here, OPs (an acronym for Original People). They’re led by a young firebrand named John Hawks (Armand Assante), who one of Isley’s men threatens to decapitate with a chainsaw if he and his people don’t clear a path. If you hadn’t already picked a side to root for, this should do the trick. The OPs believe that the members of the rescue party we saw dispatched in the opening scene were killed by a vengeful spirit known as Katahdin, but Isley (Richard Dysart) is convinced they were murdered by drunken tribesmen. Oh yes, in case you were wondering, Maggie has elected to keep the news of her pregnancy to herself and to constantly worry about it instead.

Later that day, a couple of incidents with the local wildlife prove a cause for concern. In the first, whilst fishing for their dinner, Robert sees a massively oversized salmon that swallows a duck whole. In the second, he and Maggie are attacked that evening in their cabin by a demented raccoon. It may sound silly, but it’s rather well done. The following day, they are persuaded by John and his partner, Ramona (Victoria Racimo), to witness the health problems that are plaguing their people. On the way to their village they stop off to converse with Ramona’s grandfather, Hector M'Rai (George Clutesi), who lives by a small lake from which he catches a tadpole that’s the size of a small dog. Although a subsequent tour of the paper mill with Isley is peppered with assurances about the safe handling of chemicals, Robert smells an industrially polluting rat, and has a theory about what might be happening to the local water life and those who consume it.

It’s been a long time since I last saw Prophecy, and when I say a long time I’m talking a few decades rather than months. I was somewhere in the queue when it first screened at cinemas, and distinctly remember the negative responses it drew from critics and audiences alike. Looking back on some of the reviews, however, I’m surprised just how big a pasting it took. Variety complained about “cardboard characters and a story so stupid it's irresistible,” while the New York Times called it “epically trivial.” I’d love to say that I kicked against popular opinion, but at the time I really did think it was cobblers. This was the late 1970s, and American independent horror cinema was on fire. We had Cronenberg, Carpenter, Romero, Craven and a fair few others, and they were making really great horror that was reshaping the genre, and many of us hardcore genre fans had little time for committee-shaped studio horror. But it wasn’t just that. Prophecy plodded, it wasn’t remotely scary, it’s characters were dull, and the monster… oh boy. I’ll have more to say about that delightful little fellow soon. Yet when I heard the film was being released on Blu-ray, I knew I had to cover it. Maybe it would seem every bit as silly and uninvolving as I once thought it was. But maybe, just maybe, I’d have a very different opinion of it all these years and movies later. Turns out I did. Well, sort of.

John questions Robert on his commitment to his cause

Prophecy was a late entry into the 1970s cycle of what became known as eco-horrors, a subgenre that took some prejudicial flak from conservative critics at the time, with The Washington Post writer describing it as “an indoctrination course in liberal guilt, shabbily disguised as a monster melodrama.” Ouch. From a modern perspective, however, one where those of us who don’t have our heads rammed squarely up our arses are aware of the damage humankind has done to the planet, this subgenre now looks to have been ahead of the curve. Here, the environmental issue in question – and now is the time to skip to the last paragraph if you want to avoid having plot points spoiled – is based on a real-world incident that occurred in the city of Minimata in Japan in the 1950s, and that really was the stuff of true-life ecological horror. Residents started noticing that cats were behaving as if possessed by demons and some of the animals even threw themselves into the sea. A short while later, the people themselves began experiencing numbness in their limbs, uncontrolled tremors, and a diminished ability to clearly see and hear. Some even appeared to be following the path to apparent insanity embarked on by the local feline population. The cause of this mysterious disease was eventually diagnosed as mercury poisoning, which was traced to a nearby petrochemical plant that was found to have dumped a staggering 27 tons of mercury into Minamata Bay. This poisoned the fish that are still to this day the staple diet of the Japanese people, and when the locals ate the fish and fed it to their cats… well, see above.

With this in mind, I was surprised – and more than a little pleased – this time around to find myself hooked by the unfolding ecologically minded story, which was written by David Seltzer, who a few short years earlier had freaked us all out with his script for The Omen. Once we’re past the ‘preview of monstrous things to come’ opening that has become de rigueur in modern horror movies and we’re introduced to Robert and his interest in the case, the film had my attention. His permed hair and beard may plonk our boy firmly in the time and place, but he’s earnestly played by Robert Foxworth and a far easier character to engage with than I had once believed. That the leading representative of the OP community is played by an actor of Italian-Irish descent is par for the course in pre-Dances with Wolves American cinema, and Armand Assante still cuts a convincingly dedicated figure as John Hawks. The film also scores a few points back for the casting of First Nation actor and activist George Clutesi as Ramona’s grandfather, Hector M'Rai. Best of all is Richard Dysart, who as Isley is so brimming with conviction when he shows Robert and Maggie round the paper mill that I found myself wondering if maybe the he and his people weren’t responsible for the local health issues after all. Do me a favour.

Long before the halfway mark, I realised that I had completely misjudged this movie as a callow youth. The characters are interesting, the performances sound, and the story and unfolding mystery exert a genuine hold. It’s also most attractively shot by Harry Stradling Jr., he of Support Your Local Sheriff, Little Big Man, The Battle of Midway, Convoy and a good many more. The action and performers are solidly marshalled by the director John Frankenheimer (surely you don’t need me to list this man’s impressive stream of credits), who keeps the early drama grounded in the real world and only goes a little Hollywood on us when the reins are taken off of Leonard Rosenman’s otherwise rather effective score.

Maggie and Robert travel to their cabin while in their own individual worlds

When it comes to the relationship between our two lead characters, however, I found myself a little concerned about what we weren’t being told. When the two settle down for the first night in their cabin, they seem to be content, at least until the mad raccoon runs in and attacks them. So why is it, I started wondering, that Maggie is so worried about telling Robert that he’s going to be a dad? None of the answers I came up with was particularly comforting. Robert claims he doesn’t want to bring more children into an overpopulated world, and while I absolutely get that, he had sex with his wife and it did its biological job and that’s how it works, buster. So is Maggie so under his thumb that she’s scared of upsetting him with this news because of how he might react? Is she worried he will leave her when he finds out she is pregnant and doesn’t want an abortion? If so, it’s time to dump him, girl, as he’s not worth the effort. I even found myself suspecting that a previous discussion on the subject had ended with Robert lashing out at Maggie, perhaps even physically. That would certainly explain why she’s frightened of telling him the news and why she spends so much of the film looking mournfully downcast. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if Robert was such a nice guy after all. In which case I wish I had been able to engage more with Maggie, who though ably played by Talia Shire remains a closed book for much of the film. Her reluctance to speak up also really backfires when she learns that the fish she and Robert have just had for dinner may have contained a substance that can cause monstrous foetal deformations, a fact that Robert for some reason chooses to hammer home at inordinate length.

And then there’s the monster. Now, before I go on I need to get a few things straight. As a fan of even the cheapest of cheapjack horror, I’m fine with whatever budget restrictions force filmmakers to make do with when it comes to creature building. I also, like many a genre fan, have a fondness for the tactile physicality of pre-CG creations. It’s just… Okay, here’s the thing. In the UK, Prophecy hit cinemas just two months after Ridley Scott’s game-changing Alien, which set an insanely high bar for pant-wettingly terrifying screen monsters. The incredible melting grizzly that is Prophecy’s Katahdin just didn’t come close. Coming back to the film so many years later, it still failed either to convince me or scare me. Part of the problems lies in the type of film that Prophecy is. It’s not a microbudget independent horror, but a quality studio production with a top-notch director, a name cast, ace cinematography and a classy score. Yet its monster looks and moves like a B-movie creature, a clearly prosthetic rather than organic creation that too often looks just like the artificial beast it is. And while there seems to be some disagreement about the film’s budget, from what I can gather it was similar to that of Scott’s film, and while the monsters of both movies are essentially tall men in creature costumes, just look what Scott’s team of visionaries came up with for the cash. As a result, the monster scenes of Prophecy are at their best when you can’t see the creature clearly, when Frankenheimer and editor Tom Rolf (who also cut French Connection II and Black Sunday for the director and has a belter of a CV) avoid lingering on the beast and keep the action brisk. This sidestepping of monster visuals peaks in an unexpectedly tense sequence, when the main characters and a couple of disposable minor ones are trapped together in an underground tunnel, and Frankenheimer and Stradling Jr. frame frightened faces in strikingly composed close-ups. The flipside of this technique comes in the form of an attack by Katahdin on a campsite that climaxes in an exploding sleeping bag, a moment that is so simultaneously startling and comical that I found myself too easily forgetting that the victim was a young child. Shame on me.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the film’s final third is that the eco-politics of earlier scenes take a back seat so the film can focus instead on the far more familiar sight of a group of humans running for their lives from a rampaging monster. That said, this pursuit does still have its moments. The wide shot of Katahdin wading into a lake at night surrounded by surface mist is one of the most darkly beautiful images in all of 70s horror, while (big spoiler ahead – scurry to the following paragraph to avoid) Robert’s frenzied climactic attack on the beast goes so against his earlier ecological convictions that it could be the basis for a whole essay on conflict between so-called civilised man and his primal origins.

Isley, Maggie, John and Robert wait in an underground tunnel for the beast to leave.

So did I enjoy Prophecy more than I did the first time I saw it? Absolutely. It’s fact-inspired eco-politics have stood the test of time well and are still relevant today, resonating in everything from the polluting of Indian farmland by the Coca Cola company to the contaminated water that for five years was pumped to homes in the town of Flint, Michigan. Its drama is involving, its performances solid and its production values are generally first rate. The monster certainly has strong allegorical value, but one that is diluted a little by the fact that all it does later is chase the heroes around and attempt to dismember them, a battle between humans and beast that has none of the metaphoric meat of films like Lewis Teague’s 1980 Alligator or Bong Joon-ho’s recent Okja. The small but dedicated cult following that the film has attracted over the years means that opinion is even more split today than it was on its release, with seemingly as many now singing its praises as there are still sounding snorts of derision. I sit somewhere near the middle. For me, it’s a long way short of the near-masterpiece that some are now championing it as, but I also believe it’s also a lot, lot better than many – my too-quick-to-judge younger self included – once dismissed it as. Frankly, if you’re fine with the creature as it is and the run-from-the-rampaging-monster finale, then you may well have a ball. If you do think the creature looks and feels just a bit mechanical, however, just you wait until to clap eyes on the film’s unsurprising ‘surprise’ ending.

the UK cuts

I’m going to keep this brief, as I struggled to find any definitive evidence to back up my speculation. According to Prophecy’s IMDb page, the version that first hit UK cinemas was cut by 8 seconds to remove a shot of the mad racoon writhing on the ground outside of Robert and Maggie’s cabin. The reason, apparently, is that the animal had been poisoned to prompt it to behave that way. Nice. There’s no mention of this in the special features – particularly odd when there are two expert commentaries – but a check on the BBFC website does reveal the frustratingly inexplicit comment, “A version of this work was cut.” If that shot of the writhing raccoon does exist and was indeed removed, then it also remains absent from the version on this disc. Other than that, this appears to be the original cinema edit, and is almost five minutes longer than the cut-down version that made its way on to home video in 1987.

sound and vision

A solid 2.35:1 1080p transfer, the result of a restoration by I’m not sure who, one that has that late 1970s American cinema look that still gives me a warm nostalgic glow. There is some variance in quality, with a few of what may be second unit wide shots being a little shy of sharp, but the best material is nicely detailed, not 4K digital sharp but still very pleasing. The colour palette has a warm, earthy green-brown hue at times, but brighter colours are still accurately represented and location exteriors are handsomely showcased. The contrast balance feels about right, with solid blacks but no loss of crucial picture information in the night scenes or dimly lit interiors. The image is also clear of damage and major instances of dirt. Quite a few very small dust spots remain, but they’re not large or busy enough to be disruptive at normal viewing distance.

Robert ponders by the lake in which they find the giant tadpole

I did wonder if the Linear PCM stereo 2.0 soundtrack had been remixed at one point, as while spoken words have that restricted range feel you often find in 60s and 70s genre movies, the music sounds great and is as clear as a bell. All the dialogue is distinct, though, and there are no instances of damage or background fluff to disturb the woodland peace. The stereo separation is also rather distinct at times, certainly more lively than some supposedly stereo tracks from the period.

You want English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired? No problem, they’re here.

extra features

Commentary by film writer Richard Harland Smith
I’m always a little apprehensive when approaching an expert commentary on a film I wasn’t bowled over by, as I know I’m going to have to hear a lot of enthusiastic praise for elements that just didn’t work for me. At best, this can make me feel as if I’ve missed something that is clear to others, at worst it makes me wonder if the person in question has taken leave of their senses. And there are two such commentary tracks on this disc. The first is by respected film writer Richard Harland Smith, and yes, he’s a fan of Prophecy, but more importantly, he’s also a knowledgeable genre scholar and provides a host of information on the film and its making. There’s a ton of detail on the career of lead actor Robert Foxworth. Comparisons are made to David Selzer’s novelisation of his screenplay (which usefully expands on the characters and their backstories), links made to Alien and – more surprisingly – Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (which screenwriter David Seltzer also worked on). Details are provided on the Minimata disaster and a more recent mercury contamination of waterways by a paper mill company in Ontario. There’s oodles more. Given the story told by the film, Smith shares my astonishment that the filmmakers were given full access to Croften Pulp Mill by British Columbia Forest Products, and he’s not the only one on this disc to suggest the influence of the Katahdin on South Park’s Man Bear Pig.

Commentary by film writers Emma Westwood and Lee Gambin
The lively Australian team of film writers and historians Emma Westwood and Lee Gambin are back again to sing the praises of a film that Westwood describes early on as “fantastic,” which is technically correct, as it does indeed have elements that are based in fantasy. This is still an engaging commentary peppered with interesting observations and factual titbits, including information about experiments that were conducted on Native Americans and the forced sterilisation aimed at depopulating tribes. It’s something I knew little about before and was soon researching with a growing sense of horror at what humankind is capable of when driven by pig-ignorant racist dogma. There’s some discussion on the film’s ecological elements, a bit of “I’ve just researched this” info on the Minimata disaster, connections are made to other genre films and even revisionist westerns, and the paper mill is identified as the film’s true villain. I may not agree with everything Westwood and Gambin say, but, by thunder, they are interesting to listen to. As a side note, I’m guessing this was recorded during lockdown, which would explain why Gambin’s voice is crystal clear and Westwood sounds as if she was talking to him on a Skype or Facetime call. Given the current world situation, this works fine for me.

Isley arrives at the Native American vikllage with the sheriff to arrest John

Truth in Fiction: Interview with Screenwriter David Seltzer (12:58)
Prophecy screenwriter David Seltzer looks back at a childhood in which he made up preposterous stories and how this and his enthusiasm for the animal world led him into working on documentaries for National Geographic. He talks about his move into screenwriting via uncredited work on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and how a bluffed “sure I can do it!” response to a query about writing a post-Exorcist movie involving the Devil led to The Omen and worldwide success. Prophecy gets fair coverage here, and Seltzer reveals that he wrote much of it in the bathroom of his log cabin in the Pacific Northwest. He likes working in small spaces, he tells us, as it makes his dreams seem bigger. Whatever works for you. I did smile when he noted that the 1995 remake of The Omen followed his original script to the letter, but was, in his opinion, “a pile of junk.”

Katahdin Speaks: Interview with Mime Artist Tom McLoughlin (19:50)
An enjoyable chat with the likeable Tom McLoughlin, who looks every inch the ageing but energetic rock musician he could have easily been (in his youth, the groups his own band opened for included The Doors, Iron Butterfly and Pink Floyd). He’s titled by this extra as a mime artist, a career he studied for in Paris after meeting the most famous mime of all, Marcel Marceau, but he always had his eye on the director’s chair, which is what led him to nick one from a backlot that he then discovered was intended for John Sturges. He still has it, he assures us. I would think the statute of limitations has expired on that one by now. His early roles miming as robots and androids in the likes of Woody Allen’s Sleeper and Disney’s The Black Hole eventually led him to Prophecy’s big mechanical monster suit, and a production on which he spent his copious free time studying every aspect of the filmmaking process. It seems to have paid off, because he currently has 40 film and TV directing credits to his name. There are some engaging and revealing stories here, from the mistake he made by making a suggestion to John Frankenheimer in front of the whole crew, to a sobering sneak preview screening of the film at which the unreceptive audience just laughed and took the piss.

Theatrical Trailer (1:06)
A low-budget, artwork-only trailer based around the poster image of an embryonic version Katahdin, set to a heartbeat score and accompanied by a ‘voice of sinister warning’ narration and a description of the fully grown creature that suggests those marketing the film hadn’t at this point seen the finished film.

TV Spot (0:28)
A few clips from the camping scene, including the exploding sleeping bag, with the same warning-voice narrator and the unimaginative and rather presumptuous tagline, “The monster movie.”

Radio Spot (2:28)
Five radio spots, one with dialogue from the film, all with that voiceover and an overuse of the phrase, “She will find you.” Not where I’m hiding.

Katahdin steps into the lake by night

The Stills Galleries option has three sub-categories. Production Stills Gallery consists of 22 screens containing variable quality promotional stills, plus four shots of the creature creation work, a single behind-the-scenes image, a grisly makeup effect from a deleted scene, and the cover page of the script from when it was called The Windsor Project. Posters & Lobby Cards has 33 screens of international posters and lobby cards, which for once have been spared the psychedelic colouring-in treatment. Archival Articles and Print Ads has 8 screens of scans of articles about the film, the front cover of issue #2 of Fangoria, and a selection of print ads.

Booklet
Having listened to two commentary tracks telling me why I should love this movie rather than merely like it, I almost forgot that the included booklet would kick off with an essay that would likely do a similar job. The piece in question is by film scholar, writer and researcher, Craig Ian Mann, who opens with a quick look at the 70s eco-horror cycle (nice to see Alligator getting a positive shout) before focussing on this film’s key position in this short-lived subgenre. It’s an engaging and persuasive piece with a witty final line, at least for those who have seen the film. A couple of pages featuring print versions of some of the posters and images you’ll also find in the on-disc galleries is followed by a condensed version of an interview by John Campopiano with Venita Ozols-Graham, a trainee assistant director who got her first big break on Prophecy and how has 50 credits as assistant or second unit director. She talks about starting off on the TV series The Bionic Woman and how her ambition to work on features eventually led to her working with John Frankenheimer on Prophecy, and relates a few incidents that convinced her and other crew members that the film was cursed. Worry not, her work on the film also gets some coverage. Credits, viewing notes and promotional imagery have also been included.

summary

There’s possibly an argument to be made for seeing Prophecy as a precursor to Bong Joon-ho’s The Host – both are monster movies whose creature was created by a factually inspired case of industrial pollution. There, I should note, the similarities end. That there was so much more to Prophecy than I remembered certainly lifted my spirits, but I remain unconvinced by the arguments made on this disc that it’s a previously misunderstood masterpiece. Either way, the film is entertaining and smarter than a good few of its contemporaries, and the disc is a good one, as much for the special features as the transfer quality. Ah, what the hell, despite my reservations, for genre fans this still has to come recommended. Enjoy!

Prophecy Blu-ray cover
Prophecy

USA 1979
102 mins
directed by
John Frankenheimer
produced by
Robert L. Rosen
written by
David Seltzer
cinematography
Harry Stradling Jr.
editing
Tom Rolf
music
Leonard Rosenman
production design
William Craig Smith
starring
Talia Shire
Robert Foxworth
Armand Assante
Richard Dysart
Victoria Racimo
George Clutesi

disc details
region B
video
2.35:1
sound
LPCM 2.0 stereo
languages
English
subtitles
English SDH
extras
Commentary by film writer Richard Harland Smith
Commentary by film writers Emma Westwood and Lee Gambin
Interview with Screenwriter David Seltzer
:Interview with Mime Artist Tom McLoughlin
Trailer
TV spot
Radio spots
Image galleries
Booklet

distributor
Eureka Classics
release date
16 August 2021
review posted
28 August 2021

See all of Gort's reviews