The veteran director John Frankenheimer had an incredibly varied filmography. From the deeply paranoid ’60s gems The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds, through to the infamously misbegotten The Island of Dr. Moreau and the excellent action thriller Ronin, there were many eye-catching moments. But even among such an eclectic CV, eco-horror creature feature Prophecy feels like a weird outlier. One of a long line of post-Jaws monster thrillers, Prophecy shows the director had a far better eye for the industrial and cultural conflict of its setting, than the screaming, the wailing, and the gnashing of ursine teeth.
A land dispute between indigenous Americans and a logging company sees crusading environmentalist Rob (Robert Foxworth) and his wife Maggie (Talia Shire) head to Maine to carry out a report on the forest’s ecology. He soon discovers that the mercury used by the company has seeped into the riverbeds and mutated the wildlife. Monstrous tadpoles, outsize salmon, and homicidal racoons are concerning enough, but the massive, deformed bear known as Katahdin by the native population is another thing entirely.
Prophecy starts very well. Aside from the now-baffling casting of the Italian-Irish Armand Assante as indigenous leader John Hawks, Frankenheimer establishes the central tension between nature and industry very well. This patient, methodical approach even allows room for some uproarious silliness, such as a mismatched fight between Hawks and a company goon – Hawks armed with an axe, the other wielding a chainsaw, and that enormous tadpole. Oscar-winner Shire provides some further emotional depth as she realises that she may have unwittingly poisoned her unborn child by eating fish from the contaminated river.
Almost an hour in, and it’s clear why Katahdin was kept offscreen for so long. The bear itself is a waddling, lumpy suit of fur and boils (containing future Predator Kevin Peter Hall, fact fans) that works somewhat from a distance, but is far more likely to evoke mirth than terror up close, despite some effective sound design. This is also where Frankenheimer loses the grip on the film’s tone. The film has previously been too po-faced in its message – despite the tadpoles and chainsaw brawls – to cope with the sudden lurch into something approaching kaiju camp. As the rampant beast tears through a family of luckless campers, the intent is presumably to show that even children aren’t safe when man messes with nature. However, it’s safe to say that the poor boy who fails heroically to escape while still cocooned in his sleeping bag suffers one of most hilarious deaths in any movie ever.
The sight of the bear was enough for writer David Seltzer to give up on the film mid-shoot, and Frankenheimer, in the full grip of alcoholism, never manages to wrestle the film back from its amateurish beast. Presumably, an overly exuberant atmosphere wouldn’t have chimed with the film’s noble ideals about capitalist exploitation and the continued contemporary treatment of indigenous peoples – although what passes for progressive here is almost as laughable as poor, benighted Katahdin (Arthur Hiller’s Nightwing, released the same year is much more successful in its depiction). Unfortunately, the films fails to square that circle. It lacks the resources of a high-end monster movie, but takes itself too seriously to be an enjoyable schlock-fest.
There are frustrating moments of near-excellence. Frankenheimer may have been something of a journeyman, but he was a superb filmmaker, and one almost wordless scene of drawn-out suspense where we can only hear the bear is brilliantly done. There are also frequent shots of real artistry and an unusually full-throttle orchestral score for a low-budget genre flick. There will be many for whom the bruising disconnect between ideals and execution is all part of some considerable charm. You could almost recommend it just for the sleeping bag kill on its own. But it could – and should – have been so much better.
Available on Blu-ray from Mon 16 Aug 2021