I like watching bad movies. A fact that should come as no surprise whatsoever to long time readers of this blog. (And to the newcomer, welcome!) Sometimes I enjoy watching bad movies more than I enjoy watching good movies... and sometimes not. The reason being that (some) bad movies are far more entertaining than some good movies are. It is not something that can be described or explained to those that do not share a similar taste in questionable entertainment. All I can say is that sometimes, when I see some particularly tacky DVD cover art, or a particular name is listed in the credits, I just have to sit down and watch it:
"A pregnant animal ingests the fish and it [methyl mercury] corrupts the fetus until it [the pregnant animal] gives birth to a monster..."
After a land dispute between a paper company and "a couple of [Native American] tribes in Maine" becomes violent (lumberjacks and search parties both have gone missing in the forest) the matter becomes politically deadlocked; because nobody wants to rule on the legalities of who actually owns the disputed land. An Environmental Impact Report is thought to be an easy "out" for the decision makers. If a positive report is filed, then the paper company will be allowed to start cutting down trees in the region. But if a negative report is filed, the paper company will be "forced" to withdraw from the area. A negative report would also be a nice and sleazy way to keep the Native American tribes claims of legal ownership of the land unaddressed and unresolved. (The movie tries to make a negative report sound like some kind of "win" for the Native American tribes, but it really isn't.*)
The EPA sends in Dr. Robert Verne (Robert Foxworth) to investigate the matter. Verne quickly learns that his boss wasn't engaging in descriptive hyperbole when he told Verne that everybody involved in the land dispute were ready to kill each other. Verne and his wife, Maggie (a top-billed Talia Shire, who is given nothing whatsoever to do in the film, outside of a woefully underdeveloped sub-plot involving an unexpected pregnancy), witness a violent fight between an axe wielding Native American named John Hawks (Armand Assante) and a chainsaw swinging lumberjack (stuntman/actor Everett Creach) a short while after they arrive in Maine.
Bethel Isely (Richard Dysart), the paper company's representative, dismisses the fight as nothing more than violence caused by drunken Native Americans. "These are violent people Mr. Verne," Isely explains. "They get drunk and they get violent." But Verne, while angered and shaken by the fight, is not quick to accept Isely's side of the argument.
Hawks tells Verne that nothing could be further from the truth. That there is something mangling the local environment. "My people are violently ill," he says to Verne. "They are beginning to lose their faculties. They stagger, they fall, and this has nothing to do with alcohol." Ramona (Victoria Racimo), an associate of Hawks, also points out that there are a great many children being born with severe deformities.
Which is the point where the mythical beast Katahdin, a creature mentioned in passing by Isely earlier in the film, steps into the story's foreground. Hector M'Rai, an elderly shaman, tells Maggie that Katahdin is a creature that "bears a mark of each of God's creatures"** and that it has "wakened to protect us [the Native American people]."
Neither Dr. Verne or his wife Maggie think much of the Katahdin legend, at first. But then the good doctor figures out that the paper mill has been using methyl mercury to treat its lumber and that the local river is probably saturated with the toxic chemical. Methyl mercury poisoning not only causes brain damage (making people appear drunk or clumsy) but it can also cause severe birth defects.
And it has contaminated the entire forest...
You know what would have been bad ass? If the monster in Prophecy had actually looked like the mutated hell beast promised in the film's delightfully lurid advertisements (see the above poster, or watch this trailer) and described in loving detail (as having large, saucer-like eyes, membranous-wings, scales, etc.) by screenwriter David Seltzer in his bestselling novelization of the film.
Instead, after spending almost an hour building up a monster rumored to be "as large as a dragon" and that had "the eyes of a cat", not to mention assorted stuff like gills, webbed feet and claws, etc, the monster Katahdin turned out to look like this:
A giant, mutated bear-sausage looking thing. What an incredible disappointment. It looks like someone coated one side of Yogi Bear with used chewing gum.
Although film critic and former Creature Features host John Stanley was talking about a completely different film*** when he commented that "if you excite an audience's expectation for a monster, you'd better pay off," the criticism applies to Prophecy. What is even more frustrating is learning that, via an interview with special effects creator Thomas R. Burman, the man tasked with creating the mutated bear-sausage for the film, the original Katahdin design was much closer to what was on the film's poster and described in Seltzer's novelization than what eventually wound up in the film. Evidently director John Frankenheimer wanted something that looked more "bear-like" and less like the fantastical, and over-the-top, monster described in David Seltzer's script.
I'm guessing that Frankenheimer, who was less than happy with the final film, and more than happy to discuss just how professionally humiliated he was by Prophecy's critical and artistic failure, wanted something a bit more "realistic" looking. While he was arguably aiming for realism, what Frankenheimer actually achieved was an almost delirious level of ridiculousness. I know that Frankenheimer loved to place the blame for the film's many failures and flaws on his alcoholism, but Prophecy is also a fine example of how the older generation of filmmakers got washed away by the likes of Jaws (1975), Halloween (1978), and Alien (1979).
Like Irwin Allen's Production of The Swarm, which came out in 1978, Prophecy is the work of a director that did not recognize, understand, or accept, the changes that were sweeping through genre cinema at the time. Rather than treat the material with anything close to intelligence or respect, as Ridley Scott did with Alien, Frankenheimer instead handles the film as if it were nothing more than a 1950s era "Big Bug" programmer fated to be dumped into local drive-ins and grindhouses.
Instead of trying to shoot or edit around the film's obviously cumbersome and clumsy bear costumes (there are countless shots where the body of the performer wearing the monster suit can be easily seen moving beneath, pushing against, or tugging on the fabric of the ill-fitting costume) Frankenheimer smears the viewer's face in it. There are least three or four very well framed shots where Katahdin "runs" and it is obvious that the person wearing the atrocious looking costume does not have the foggiest idea of where he or she is going. So the terrifying beast Katahdin just kind of shuffles across the obvious film set, the fabric of the costume shaking and its almost comically over sized head bouncing ever so slightly atop its undersized body. Don't believe me? Look closely at how Katahdin shuffles and waddles and wags its arms at the "terrified" girl in this Classic Moment of Cinema.
So, why did this movie scare the ever living crap out of me when I was a kid? I kid you not, I literally could not get to sleep the night I first saw Prophecy. I lied in bed and tried to follow the advice on the poster. I didn't move. I tried not to breathe. I hoped that "she" would not find me.
Looking at the movie now, I wonder what the hell it was that scared me so bad. The movie is equal parts ridiculous and laughable. The director that made such cinematic classics as The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, and even Black Sunday (the one with the blimp, not the one with Barbara Steele) is completely and utterly absent from this movie. Yet, whenever I watch it, a big grin spreads across my face and I find myself wanting to curl up with a teddy bear that has been partially coated with used chewing gum.
Now that just sounds weird.
Film critic that hates the world rating: One and a half stars. It's bad, but not boring.
Chadzilla rating: Three stars. It's a fun bad movie to watch on your own, or with friends, but nothing above average.
* Then again, the impact report is just the MacGuffin that puts the characters on a collision course with the monster.
** Why a Native American shaman would make references to "God's creatures" and call the forest the "Garden of Eden" confuses me to no end.
*** Stanley was talking about the woefully underrated thriller Wolfen.