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  Prophecy Help, It's the Scare Bear Bunch!
Year: 1979
Director: John Frankenheimer
Stars: Talia Shire, Robert Foxworth, Richard Dysart, Armand Assante, Victoria Racimo, George Clutesi, Burke Byrnes, Mia Bendixson, Johnny Timko, Charles H. Gray, Tom McFadden, Graham Jarvis, Everett Creach
Genre: HorrorBuy from Amazon
Rating:  3 (from 3 votes)
Review: Something nasty lurks in the forests of Maine. A group of cliff-divers meet a grisly end alone in the dark. The sun rises on their disembowelled corpses. Environmental Protection Agency officer Dr. Robert Verne (Robert Foxworth) and his secretly pregnant wife Maggie (Talia Shire) swap inner city blight for the clean-living countryside, and wind up caught in the middle of a violent dispute between paper mill magnate Isley (Richard Dysart) and the local Indian population led by John Hawks (Armand Assante). The Indians claim the recent spate of freak deaths are the result of a mythical beast called Kitanden, while Isley is certain Hawks is responsible. With oversized fish in the river, Indian children contracting a strange illness, and wildlife seemingly going crazy, Robert is driven to investigate.

He discovers the paper mill is using mercury to soften the logs that lie in tributaries and the toxin has polluted the rivers, the fish and all who consume them, giving birth to mutant monstrosities. With Hawks arrested on suspicion of murder, Robert, Maggie and a group of investigators venture into the woods where they uncover a pair of grotesque mutant bear cubs. And on their trail is the real forest-dwelling killer, a hideous, enraged monster mama bear…

In 1979, a groundbreaking monster movie hit cinema screens and redefined terror for an entire generation. That movie was Alien (1979). Prophecy on the other hand was the sure-fire hit that never was. With a multimillion dollar budget, an A-list director in John Frankenheimer and David Seltzer, the then-hot screenwriter of The Omen (1976), on board you would expect something at least more arresting than schlock-horror tripe like Grizzly (1977). But no, Prophecy was an unmitigated failure and put Frankenheimer’s career on a downward spiral until, ironically, the unexpected box-office success of his other equally ropey horror flick: The Island of Doctor Moreau (1996).

No less an authority than Stephen King pegged this an over-inflated monster movie. In Danse Macabre, his critical analysis of horror, the author draws comparisons with Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and quite rightly finds the later film wanting. A better thematic comparison might be with Dawn of the Dead (1979), although where George A. Romero melds his social concerns with fast-paced action, Seltzer opts for sermonising. His monster bear becomes a metaphor for everything that’s wrong with the world in 1979: public apathy, pollution, social injustice, corporate greed. Obviously these are all very valid concerns and it’s disheartening how by the time mainstream Hollywood woke up such issues were falling out of style, with Reaganomics and “greed is good” narcissism on its way in. But the issues are mishandled and both Foxworth’s earnestly liberal hero and Seltzer’s subtle-as-a-sledgehammer scripting really start to grate. Robert and Maggie are so earnest, so sensitive, they’re joyless and frankly, hard to bear. Even Maggie’s mournful cello playing winds up symbolic of a weeping, wounded Earth. For crying out loud…

A supposedly crucial subplot has Maggie, who has unwittingly eaten mercury-tainted fish, horrified she may birth a mutant child. But the whole idea is dropped as messily as Seltzer resolves the ideological conflicts embodied by Isley and Hawks by making everyone monster fodder. At least both men go out trying to do something heroic, in an attempt to stave off accusations of stereotyping - which the film does anyway when a wise old Indian mystic stupidly offers himself to pacify the beast. It doesn’t work.

The lumbering, inside-out mutant bear is a disappointment, less convincing than many unjustly maligned Japanese monster suits. However, the deformed bear cubs created by Thomas Burman are truly unsettling, their shock discovery enhanced by some freaky sound effects. Frankenheimer starts things well with an eerie intro, but subsequent monster attacks are slapdash, including some unforgettably silly sequences involving a killer raccoon and a little boy trapped inside his sleeping bag. The latter became a near-legendary example of unintentional humour as the poor kid feebly tries to hop away from the monster, then when bashed against a rock inexplicably explodes in a shower of feathers. If you’ll forgive the pun, these scenes bear little resemblance to the razor-sharp set-pieces Frankenheimer was famous for, although Robert’s whirling, blood-splattered battle with the monster is quite strong (despite his rather girly battle cry). There is one creepy sequence with survivors hidden in an underground tunnel listening to the monster eating its victims, until somebody pops his head out to see if the coast is clear. And of course, this being made in the wake of Carrie (1976), Frankenheimer includes a final jack-in-the-box shock that merely heightens the hilarity.

Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam

 

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John Frankenheimer  (1930 - 2002)

American director, from television, who really shone in the sixties with intelligent suspense movies and dramas like Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate, The Train, Seven Days in May, Seconds and Grand Prix, but lost his touch from the seventies onward, with titles like The Iceman Cometh, 99 and 44/100% Dead, Black Sunday, Prophecy, The Holcroft Covenant, 52 Pick-Up, Dead Bang and The Island of Dr Moreau standing out, not always for the right reasons. Thriller Ronin was his swan song.

 
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