In 1970s horror, nature ran amok. Everything goes in cycles, and that includes horror movies. It seemed like studios couldn’t get enough of stories involving wildlife attacking unsuspecting humans, but since the reason behind the attacks are man-made, we had it coming. There have been attacks by giant rats (Food of the Gods), bees (The Swarm), bugs (Bug), giant ants (Empire of the Ants), grizzlies (Grizzly), vultures and snakes (Day of the Animals); and then there is Prophecy, which could affectionately be described as “attack of the inside-out bears”.
Prophecy was a big-budget studio attempt at environmental horror. They hired stars Robert Foxworth, Talia Shire, Armand Assante and Richard Dysart and signed on acclaimed director John Frankenheimer and still wound up with a pile of dull, laughable swill.
Foxworth is Dr. Verne a liberal doctor in New York who treats the poor, and Shire is Maggie, his cellist wife. He gets assigned by the EPA to go to the Maine wilderness to help settle a dispute between the local Native Americans and a paper-mill company over land rights. Shire has recently found out she is pregnant, but has kept it a secret. Once they get to Maine, it becomes apparent that all is not hunky-dory in the forest, or the nearby lakes for that matter.
While fishing, Verne witnesses a gigantic salmon swallowing a duck, and sees what appears to be a tadpole the size of a head. After hearing stories from the local Native Americans (who are led to protesting the paper-mill by Assante, who is unable to convince us of his Native American-ness what with the barely concealed Spanish accent, but never mind) about a spirit-beast lurking in the woods, Foxworth puts two-and-two together to discern that the paper-mill is indeed responsible for polluting the lakes with ethyl mercury. Needless to say, nature is pissed.
All of this is a fine set-up for a good, if familiar, horror film, but Frankenheimer is just the wrong director for something like this. He treats this story with a deadly seriousness which proves fatal to its success. The reason? He has absolutely no idea about how to shoot a horror film. Scenes which are meant to be horrific end up becoming laughable (a man and two children being slaughtered by something in the woods ought to be terrifying but proves instead to be unintentional comedy), and the makeup effects of the menacing animals in the woods (the inside-out looking bears) leave a lot to be desired. The bears are just slime and blood and teeth, but mostly shrouded in darkness and filmed through heavy foliage to mask how ridiculous and unconvincing they look.
The screenplay doesn’t help, either. What are we to make of the use of a deformed baby inside-out bear? The baby bear is found squalling in a fishing net and Verne wants to keep the thing to show as proof of the pollution. So we get lots of shots of the baby bear and we have to hear its wet cries throughout (it looks and sounds like the baby-creature from David Lynch’s Eraserhead, only not scary). At one point, to save the baby, they actually hook it up to an I.V.(!?) The entire last half of the film has Verne and company, stupidly holding on to the baby bear while being stalked by mama though the wilderness, even though It’s pretty clear that if they simply left the cub alone they wouldn’t be in peril.
Prophecy is slow going indeed. It’s the kind of bad movie that either should’ve been better, or should’ve been a whole lot worse. Either way, the entertainment value would’ve increased immensely.