"Out there is a mindless, merciless creature of destruction. She will find you."
An EPA investigator and his girlfriend discover that a Native American reserve in Maine has been poisoned over the years by an unscrupulous paper mill owner allowing mercury to escape into the river system. As the mercury has filtered up through the food chain, it has created a mutant grizzly bear that kills everything in its path.
Another late 70s film to tap into the killer animal sub-genre with a serious ecological message at its heart, Prophecy comes from the writer of The Omen and the director of The Manchurian Candidate but there’s not a hint of any of the greatness involved here. Maybe it’s because big time directors such as John Frankenheimer just don’t ‘get’ horror films. Maybe they feel that they’re below them once they’ve achieved success. Maybe they feel because they’ve got a good resume under their belts, they’d work well in the genre. Or maybe, just maybe, a film about a mutated killer grizzly bear isn’t the sort of film for an acclaimed director such as Frankenheimer to consider helming. Besides, the killer bear flick had already been back in 1976 with Grizzly. Surely there wasn’t a demand for more killer bear horror films?
Prophecy is the kind of film that would find a home on Sy Fy nowadays. But thankfully, it was made back in 1979 and so it’s gritty low budget trappings are all on display. There are no CGI shortcuts, no teen leading roles and no sugar-coated schmaltzy ending. In fact, the film is anything but sugar-coated. Prophecy is heavy-handed when it comes to sending its main messages - not only are environmental disasters top of the bill but the film ticks off things such as Native American land rights issues, unwanted pregnancies and more. I’m sure they’ll be a protest message in there somewhere which suits an agenda close to your own heart! In the midst of all of this banner-waving righteousness, there is a monster movie somewhere and it’s something the first half of the film tends to forget, which would have alienated the majority of its potential horror audience. Every so often there’ll be a random death or some mention of an incident but you’d be hard-pressed to connect everything together if you hadn’t already read the synopsis and realised that it was a giant mutated killer bear on the loose. Foreshadowing what is to come isn’t the same as building up some tension and throw in a few thrills along the way.
Prophecy takes it’s time to get going (and I mean takes its time!) but once the bear finally starts tearing people apart, the film goes into awesome cheesy B-movie territory. This is where the film plays to its limited strengths and starts to deliver on its original premise. The pace picks up significantly as a group of the characters all converge in the woods through various means and the bear starts hunting them down and killing them off. It’s not very gory (it only received a PG rating in America upon its initial release) but I read that a lot of the blood was cut before release, which is a shame. Playing to genre tropes in a film like this is a necessity, not a luxury.
I’ve read a lot of criticism about the mutant bear and yes, the effects for it are atrocious. But you know what? I actually didn’t mind it in this instance. I’m guessing there is a giant prop bear in there somewhere and also a guy-in-a-suit for whenever the situation dictates a certain special effect. The bear looks like someone left a wax costume in front of a radiator for a few hours – a gloopy mess of melted distortion which has been turned inside out by mercury poisoning. The bear looks stupid but frightening in equal measure, more so due to its height. It’s also in a constant bad mood, roaring and crying out loud as it looks for fresh meat. And fresh meat it does find. Thankfully, Prophecy's talky first half sets up plenty of potential snacks for the bear as it makes more frequent appearances on screen – even kids aren’t spared, in the film’s most memorable death scene involving a sleeping bag.
Talia Shire, riding a crest of a wave with appearances in both Rocky and The Godfather, stars and is ok at doing what she does best – generate sympathy for her character. In fact, she spends the majority of the running time crying or looking like she’s about to cry. Robert Foxworth is also decent enough as the male lead though the two together are hardly riveting screen presences. It’s up to the supporting players to add some more dynamism to the film. Richard Dysart provides the requisite evil corporate type in charge of the paper mill whilst Armand Assante, miscast as a Native American, still manages to generate some life into the script. In the end though, human characters in this type are film are monster chow and so the ability to bring a character to life in limited dialogue is a tough ask. The cast do more than an adequate job in this regard, albeit they did have plenty of time in the talky first half. Arguably the film’s most intense scene involves an early square-off between the Native landowners and the lumberjacks with the killer bear nowhere in sight, with all of the actors involved doing a good job of conveying the anger and frustration from both sides.
Prophecy is a goofy 70s killer monster movie which has its fun moments, but you’ll have to slog through plenty of dross in order to get to them. The results are cheesy and probably not as good as you’d hope they would be. Still, the sight of a giant mutated killer bear charging through the woods has never been more realistic.
Director(s): John Frankenheimer
Writer(s): David Seltzer
Actor(s): Talia Shire, Robert Foxworth, Armand Assante, Richard Dysart, Victoria Racimo, George Clutesi
Duration: 102 mins