The Tomb of Terror: Prophecy (1979)
Every Saturday night The Tomb of Terror opens, unleashing reviews of the obscure and the classic in horror cinema.
Prophecy (1979) is a monster movie. You know this because the poster reads: “Prophecy: The Monster Movie.” This might be one of the most ridiculous taglines ever. I don’t know anyone who was going to look at that drawing of a deformed embryo and think they were going to get “Prophecy: The Romantic Comedy.” But that’s not enough for Prophecy’s poster. It also has to throw in one of the longest taglines ever: “She Lives. Don’t Move. Don’t Breathe. There’s Nowhere To Run. She Will Find You.” The film itself has a lot in common with that poster. There’s a lot of talking, as you could probably tell from the paragraph-long first tagline. There’s a crazy looking monster that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen, as referenced by the monster embryo. And it’s a little cheesy, just like the second tagline that tells you this is in fact a monster movie.
The kind of movie that Prophecy is can be narrowed down even further from “monster movie.” It is, in fact, a “nature gone amok” film à la Jaws, Grizzly, or, more recently, Birdemic: Shock and Terror. As evidenced by these titles, a “nature gone amok” film features an animal or animals laying waste to the evil humans around them. Prophecy tries to do these films one better and create a new monster out of a familiar animal. But don’t worry animal vengeance lovers; there are a couple of normal critters gone wild represented to keep things officially NGA.
Before we can get to all that craziness though, we have to be introduced to our human heroes. They are represented by the husband and wife team of Maggie Verne (Talia Shire, Adrian from the Rocky series) and Dr. Robert Verne (Robert Foxworth, Damien: Omen II). Maggie is a concert violinist who is hiding her recent pregnancy from her husband. She worries what his reaction will be, since he’s always talking about how it’d be a crime to bring a child up in such a terrible world. Dr. Verne gets this attitude from his day job. In his first scene, we see him treating a baby who has been bitten by rats in a cramped ghetto home. He tries to make a difference in his patients’ lives, but is constantly reminded that even though he has a bleeding heart, he is also the little man on the totem pole.
A colleague of Robert’s gives him the chance to actually make a difference by sending him as a representative of the EPA to the wooded hills of Maine. A land dispute has broken out there between a paper mill and the local Native American tribe over what is to be done with the vast uncharted forests. The paper mill wants to log the timber so that it can continue its paper production. The natives have lived on the land their entire lives and want to continue to do so.
The bad blood between the loggers and the natives has gotten so bad that the first time we see them face off they immediately head into an axe vs. chainsaw duel. No one is hurt, it’s just a lot of macho posturing by both parties, but this encounter convinces Robert that he has to get this dispute settled quickly, before someone gets killed. The owner of the paper mill, Mr. Isley (Richard Dysart, John Carpenter’s The Thing), believes that things have already reached that point. A few loggers and the party that went searching for them have disappeared in the mountains. He’s convinced that the natives are responsible. The natives, on the other hand, believe that an ancient Sasquatch-type creature called Kataden is responsible for the disappearances. Roger speaks with a tribe elder who says that Kataden is angry with the loggers for desecrating the forest.
Roger doesn’t take much stock in either argument. There have been many strange happenings since he and Maggie arrived in town that can’t be explained by murderous locals or angry spirits. The first happens soon after they get to town. Roger takes in the outdoors with a good old bout of fishing. During this trip he witnesses a giant salmon pull a duck under the water and eat it. So giant killer salmon did it! Not so fast: there was also the incident with the raccoon. One night, Maggie was trying to tell Roger that she was pregnant, when a strange growling was heard from outside. The couple opened the door to discover a cute and cuddly raccoon. Only it wasn’t cute and cuddly! The raccoon attacked, pinning itself to shirts like it was a cheap stuffed puppet, until Roger was able to toss it into the fireplace. So rabid raccoons did it! Not so fast: the raccoon didn’t have rabies. There was something else amiss in the woods.
Scenes like those mentioned above are why Prophecy is different than a lot of “nature gone amok” films. It isn’t just a giant salmon or killer raccoon—it’s both and then some. We don’t get to the main monster of the film until nearly an hour in, so I guess these scenes were meant to keep things exciting. Unfortunately, both come off as silly and don’t really add anything to the film, because once the big beast is revealed the film forgets that other animals are going nuts too.
As soon as we see the main monster for the first time, Prophecy kicks into high gear. Roger discovers that something has been poisoning the water for years. This has caused damage to the ecosystem and resulted in horrible mutations such as the big fish. Of course, a large salmon isn’t the scariest thing, so the main monster has to up the ante. The best way to describe the beast is that it looks like a melted bear. I don’t know about you, but a giant bear is a scary enough concept. Add horrible disfigurements and a bad attitude and you have one fearsome monster.
At least that’s what I think director John Frankenheimer was going for. Before his passing in 2002, Frankenheimer was well known for his action direction in films such as Ronin and The French Connection 2. He also had at least one cinema classic under his belt with 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate. It seems that none of his skill or accomplishments could save him from the monster suit he was saddled with in this film. It looks decent enough in wide shots and close ups. The problem comes when you see it in frame with a person. Then, the illusion of this deformed nightmare is broken, as we see what is very obviously a man in a rubber suit with an immobile face running around the woods. It’s not the worst monster you’ll ever see, but it can be quite silly at times. It also doesn’t help seeing this film after watching the South Park episodes featuring Manbearpig. I think Trey Parker and Matt Stone were more than a little inspired by Prophecy when they came up with the character, and once you realize that it’s even harder to take it seriously.