The Tomb of Terror: Prophecy (1979)
I think Frankenheimer knew the limitations of his monster, so in the second half of the film he tries to make up for it by keeping the action coming fast and furious. No sooner has Roger discovered the horrible pollutant in the water than we see a family get slaughtered by melty the bear. This campsite massacre is the best scene in the movie, and pretty harsh, too. The family is made up of a single father, his pre-teen daughter, and young son. All three meet their maker at the hands of the pissed off mutant. The little boy has the unfortunate situation of being zipped up in a sleeping bag when the attack begins. He gets up and tries to hop away, only to be smacked across the face by a bear paw. This hit sends him flying about 20 feet across the campsite and right into a large rock. On impact his sleeping bag explodes into a flurry of feathers. It’s even better than it sounds. This scene did everything a good horror film death scene should. It shocked me, made me laugh, and then made me realize that I had no idea what the rest of the movie had in store. It’s rare enough to see a horror film willing to off a kid, but this one took out two in one scene! How this movie got a PG rating is beyond me. It is easily the most violent PG movie ever made.
Soon after, Roger, Maggie, and Isley find themselves trapped in the woods along with some of the tribe members. While investigating the campsite massacre, a storm rolls in that makes it too dangerous for the helicopter that brought them there to take off. It isn’t long before the pissed off bear finds them hiding out in one of the native campsites. The group tries everything they can: hiding in tents; hiding in underground tunnels; escaping in an abandoned logging truck. None of it keeps them too far ahead of the unstoppable beast. If you’re willing to look past the monster costume and go for the ride, these final action scenes will be a blast. The film only missteps during this section when the characters do one of the dumbest things I’ve seen in a film recently. After making their way across a lake, they look back to see the mutated bear following after them. But instead of running they just stare at it. When it disappears underwater they happily exclaim, “It’s drowned!” When bubbles start coming to the surface and heading for them, they continue to stare. They really must’ve been confused because I would’ve been out of there as soon as the thing got in the water. If I did for some reason think going in over your head equaled drowning then I definitely wouldn’t wait around to see what’s causing those bubbles.
This is one of the few times that the script from David Seltzer really disappoints. At this point in time Seltzer was known for writing The Omen (1976), but he would later go on to write and direct Lucas, the best 80s coming of age movie not made by John Hughes. Some have accused Prophecy of being a liberal soapbox about the dangers of pollution. I think that having a theme to a film is never a bad thing and that Seltzer’s script actually does a good job of showing many sides to an argument. When Roger visits the tribe elder for the first time, he questions why the natives need so much land. He’s seen an entire family squeezed into one tiny room in the city, so why should the tribe be entitled to an entire forest? Later, as he’s investigating the paper mill, Roger asks Isley why he needs to level an entire forest. “How many pages will your report on this mill be?” Isley asks. “100 pages? How many copies will be made? Where will you get all that paper if not from us?” It’s a good question that most movies wouldn’t bother to ask, so they could keep their villains unequivocally evil.
In the midst of these engaging conversations, the script does manage to drop the ball on one big subplot. Once it’s discovered that there is a pollutant in the water, Roger concludes that a pregnant animal must have eaten a toxic fish, which caused a mutation in its baby. This is when Maggie reveals that not only is she pregnant, but she ate some of the fish that Roger caught from the polluted water. The question of abortion is brought up, but Maggie won’t do it. She wants to have Roger’s baby. This is a great dramatic set-up. Will Maggie end up going through with the pregnancy? Will her baby be a mutated monster? The movie doesn’t have time for such questions. Instead, the pregnancy is brushed aside in favor of action and never referenced again. I can’t think of another film that left a subplot which affects a main character this much unresolved. To add insult to injury, in place of closure to the pregnancy story we get an all too familiar “shock” ending.
The actors do a decent enough job with the material. Talia Shire was never the greatest actress in the world; in fact, it seemed that she got most of her parts by being Francis Ford Coppola’s sister more than anything else. She plays most of her part in hysterics, something we’ve seen her do many times before and since. Robert Foxworth is bland as the male lead, but bland is always better than bad so you can give him that. The best performance comes from Richard Dysart as Mr. Isley. He brings some emotion to a character who you’re never sure you can trust. Armand Assante (Judge Dredd) is the Native American character we get to know the most. He manages to avoid a lot of the clichés the other actors playing his tribesmen succumb to, but still comes off two-dimensional.
Almost as soon as it was released, Prophecy was seen as a turkey. Look in most film reference books and it’ll be given 1 ½ stars or worse. John Frankenheimer fans place it at the bottom of his filmography alongside The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996). I don’t think the film deserves such a sorry fate. It isn’t the best “nature gone amok” film out there, but it’s also not Jaws: The Revenge. If you want something fun and a little cheesy, then this’ll be right up your alley. Honestly, what more can you expect from a film that’s tagline is “The Monster Movie”?
Final Grade: C+
Prophecy is available on DVD from Paramount Home Entertainment. As with most older titles from the Paramount library, the disk includes a handsome anamorphic widescreen transfer, but no bonus features. In the early days of DVD, Paramount at least included a trailer. Prophecy gets no such love. The disc was recently re-released with a slightly tweaked cover that still contains the same disappointing disc within.