27 May 2024

Prophecy (1979)
Contributed by Caelum Vatnsdal

Armed only with a love of horror movies, twenty years of experience in the film industry, a low animal cunning and a name like two racks of Scrabble, Caelum Vatnsdal has been working tirelessly to improve the state and status of the spooky movie. Vatnsdal has produced and directed award-winning music videos, films and documentaries, including the Bigfoot movie There’s Something Out There (2007) and the recent rockumentary We're the Weakerthans, We're From Winnipeg (2010). He has collaborated extensively with director Guy Maddin, and is known in horror circles for his work with magazines such as Fangoria and Rue Morgue, and his acclaimed book They Came From Within: A History of Canadian Horror Cinema. His upcoming horror feature Ponk-Boy is currently in development.

John Frankenheimer’s 1979 environmental creature-feature Prophecy would be an important movie to me in any case, but its ascendancy to benchmark comes from being, as far as I can recall, the first movie I ever saw on VHS. (Other possible candidates for that honour include Popeye, The Elephant Man and Happy Birthday to Me, fine films all.)

This was in the days before my family owned a VCR of our own, so I saw it on my friend Dave’s recently purchased machine, a dual-component top-loader bought at Krazy Krazy’s Electronics Emporium on Empress Avenue in Winnipeg. Dave’s dad took us to Krazy Krazy’s, which also had a fair selection of movies, to claim some of the free rentals he’d got as a bonus for buying the very expensive machine.

Dave and I were given a chance to choose the film for that night, and there was no way we could resist the cover of Prophecy, with its grotesque, pug-nosed fetus creature and no-nonsense tag line, “The Monster Movie.” I remembered the image well from having been stopped in my tracks by it some years earlier when the picture had played my neighbourhood cinema.

Let this unassailable fact be shouted from the rooftops: Prophecy is not on anyone’s list of all-time greats. It might best be known for being made fun of by Stephen King in Danse Macabre in a way that makes you, or at least me, want to see it immediately. He good-naturedly lists everything wrong with the thing, from its goofy science to its bad special effects to its ill-disguised British Columbia locations (it is set in Maine, the counterfeiting of which was clearly a sore spot for King).

But King ultimately describes the experience of watching Prophecy as something like “settling into an easy chair and visiting with old friends.“ Strange friends they would be, but on this point I strongly agree with the Bloody Bard of Bangor.

The plot, briefly: An idealistic Washington DC public health doctor, played by Robert Foxworth is, for reasons bellowed loudly but still left obscure, sent to deal with a natives vs. paper mill territorial dispute in Maine.

The band’s complaint appears valid, or at least more valid than ersatz spokesindian Armand Assante does in his redman makeup; the paper mill people, represented by future Thingsman Richard Dysart, seem like smug jerks; but before too long, a monster, a deformed bear perhaps, busts onto the scene to back up Assante’s claims that the mill is dumping mercury in the water.

Foxworth, his teary-eyed (and ominously pregnant) wife Talia Shire and several others are trapped in the wilderness and chased by the enraged monster all the way to a remote island cabin. There, Foxworth must shed his city-boy doctor-baggin’ ways and stand up to the beast with nothing more than a bow and arrow to defend himself and his family.

Prophecy is a movie of highlights rather than sustained quality of any kind, and while I won’t mention all its noteworthy moments (the hideous baby mutants, a monster attack on a native village, the monster biting a guy’s head clean off, etc.), there is no way I can talk about Prophecy without bringing up the memorable campsite massacre scene. As a family dozes around their campfire, a massive form lunges out of the trees. It’s our friend, the giant rubber inside-out bear!

With the rest of his family seemingly wiped out in an instant, a kid, zipped up into his mummy-style sleeping bag, tries desperately to hop away from the rampaging creature only to be batted by its massive paw, hurtled through the air and slammed against a rock with such force that his bedroll explodes in feathers.

It’s an image which sums up Prophecy itself very neatly: goofy, hilarious and dumb as a box of dead crabs. And yet, the air filled with the roar of the monster, the flickering firelight and the bloodied goose down, also scary, memorable and somehow strangely beautiful.

It’s been thirty years since I first saw Prophecy, and I have never since been able to spend time in the woods without thinking about it, and dreading what might be out there.

So thanks, Prophecy. You don’t get much respect, but you did your job perfectly as far as I’m concerned.

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