Eco-horror is possibly one of the stranger off-shoots of a genre that’s pretty strange to begin with, that boasts a pantheon of various, wonky releases that had mutated wild animals ripping us disrespectful humans apart for our crimes against nature. These days we get such creepy features as Corin Hardy’s genuinely creepy The Hallow or Barry Levinson’s The Bay but back in the 70’s things where a little more B-Movie. In 1979, up stepped John Frankenheimer, no doubt emboldened by the release of Jaws in ’75, made Prophecy; a lushly budgeted horror film that took it’s cue from other, pulpier “angry nature” movies such as Food Of The Gods and Frogs (no, seriously) and tried to honestly make a ecological statement with a film that involves people getting violently dissected by a giant mutant bear that desperately tries not to admit to itself that… well… it’s a movie that’s about people getting violently dissected by a giant mutant bear…
Dr. Robert Vern feels like he’s beating his head against a wall in his current job of holding slumlords to task in urban slums but in order to affect some “lasting change” he accepts a job from the Environmental Protection Agency to write a report about a dispute between a logging operation and a Native American tribe in Maine. Bringing his wife Maggie along he’s met by Bethel, the garrulous and not-at-all shady director of the paper mill who immediately starts blaming all the combined native tribes (dubbed O.P’s for Original peoples), claiming they’re a violent troublemakers. The head of the O.P’s, John Hawks, claims otherwise but that doesn’t stop him getting into a provoked chainsaw vs. axe fight with a thuggish lumberjack the first time the Verns meet him, but as the film goes on it seems that something’s rotten in the state of Maine. The pollution from the local paper mill has been polluting the shit out of the area for over 20 years which has lead to some startling mutations within the local wildlife. Starting off with the Verns fending off a psychotic raccoon attack (Robert beats the fucking thing to death with an oar and then slings it into the roaring fireplace) and then encountering huge salmon and a tadpole the size of a bullfrog, these prove to be the least of everyone’s problems when it becomes apparent that a gargantuan, mutant, monster-bear has been stomping around tearing people into easily digestible strips.
The discovery of a lumpy, screeching, malformed bear cub that looks like something a 50-a-day smoker would hack up on a Sunday morning means that both Vern and Hawk have proof of the paper mill has been dumping mercury into the river but all the proof in the world isn’t going to help them if their chewed to mush and travelling through a giant bruin’s intestinal tract which is what precisely could happen the moment the mama mutant crashes their little proof party.
With a selection of people on both sides of the dispute trapped out in the woods with a bone crunching murder monster on the loose, can any of them hope to make it back to civilisation un-mauled to spread the word that our fucking of the environment is starting to violently fuck us back?
As intriguing as the idea is of watching an eco-friendly, killer bear movie from the director of The Manchurian Candidate, reality isn’t quite as kind. Frankenheimer plays the eco-message hard for the lion’s share of the run time, touching base with such weighty themes such the shocking poverty in predominantly black urban areas, the rape of the natural world by deforestation and the plight of displaced Native Americans but watching Prophecy in this day and age unfortunately means that a lot of these important issues are somewhat thwarted by it’s 1970’s thinking. For example, having Armand Assante play Native American John Haek despite being of Irish, Italian desent sort of misses the point, not to mention you have the term the “Indian” being slung around with reckless 70’s abandon.
However, it’s fairly refreshing that back then the casts for these kinds of movies were adults with adult problems; much like the fascinating side plot of Maggie (played by Mrs. Balboa herself, Talia Shire) afraid to tell her husband that she’s pregnant because he’d insist on an abortion and then freaking out because she’s eaten contaminated fish that could very well mutate her baby is unfortunately is never followed to it’s conclusion and is blunt dropped – or should that be aborted?
The cast is fairly starry with the aforementioned Armand Assante and Talia Shire being joined by The Thing’s Richard Dyshart and Robert Foxworth (famous for amongst other things, voicing Rachet in the Michael Bay Transformers movies) and despite the fact that Frankenheimer’s balance between drama and horror is way off the last act of Prophecy turns out to belatedly be a far better killer bear movie than the entirety of 1976’s Grizzly with thr director’s eye for glossy carnage coming to the fore as his carnivorous antagonist flips cars, caves in houses and, in one spectacular and unintentionally hilarious encounter, obliterates a child who attempts to hop away while still entombed in his sleeping bag by swatting him into a boulder with such force he virtually explodes in a huge puff of feathers. In fact, the whole final third is such an endearingly po-faced monster mash it almost makes you forget about the preachy, overlong slog to get there with such kick-ass moments as Vern hurling himself onto the bear with a mighty bellow like he’s fucking Thor or something in order to finish off the 20ft beast with an arrow head. The bear itself (named by the Native Americans for a creature from their folklore) is as rubbery as you’d expect but has a legitimately cool design with half of it’s naturally bear-face melting into lumpy, fleshy protrusions – in fact, long time South Park aficionados may find it strongly resembles Al Gore’s nemesis ManBearPig…
Wobbly tumour-bear aside, Prophecy ultimately suffers from it’s good intentions and it’s director’s efforts to panel-beat an A-movie experience out of B-movie material when he should’ve maybe tried to fly some of the most serious issues under the radar a little – but hey, points for trying, right?
However, those looking for a more straightforward creature feature may just have to “bear” with it a little while…