Prophecy: A Monster Movie that Needed a Better Monster

John Frankenheimer’s 1979 environmental horror movie comes to Blu-ray, flaws and all. Brace yourself.

The 1979 film Prophecy (not to be confused with 1995’s Biblical horror movie The Prophecy) was very much the last gasp of the 1970s boom in ecologically tinged genre movies. It was a string of titles that included No Blade of Grass (1970), Silent Running (1972) and Soylent Green (1973), but leaned especially heavily on the “nature strikes back” subgenre, which gave us such offerings as Frogs (1972), Night of the Lepus (1972), Bug (1975), The Food of the Gods (1976), Day of the Animals (1977) and other, often low-budget quasi-exploitation quickies.

Prophecy on its face seemed to have more going for it. The director was John Frankenheimer, the man behind masterworks like The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, and Seconds, while the writer was David Seltzer, fresh off his horror classic The Omen. Paramount sunk $12 million into the film, which starred Robert Foxworth (Damien: Omen II) and Talia Shire (Rocky) as a doctor and his wife who journey into logging country on behalf of the EPA and learn that a local paper mill is polluting the waterways and turning the wildlife into mutants–including one very large abomination that is killing everyone who gets in its path.

Pollution and the environment were then, as now, very much a topic of conversation, and this movie was intended to make no bones about its message. Foxworth and Shire were joined by the veteran character actor Richard Dysart (The Thing) as the head of the mill, along with Armand Assante and Victoria Racimo as representatives of the local Native American tribe, who know what the mill has been doing but are themselves blamed for the deaths of several loggers.

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Yet despite the talent involved in front of and behind the camera, Prophecy–which is out this week for the first time on Blu-ray thanks to Scream Factory–ended up becoming one of the most derided movies of its time, not least by David Seltzer himself, whom Den of Geek talked with about the film while doing an interview for another recent Scream Factory release, The Omen Collection.

“It’s a terrible movie,” says Seltzer candidly. “No, it really sucks. As a matter of fact, I really would like to have that remade, it’s something on my bucket list to do because I think the book [Seltzer’s novelization of his script] is better than The Omen. Frankenheimer–this is not telling tales on a dead man–actually admitted to many people that he was drunk throughout this movie.”

Frankenheimer, one of cinema’s best pure craftsmen, did indeed reveal to biographer Charles Champlin that he was in the throes of alcoholism while making Prophecy. But perhaps the biggest failing of the film is the creature that is the centerpiece of the movie. As envisioned by Seltzer in his script, the thing was supposed to be a hideous mash-up of every step of evolution, from fish to bird to mammal and all stops along the way. What showed up on camera looked more like a half-skinned bear, with one side of its head vaguely resembling a pig (its offspring didn’t fare much better).

On screen, the whole thing was clearly a tall man stomping around in what was mostly a bear costume, a tremendous disappointment for a film marketed as “The Monster Movie” (ironically, Foxworth says in one of the Blu-ray’s bonus interviews that the director forbade the use of the word “monster” on set). “I was on that set, I’d even taken my kids to Vancouver, and I saw everything falling apart,” recalls Seltzer. “When that monster showed up and was nothing but some big ballet dancer wearing huge shoes and a bear costume. I said ‘That’s it,’ to my kids, ‘We’re going home.’ That movie does not hold up.”

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A fresh look at the movie–which gets the usual pristine treatment on the Scream Factory disc–doesn’t quite jibe with Seltzer’s negative recollections of it. Make no mistake, Prophecy is not a very good film; but even dealing with his personal issues, Frankenheimer brings a certain level of professionalism to the proceedings, especially before the monster shows up. The set-up of the conflict between the mill and the tribe, with Foxworth in the middle, is clearly and efficiently developed, as is the unspoken tension between Foxworth and Shire, whose character is pregnant but worried about letting her husband know. The cast as a whole is quite strong, with Assante and Racimo as standouts.

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Aside from the rather ludicrous monster itself, the film is best remembered for a scene in which the creature hurls a little boy in a sleeping bag against a boulder, with the sleeping bag exploding in a cloud of feathers. Depending on your viewpoint, the scene is either shocking or a hoot, as are the rest of the sequences in which the monster rips apart most of the cast in an extended third act chase through the forest. Yet, strangely, Frankenheimer, who was often so good at generating suspense just from two people standing in a room, can’t quite deliver the scares from a monster rampaging in a dark forest.

Prophecy managed to do okay at the box office, even if it didn’t quite turn a profit, but it was easily overshadowed in the summer of 1979 by Alien, which was the real monster movie of that year and perhaps even that decade. While clearly struggling to mix its creature feature thrills and ecological warning in a seamless manner, the movie unashamedly promotes its themes in the unique way that the sci-fi and horror of that era often somehow managed to do. Even as it struggled to articulate itself, Prophecy did at least try to have something to say.

Prophecy is out now on Blu-ray.

Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye