The Aberrations aren’t likely to spawn sequels or inspire remakes. No one will mistake them for classics; their supporters are a silent minority. Yet there’s something interesting about them, something odd or provocative enough to warrant a bit of consideration.
Early on in John Frankenheimer’s 1979 film Prophecy, we find Dr. Robert Verne (Robert Foxworth) in a bleak tenement, tending to a rat-bitten child. A government bureaucrat recruits him to go to Maine, where a tense land dispute is escalating between loggers and Native Americans. The EPA hopes that Verne can write a report that will calm everyone down. Meanwhile, Verne’s wife Maggie (Talia Shire) is hiding her pregnancy from the embittered doctor.
The Vernes arrive in Maine, meet their logger escorts, and learn more about the local conflict. Loggers and rescue teams are disappearing, and the loggers blame the Natives. For their part, the Natives claim that a fierce spirit named Katahdin is responsible. The Vernes also witness a bit of violence firsthand, as the Native leader John Hawks (Armand Assante) tries to block the road to their cabin but is forced aside.
Soon the Vernes discover that something else is amiss in these Maine woods. A freakishly gigantic fish leaps up from the nearby lake; a mad (but not rabid) raccoon attacks them in their cabin; Hawks approaches them to claim that the Natives have been suffering birth defects. Upon inspecting the mill, Verne finds that the paper company has been dumping methylmercury into the waterways.
So what we have here is a horror movie with a social conscience. Its writer, David Seltzer, was inspired by the real-life tragedy in Minamata, Japan, in which thousands of people and animals were poisoned by methylmercury-laced industrial waste water over three decades. From inner-city poverty to racism to environmental destruction, Prophecy has a lot on its mind and offers legitimate grounds for outrage.
Unfortunately, Prophecy is also ludicrous and continually undermined by bizarre decisions. It opens with an unseen creature killing a rescue team. The camera lingers on the team’s bloody corpses to the classical strains of Maggie’s cello rehearsal. Why? Apparently someone in the editing booth thought juxtaposing beautiful music with the aftermath of a slaughter would be artful. Or something. That aforementioned confrontation between the loggers and the Natives on the road? It’s no mere fistfight but a silly axe-versus-chainsaw duel fit for a Chuck Norris movie. And when that mysterious creature reveals itself to attack a family of campers, Prophecy plows full-tilt into a wall of WTF.
Which brings us to Katahdin herself, and it turns out the Natives were half-right. Katahdin is indeed responsible for all those deaths in the woods, but she’s no spirit. She’s actually a big mutated mama bear. Sometimes she’s about the size of a normal bear, and sometimes she’s towering enough to rip the roof off a cabin. Either way, she always looks stiff and unconvincing, especially when tottering about on her hind legs. I, for one, thought her cubs were adorable, but I doubt that was Prophecy’s intent.
I don’t mean to make fun of the effects just because they’re dated or cheap-looking. I love Godzilla as much as anyone, and I’m usually happy to watch any monster movie starring a puppet or a guy in a rubber suit. I also know that Tom Burman, who did the effects here, has given us a career full of quality work.
But it takes a certain amount of magic for a filmmaker to properly sell that puppet or guy in a rubber suit. I think Spielberg pulled it off in Jaws. Ridley Scott pulled it off in Alien, which was released within a month of Prophecy. Likewise, Joe Dante and John Landis pulled it off in The Howling and An American Werewolf in London just two years later.
When that magic isn’t there, however, the sight of characters falling prey to a puppet or a guy in a rubber suit can be a recipe for comedy. Especially when the movie comes from a major director and studio, is high-minded, and takes itself so very seriously. In that sense, Prophecy is something of a companion piece to Nightwing, the now-forgotten 1979 killer-bat movie which also trafficked in Native-American mysticism, environmental degradation, and effects that were subpar even for their time. (Interestingly enough, Nightwing arrived in theaters just one week after Prophecy.)
Even so, it’s hard to hate a movie about a vengeful mutant bear. While I’m generally biased against remakes, there’s enough compelling material here that I wouldn’t mind seeing someone give it another try. Its social issues remain as relevant as ever, and upgraded effects in the right hands could make for a fun monster romp.
As for Frankenheimer, Prophecy marked the beginning of an alcohol-fueled slump in his storied career. He released a string of flops in the ’80s but rebounded in the ’90s with acclaimed fare like Andersonville and Ronin. In the midst of his revival, New Line hired him to salvage The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) partway into its disastrous shoot. His battles with Val Kilmer, and the inscrutable behavior of Marlon Brando, are the stuff of Hollywood legend. Moreau also featured a supporting cast of mutated animal-human characters and ended up being hilarious in its own right; it even merited its own amusing making-of documentary.
Although Moreau may have eclipsed Prophecy for the distinction of Most Notorious Movie About Mutated Animals Directed By John Frankenheimer, Katahdin will always come first in many (okay, some) of our hearts, and for good reason. Observe her form in that sleeping-bag scene. Her swing, her grit, her hustle. The way she plays the game. That is pure and natural talent, people. You can’t coach that.