Youtube Film Club: Prophecy (1979)

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This is another in our “a bit dull 70s cinema” season, following on from “The Last Wave”, the first Captain America movie, “Doctor Strange”, and a few others so dull they’ve slipped through the cracks in my mind. Like “The Last Wave” and its director Peter Weir, this has another heavy hitter at the helm – John Frankenheimer, who’s given us such classics as “Seconds” and “The Manchurian Candidate”. Perhaps Monday night movie club is a bad place for these slow, deliberate, cerebral thrillers? Or maybe they’re just rubbish? Read on and find out.

This asks a question that it, unfortunately, never answers – “what is that prophecy?” It feels a little like they were just randomly handing out titles to scripts and picked that word for this movie, although it does have Native Americans in it, they don’t seem to bust out any prophecies. Or maybe they do, and I might have missed it, although I can say without fear of correction that a prophecy doesn’t play much of a role. The movie is based in part on a real-life environmental disaster in Japan in 1956, where the Chisso Corporation dumped tons of mercury in the bay outside the town of Minamata, which got into the food supply via fish, and caused thousands of deaths and untold amounts of neurological damage to local people and animals (the damage to cats being so severe it was known as “dancing cat disease” for a time). If you didn’t already hate Chisso, they actually hired yakuza thugs to threaten local whistleblowers, and they also severely beat an American photojournalist. Compared to those bastards, the villains in this movie are pretty tame.

 

Rob is a doctor, looking after the poor slum-dwellers in a modern inner-city. 11 people share one room, that sort of thing, but he’s not liberal as much as he’s just pig-headed. He doesn’t seem to care for these people all that much, which is an odd way to play the character, but it works. His wife Maggie is a concert cellist and is afraid to tell him she’s pregnant, because she thinks he’ll demand she get an abortion – because there’s already too many people and the world is going to hell.

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Anyway, for absolutely no reason at all that I can figure, he’s asked to go to some remote town in the New England area to do some environmental research. A logging company is moving into land which Natives have long considered theirs, and not only that but the natives are complaining that they’re causing some sort of environmental problem too. So there’s John Hawks, the guy who’s stopping the logging company from getting onto “his” land, and Isely, the head logger, too, and…

 

Well, I’ve already given away my opinion of “Prophecy” in the first sentence, so there’s not a lot of dramatic tension to reveal. Much like this movie! The promotional literature talks about a giant mutated killer bear, and that creature is indeed a lot of fun when it shows up, but it doesn’t really appear on screen until way past the half-way mark, which is way too late. So many movies from the 70s seemed to treat the first hour as an inconvenience to be gotten past, and I’ve got no idea why. One particularly egregious example of them twiddling their thumbs til the monster shows up is how we see Rob listening to a tape of himself speaking about the environment, then Maggie listens to it as well. I mean, could you not think of anything better? Or just have the movie be shorter?

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The environmental message is sort of interesting, although it’s completely obvious how it’ll all end up (even for those of you who didn’t know the story of Chisso, above); but there’s zero tension between husband and wife, as he seems like a completely reasonable guy who’s just trying to do his job and give his wife a nice wilderness holiday. There’s not enough stuff in the movie, honestly. When you realise that they ate fish caught from the lake, and Maggie is pregnant, that provides some decent tension, but when Maggie seems to adopt a weird half-dead mutant bear baby, all that nuance is forgotten.

 

Which is a shame, as Frankenheimer could be a great director, but I get the feeling he chose this as part of a more widespread late 70s turn towards genre stuff (“Alien” came out at almost the same time) and didn’t really understand monster movies or what made them good. Writer David Seltzer also gave us “The Omen”, a dreadfully overrated piece of tosh itself, and if I’d remembered that before I watched this I’d perhaps have expected less. They certainly hired some decent actors, though – Robert Foxworthy and Talia Shire are Rob and Maggie, and Armand Assante adds “native American” to the list of different ethnicities he’s played.

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A lot of people seem to like this movie, and if I’d seen it when it was first released my opinion might be different, too. But it’s a pale shadow, both of the director’s best work and of the onslaught of fantastic cinema in the late 70s, and perhaps ought to be allowed to sink back into obscurity.

 

Rating: thumbs down

 

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