Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Everything But The Kitchen Sink
I’m always happy to launch into a defense of the films of John Frankenheimer and I hope that one day some theater in this town does a full retrospective combining his classics with some of the lesser-known, but still worthy, efforts. But even though it’s not a total washout I freely admit that I can’t come up with much of an argument in favor of PROPHECY, his big-budget horror film that was a major release from Paramount in June 1979. I’m not sure if it’s a case of just a bad idea, or an idea that was done badly but it feels like an effort where, for the most part, his best instincts seem to have failed him. Maybe he took it for the cash, maybe he was trying to go for a big commercial hit but the impression is that he had no real affinity for this genre and material. Whatever the answer, the New Beverly screened it at midnight recently for those who were curious and surprisingly, the turnout of horror fans was actually pretty good. PROPHECY actually got a decent crowd! Who knew? The print screened was of a relatively recent vintage, struck in 2001 and when I was told this I couldn’t help but wonder ‘why?’ but hey, I was there, so who was I to question anything?
Dr. Robert Verne (Robert Foxworth), feeling unsatisfied with the futility of treating the tenement denizens of the D.C. slums (just about the fakest such slums ever seen in a movie), takes an assignment with the EPA to observe and report on a logging operation up in Maine that is currently embroiled in a dispute with the local Indians. His wife Maggie (Talia Shire) who has recently learned of her pregnancy accompanies him and is hesitant to tell her husband she wants the baby because she knows he is dead set against having children. They soon find themselves in the middle of this struggle between the two sides with the Indians led by John Hawks (Armand Assante) and Dr. Verne soon suspects that there is more to what’s going on than he’s being told by paper mill director Bethel Isely (Richard Dysart), particularly chemicals found in the water (so maybe Maggie eating that fish was a bad idea). But all that is dwarfed by talk of “one of their legends,” Katahdin, who the Indians describe as a spirit who may have been awakened to protect them. Katahdin is a hideous creature that is described as being “larger than a dragon and got the eyes of a cat,” but let’s just say that if you like the phrase “mutant killer bear” then this movie is for you.
Written by David Seltzer (THE OMEN), PROPECY is slow to the point of almost being hypnotic in the early-going and is also an oddly-paced, lopsided narrative which gives the impression that someone in charge (I’m going with the director more than the script) didn’t feel the need to follow the playbook of what is required from the horror genre. This would be fine if it could be defended more on a serious level but there always feels like something is missing from the narrative whether it’s a plot that makes sense or just something that had more of an awareness of the story that was being told. After a moody, well-done prologue which features none of the main characters a surprising amount of grim narrative goes by before the horror we’re expecting begins to occur, instead focusing on the conflict between the paper mill and the Indians as Foxworth investigates what is going on. True, this does result in a chainsaw-axe showdown and while we know what this film is building to because we know what the film is, it still seems like a long time for the movie to try to convince us that it’s actually about environmental issues. Frankenheimer’s craft always shows through but so does his lack of affinity for the genre and too much of the time it feels like he’s missing the chance to explore what should be disturbing, like the various things which turn out to be wrong with the landscape and the creatures who inhabit it. When the big revelation about how the water might affect Maggie happens it feels like it’s taking way too long to make the point (“It corrupts the fetus to the point where it gives birth to a monster.”), almost confusing what should be a simple revelation to get across, something that could actually be used to describe much of the film. It’s soon after this point during a rather notorious scene involving a sleeping bag (the New Beverly audience exploded at this) that the horror element finally comes to life, leading to much of what’s being debated by the characters totally forgotten about and the effort to get away is all that matters. Is anything about the human drama at all resolved when we hit the final shot? Could what the final shot shows be representative of how little is resolved or is that just a total reach?
Some of it does wind up being effective—the mutated baby bears are fairly disturbing, for one thing (hey, you put those things under your coat, I’m not gonna) and some of Frankenheimer’s filmmaking intelligence comes through like how a giant helicopter establishing shot winds up helping movie the story along. And easily the best scene in the movie is upon the first major attack of the, um, mutant killer bear (mostly shown in fast cutting that never quite works) on the lead characters leading to them seeking shelter in a nearby cave which culminates on a seemingly endless series of close-ups and medium shots as everyone, in a state of complete terror, listens to everything the creature is doing above them. As they exchange looks with each other these fairly static interpersonal relationships somehow manage to pay off and as it cloaks us in this oppressive chill that we feel from this onslaught of imagery for the first time in the film we can completely feel the presence of its director. For just a few moments, it’s as if he’s able to tap into what is actually able to scare us. This is achieved in a movie that is ultimately about a mutant killer bear. PROPHECY is an odd effort by a terrific director that isn’t as weird as it probably should be but, more importantly and horror never really goes together in a way that makes it feel complete. Coming during a problematic stage in his career (two years after BLACK SUNDAY) it’s not the waterloo of his career like some may think—I can honestly appreciate why all these people turned out late on a Friday night—but it’s still pretty problematic.
In the middle of all this, Foxworth, Shire and Assante seem to be playing every single line of dialogue with the utmost seriousness, with Shire in particular seeming to think that she might be nominated for an Oscar for this thing. Foxworth’s big beard and hair always makes me think of the look James Brolin had in THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, released the same year. I guess this look was just more common at the time, but it seems fitting for 70s male leads in horror movies. As Assante’s wife, the intriguing Victoria Rasimo winds up doing more with just a few glances than anything the script ever bothers to give her. Richard Dysart winds up giving the most ingratiating performance finding subtext that might not be there on the page, interesting because he’s more or less the villain of the piece, and between this film, BEING THERE and THE THING he has to be one of the most underrated character actors of the period, though I suppose even by me he’ll always be remembered as Leland MacKenzie on L.A. LAW. Frankenheimer’s wife Evans Evans appears as a fellow concert cellist who gives advice to Shire early on. The score by Leonard Rosenmann doesn’t work at all, providing majesty where there should be mystery, almost giving the impression that no one told the composer what kind of film this was. I’ll be charitable and say that he was always an acquired taste, particularly in his genre work. I mean, really, have you ever heard the theme to ROBOCOP 2? I like his score for THE CAR, though.
Even taking another look at it now, I find myself wondering, is this good or bad? It winds up feeling kind of muddled, which is as much of an answer that I suppose is needed. There feels like there’s a valid idea for a movie somewhere in here—not just in using the treatment of the Indians as a metaphor for the rise of a strange creature, but in just a straight-ahead horror film as well. But something in the idea seems to have been lost along the way, whether it was in the script or in Frankenheimer’s approach to the concept. But ultimately if you can’t find any enjoyment in a mutant killer bear then I don’t know what to tell you. There are scattered titles in the directors’s filmography that really deserve to be better known. PROPHECY isn’t necessarily one of them but its own insistence at going against the grain of what would be expected from this sort of film still makes it at least a little interesting.