We just passed the anniversary of the venerated, original summer blockbuster; JAWS. Steven Speilberg’s adaptation of Peter Benchley’s best selling summer read of 1974, became the movie to see the following year. And JAWS has since gone on to be the movie to beat going forward. It enabled 20th Century Fox to fund George Lucas’s Star Wars, and this trend has continued over the decades. You could say JAWS blazed the path leading to the biggest blockbuster of all time, Avenger’s Endgame.
But it wasn’t as easy to pull off as you would think.
The book was roasted by critics, in much the same manner as a number of popular novels to follow in years to come. They called it bad. Like Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code is bad (in spite of selling a bazillion copies). Or Steve Alten’s MEG is bad (it is). And by that I mean, critics ripped it to shreds. They accused the plot of being overly melodramatic. JAWS is so bloated, the reader’s digest abridged is preferred by many readers. It’s better and closer to the movie.
But this melodrama enthralled Middle America, who bought copies by the boatload. The suspense, the scares, and the sex drove sales. The American consumer ate it up. And it became a bestseller.
The film production, too, was plagued with trouble. The most notorious being the mechanical shark, Bruce. The infamous quote “THE SHARK IS WORKING” has gone on to epitomize Spinal Tap moments in movie productions. With the shark not operating, Spielberg was forced to improvise, and the end result became POV shots of the Great White on the hunt. This, the art of not showing the monster, is what led to much of the film’s success.
Benchley has been cited as saying the book and film wouldn’t work today. We know Great Whites aren’t intentional man eaters now, and I can understand why he would think this. But I beg to differ with him. I think a JAWS property written and filmed today would be relevant. It would be great commentary on overfishing and destruction of the shark’s natural prey. And considering this film helped lead to the mass extermination of millions of sharks in the late 1970s and 80s, it would be more than appropriate.
But what would you say if I told you they made an eco-horror version of JAWS some four years after it came out? And that this movie is a lost classic of the KILLER ANIMAL trope JAWS invented?
Nope, it’s not ORCA, the Dino De Laurentis produced Killer Whale revenge flick, but that is a great one I love dearly. No, it’s not GRIZZLY, or the SWARM, or any BUGS, ALLIGATORs or WOLFEN. Nope. This movie, much like JAWS, has an ambiguous single word title, and it answers the question, “What if Bruce the shark worked?”
That film is John Frankenheimer’s production of David Seltzer’s PROPHECY.
There are plenty of parallels between the two properties, the obvious being both feature a man eating predator. It’s more than that. The book for PROPHECY was a bestseller, albeit not as successful as JAWS.
Whereas Peter Benchly’s JAWS is a mixed bag of intense suspense and horrible melodrama; David Seltzer’s PROPHECY is a terror filled page turner. It’s a book, and movie, with a message, and one that hit close to home for me. As a result, both the book and film scare the living shit out of me.
The plot is simple, a Paper Mill has been poisoning the watershed in northern Maine with mercury. As a result, the local Native Americans are going crazy, as they eat the polluted fish and game in the area. A brown bear, born deformed and mutated by mercury, is on a rampage. The local Native Americans believe she is an incarnation of a nature spirit, the Katahdin, a chemeric being that is the embodiment of all living things in the forest. They believe the monster is making them pay for their sins against nature. Unbeknownst to the people, she’s actually defending her mutated cubs.
Now, I live in a region with a mercury poisoned lake. One of the most poisonous lakes in North America, truth be told. Lake Onondaga, poisoned with mercury by Allied Chemical. We’ll say this: PROPHECY made me afraid to camp regionally, as much as JAWS made me afraid to swim in the ocean.
The book PROPHECY is a lost masterpiece of horror. Seltzer adapted his own screenplay, as he did with his previous script for The Omen. Brisk and well paced, it has a bloody body count they didn’t dare put on the screen.
The ad campaign for the movie was on par with JAWS. The trailer showed a sleeping bag exploding into feathers, and a mutant bear fetus on the movie poster declaring PROPHECY was THE Monster Movie, with the tagline: SHE LIVES. DON’T MOVE. DON’T BREATHE. THERE’S NOWHERE TO RUN. SHE WILL FIND YOU.
The movie starts out good enough, a chapter removed from the book. And it remains a great movie. Right up until the third act.
The film is already the victim of so many goddamned bits of Hollywood bullshit, you want to shake your fist at the screen. Yet, somehow, none of these indiscretions have a negative effect on the movie. Talia Shire is wonderful. And if you wondered what happened to Don Henley’s afro in that Hotel California video, you’ll be happy knowing Robert Foxworth stole it for his role. And Richard Dysart, a few years out of playing Doc Copper in John Carpenter’s THE THING, gets to chew the screen as the movie’s human antagonist. It’s 1979, so we still have white men being cast as Native Americans, and Armand Assante gets to do the dirty in this one. Unlike George C. Scott’s Rainbird in FIRESTARTER, Assante actually pulls it off. The supporting cast of Native Americans are pretty much all OP’s (Original People) as they are called in the book and movie.
But it’s not any of these that make the movie, dare I say, campy? Is that a pun? Not really.
The problem with the movie is the shark, or in this case the bear, worked on set. Yes, the special creature effects in PROPHECY are the drizzling Hershey squirts. As cute as the mutant bear cubs might be, they still look plastic. Nothing in the movie looks like that goddamn movie poster with the mutant bear fetus. Nothing. It all looks… FAKE! And the mama bear? The killing machine of the book? She resembles a fucking Smokey the Bear hand puppet with half its fucking face melted.
If any classic movie needs a special effects CGI re-do, ala the Star Wars Special Editions, it’s PROPHECY. Bob Dawson and The Burman’s Studios, who did the make up and effects for the film, seriously dropped the ball. The shitty mutant mama bear, forever immortalized in an episode of Southpark as the “MAN-BEAR-PIG monster. The zombie bear from ANNIHILATION is a clear example of how this creature could look. This movie shows us what might have happened if they used the original design of The Predator. The bear-thing we got in Prophecy looks like a drunk put it together, a little tidbit that might be a reflection of the production itself. The stories of director Frankenheimer being blasted on set may have contributed to bad decisions, one of them being to make the monster more bear like.
Despite the sub-par special effects, and the director’s bottle tipping, Prophecy is still an effective eco-horror thriller. It’s aged as well as a forty-two year old film can. JAWS is timeless, and so is PROPHECY. We still have inner city starvation and housing problems in America, we still have Native American rights issues (can you say Dakota Access Pipeline?), and we still have big companies poisoning landfills and watersheds.
Do yourself a favor and rediscover this lost classic. Find a dog eared copy of the book, and settle down with it for an experience that will make you think twice about camping, and look at Smokey the Bear in a new, albeit distorted, light.
And make sure you zip that sleeping bag up nice and tight.