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Prophecy (1979) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

maggie verne film paper

Principal social themes: environmental issues, abortion

Paramount. PG rating. Featuring: Robert Foxworth, Talia Shire, Armand Assante, Richard Dysart, Victoria Racimo, George Clutesi, Evan Evans, Lyvingston Holmes, Tom McFadden, Charles H. Gray, Burke Byrnes, Mia Bendixsen, Johnny Timko, Graham Jarvis. Written by David Selzer based on his novel. Cinematography by Harry Stradling Jr. Edited by Tom Rolf. Music by Leonard Rosenman and Johannes Brahms. Produced by Robert L. Rosen. Directed by John Frankenheimer. Color. 101 minutes.

Overview

Prophecy was originally promoted as a straightforward monster movie. Although critics panned the film, largely due to the unconvincing creature and special effects, a number of reviewers cited it as a horror film with a genuine social conscience. Moreover, the ecological details about methyl mercury contamination portrayed in the film are accurate, informative, and far more frightening than the story’s monster. In recent years, Prophecy has gained considerable popularity as an offbeat cult film.

Synopsis

Dr. Robert Verne (Robert Foxworth) is a crusading physician working with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He is sent by them to northern Maine to issue an environmental report on forest lands claimed by both the local Indians and the Pitney Paper Company. He asks his wife, Maggie (Talia Shire), the lead cellist of the Washington Symphony, to accompany him. Maggie is looking for an opportunity to tell her husband that she is pregnant, afraid that he will insist on an abortion, because in principle, he is against bringing another child into the overcrowded world. The Vernes take up residence in a remote lakeside cabin in the disputed forest. They hear from Mr. Isley (Richard Dysart), manager of the paper mill, that the Indians are suspected of killing a number of lumberjacks who have disappeared in the forest. Dr. Verne fishes in the lake and is amazed when he sees an oversized salmon. That night, an enraged raccoon invades their cabin, and Dr. Verne kills it.

John Hawks (Armand Assante), the local tribal leader, invites the Vernes to tour the forest. M’Rai, an Indian elder, tells him how things grow to giant size in certain ponds. He also tells about the legend of Katahdin, a mythical monster who supposedly will arise someday to protect the Indians. Hearing about the high rate of deformity from Ramona, a midwife, Dr. Verne becomes suspicious that the paper mill is somehow polluting the land. Isley gives him a tour of the mill, which appears to be operating safely. However, Maggie picks up a silvery substance on her shoe that indicates use of methyl mercury, a chemical that was once used in the paper industry as a cheap caustic solution. Use of methyl mercury had been banned since 1956, when thousands of people suffered from environmental contamination in Minamata, Japan. Maggie is horrified to learn from her husband that the poison concentrates on fetal tissues whenever a pregnant animal (or human) eats any contaminated food. Since Maggie ate the fish from the lake, she believes her unborn child may have become infected.

When Dr. Verne takes blood samples from the Indian villages, Isley shows up with the police chief to arrest John Hawks for the murder of a family of hikers who were found torn to pieces. When the Indian flees, Dr. Verne and his wife fly by helicopter to a prearranged spot to meet him. Maggie finds a dying, mutated bear cub trapped in a net by a river. Dr. Verne considers this to be positive proof of methyl mercury pollution. He summons Isley and the police chief to meet them at a teepee shelter where he is trying to keep the cub alive. Maggie reveals her pregnancy to her husband, explaining her fears that her infant might be born a freak. Isley is stunned when he sees the baby monster, realizing that the people murdered in the forest were not harmed by the Indians but by a mutant bear. He confesses that the mill had used the forbidden chemical.

The monster, called Katahdin by M’Rai, launches its attack. The remainder of the film features the people fleeing the wrath of Katahdin. One by one, the police chief, the helicopter pilot, Isley, M’Rai, and John Hawks fall victim to the monster. Hawks wounds it with an arrow, and Dr. Verne manages to kill the creature, stabbing it through its eye. As Maggie and her husband fly home, another mutant bear is seen roaming through the forest below.

Critique

Minamata disease has become the official name of the illness to the central nervous system brought on by methyl mercury poisoning. The Chisso Corporation, a Japanese firm, dumped huge quantities of mercury into Minamata Bay, leading to an ecological disaster in the 1950s. The use of mercury has been curtailed since then, but as recently as 1998, Minamata disease has been detected in Brazil along the Amazon River, possibly caused by contamination from the local mining industry. The plot of Prophecy , unlike most horror films, has a sound, scientific basis. Also unlike many horror films, the script of Prophecy spends considerable time on the scientific data. Dr. Verne, for example, narrates the scientific data into a tape recorder. When his wife questions him about it, he restates the information in less technical terms, explaining exactly how the contamination goes through the food chain and impacts the ecosystem. Then Maggie replays the tape, so the audience is clearly and thoroughly briefed on this environmental issue. Besides the extent of this exposition, the material is highlighted by the passion and anger with which Foxworth plays the scene. Unfortunately, the rest of the film lacks the quality and verisimilitude of these scenes. The film’s setting according to the novel is Millinocket, Maine, but the scenery is quite unlike this area of Penobscot County ( Prophecy was actually shot in western Canada.). The name Katahdin comes from Mount Katahdin, Maine’s highest point and the northern tip of the Appalachian Trail. There is a major paper mill in Millinocket known for over a century as Great Northern Paper, only recently changed to Katahdin Paper, but the logs are brought in by truck and rail, not by river. Also there has never been any case of Minamata disease in the United States. Richard Dysart makes a reasonable attempt at a Maine accent, but Armand Assante’s accent in the film is a complete puzzlement.

The other social issue raised in the film, the question of whether or not Maggie should obtain an abortion due to possible contamination, is left unresolved. The second-rate special effects, sloppy editing, major plot gaffes, and the phony Maine backdrop made Stephen King proclaim Prophecy as his favorite entertaining “golden turkey,” although he, too, was impressed by the film’s utilization of authentic environmental concerns and accurate scientific data.

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