The best worst horror movie ever made about Maine turns 35 this year. Here’s why you should rent it this Halloween.
By Brian Kevin
For horror buffs, 1979 was a seminal year. The end of a golden decade for scary movies, it gave us still-terrifying classics like Dawn of the Dead, Ridley Scott’s Alien, The Amityville Horror, and Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre.
And then it gave us Prophecy.
What is it about the horror genre that a movie can achieve immortality by being either excellent or unaccountably bad? Prophecy is uniquely, inexplicably bad. Director John Frankenheimer was a Hollywood hotshot with credits like The Manchurian Candidate and The Iceman Cometh. Leading lady Talia Shire had just hit it big with the first two Godfather and Rocky films. Soon-to-be-’80s-primetime-heartthrob Robert Foxworth was in his beardy prime, and the film’s environmental theme dovetailed with the country’s nascent eco-consciousness.
And yet, Prophecy is a campy, wonderful disaster of a movie.
Foxworth plays Dr. Robert Verne, a public health worker for the Environmental Protection Agency who spends his days inspecting rat-infested New York slums and his free time smoldering at the injustice of it all. His mousy and refined wife, Maggie (played by Shire), is a symphony cellist who happens to be secretly pregnant — secretly, because Verne has made it smolderingly clear he doesn’t want to bring kids into this depraved world.
One day, Verne is standing in the ghetto, smoldering, when he’s approached by an EPA colleague who wants to put him on a plane for northern Maine. Native American tribes there are locked in a land dispute with a paper company on the Androscoggin River (what the Androscoggin is doing in northern Maine is an open question). If Verne performs an environmental assessment on the papermaking operation, his results could help break the deadlock. Somehow.
“I forgot the world could look like this,” sighs a briefly non-smoldering Verne as he and Maggie fly over the Maine North Woods. And, of course, the Maine North Woods do not look like this — towering granite peaks, vast forests of lodgepole pine — because “this” is Washington State, where Prophecy was filmed (never mind an obligatory framing shot of a lighthouse). Verne’s cynicism rekindles when he realizes the woods aren’t actually pristine: the paper company is polluting the water with mercury! This has created giant mutant tadpoles, at least one comically ferocious raccoon, and an enraged, fleshy beast the tribes call Katahdin, a slaughterer of campers and lumberjacks that looks like a grizzly bear turned inside out.
Copyright Paramount Pictures
Prophecy is a veritable layer cake of horror movie tropes. You have your Something Wicked in the Woods trope, that old Puritan idea of evil lurking in the wilderness, now firmly inscribed into our cultural DNA (and our horror flicks). You have your Hubristic Devotion to Progress trope, often personified by a mad scientist, here embodied by an ethnocentric paper company flack who says his loggers manage the land better than God. And you have your Nature’s Revenge trope in the form of Katahdin, who inevitably eats the flack’s legs off.
Prophecy’s environmental motifs are less than subtle: In the film’s opening scenes, a noble and hatchet-wielding Native American conservationist literally battles a crazed white logger with a chainsaw. But it isn’t all doom and gloom. There are some great melodramatic one-liners, like Dr. Verne’s hilariously smoldering insistence that he’s “strictly a rat bite and gas leak man!” There’s also one of the best deaths in all monster-movie-dom, when a camper in his sleeping bag gets hurled against a rock, expiring in a bonkers cloud of feathers. There’s something timelessly delightful about such B-movie schlock — but why take our word for it?
“For me, settling into Prophecy is as comfortable as settling into an old easy chair,” wrote Stephen King in his 1981 meditation on the spook genre, Danse Macabre. “Just writing about it has made me long to rush out and see it a fourth (and maybe a fifth) time.”
Isn’t it just like Mainers to take our horror with a little camp?