The Environment is Us, Prophecy and Overt Messages
By Craig Draheim
1979 brought the beginning of three major horror franchises (Alien, The Amityville Horror, Phantasm), iconic cult movies (Dracula, Driller Killer, Zombie or Zombi 2), and masterful entries from great auteurs (The Brood, Nosferatu the Vampyre). However, lost from this list is one of the most ridiculous eco-horror movies ever made… Prophecy (not to be confused with The Prophecy,1995). Prophecy tells the story of Dr. Robert Verne (Robert Foxworth) and his wife (Talia Shire) who travel to Maine, USA to investigate the impact of a lumber company on the local ecosystem. What they find is a mutated bear hellbent on killing any human that crosses its path. Despite sporting a seasoned cast and crew with some decent effects for the time, Prophecy is either forgotten, chalked up to an Alien or Jaws knockoff, or referenced in jest because of a kill involving an exploding sleeping bag. Prophecy throws a laundry list of hot button issues that you cannot escape. One story is about pollution from a major company. The other is the conflict between the Native Americans and lumberjacks. Even the relationship between the Verne and his wife is based around her deciding if she should get an abortion, and then panicking because she ate fish that had mercury in it. Within the first fifteen minutes we are presented with gentrification, classism through race in the inner cities, and healthcare. The dialogue itself is so on-the-nose with Verne’s stance on these topics that there’s no chance for confusion. By now I assume you understand that nothing about this film is subtle. It’s a textbook example of a series of messages being crammed down your throat. The in-your-face commentary of Prophecy is prime for a discussion that has spread across the horror community. Though horror seems inherently political, can it be overt in its message? Did Prophecy’s reliance on “preaching” these themes lead to its failure at engaging the audience through storytelling? Does a horror movie require that buffer between theme/message and story? And if they are enjoyed is it for the original intention and not because of a ridiculous bear and a sleeping bag kill? Right before the release of 2019’s Black Christmas, a film critic/TV personality wrote the following controversial tweet in response to an article discussing the film’s overt feminist themes: “What I love about directors from the 70s and 80s is that they had no political ax to grind, no message, no social justification for horror. It was just "get a load of this great story." I don't wanna be told how to watch a movie.” Sadly, any insightful discussion that could’ve been, was blurred by outrage because of its insensitivity or dismissed as an ignorant baby boomer. Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre have been referenced as a response of politics in horror. Comments were made that those directors didn’t have the internet which has allowed for more explanation of their work. But until their deaths, both George A. Romero and Tobe Hooper would avoid discussing themes (if they could) despite universal consensus of what they were. This approach can be seen across most of the directors and writers of that time, even to this day. In fact, Texas Chainsaw, NOTLD, They Live, The Fly, The Amityville Horror, The Birds, to the more socially driven works of Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us) and Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) can be enjoyed without understanding the message. It’s difficult to avoid the messages from Peele and Serling but this is where the concept of a “buffer” comes in through sci-fi or fantastical elements. The use of Aliens, underground societies, characters turning into horse people, even transferring a brain into another body acts as a level of separation from the very real topic that it’s commenting on. Proof of this belief can be found in constant “Horror Twitter” comments of a person stating, like comedy, “I don’t like politics in my horror.” The idea that “story is king” and “if you want to send a message, use Western Union” (commonly credited to Samuel Goldwyn and Moss Hart), has been used in some form across races, genders, cultures, and ages. I’ve listened to countless horror podcasts and watched many vlogs that when analyzing a movie, it’s inferred that “the audience’s reaction is what matters, not the director’s intent.” I’ve read think pieces, describing how the more a director discusses their film the more the critic dislikes it. My memorable connection to the phrase is during a screenwriting class where a student asked David Lynch if he had any advice on pushing a message on an audience. Now Mr. Lynch is not a poster child for narrative structure, but even he believes themes or messages are for the audience and scholars as each viewer has their personal interpretation based on their own life experiences. A director or writer telling how you should or shouldn’t interpret the piece takes away the individualized relationship and discourse that art provides. Maybe the critic’s crude delivery was outdated. Or maybe he’s just another person that should’ve given his tweet a read over before hitting send, who knows. In Prophecy’s case the major theme is based in environmentalism, which for the average horror or sci-fi fan, I’m sure you’ve come across several plots of pollution/toxic waste mutating something causing destruction (Godzilla). Most of these will then feature a more personal story, Boon Jong-ho’s The Host (2006) starts with the pollution creating a monster and then becomes a family drama at its core. Street Trash, a shopkeeper finds and sells bottles of toxic liquor and then it’s about… something. You get the point. So, is Prophecy just a flawed movie or can the lukewarm reaction be the result of its multiple messages being too much on an audience wanting to participate in escapism with a mutated bear? What sets it apart from the praise that The Host received? Other potential issues that may have compromised John Frankenheimer’s film. Alcoholism lead him to making decisions that he agreed ultimately hurt a film with far more potential. Alien was released only a few weeks prior, stealing the spotlight. It should be known however, that Prophecy made roughly $22.7 million off a $12 million budget, covering the cost with profit. Yet even the audiences that enjoyed Prophecy on initial release, had criticism dealing with the “trivial” story, “cardboard characters,” not a strong payoff for all the buildup, and not scary. Tim Pulleine said, “Once the narrative gets properly under way, the ecological sub-text virtually drops out of sight. As, even more confusingly, does the sub-plot about the heroine's pregnancy, leaving only a surfeit of creature-on-the-rampage hokum.” Gary Arnold stated, “essentially an indoctrination course in liberal guilt, shabbily disguised as a monster melodrama.” One of the more positive reviews from Patrick Naugle couldn’t avoid the “message” with, “In an age of self-referential and cynical Scream horror movies and Silence of the Lambs knock offs, Prophecy has a certain something that just can't be denied. Prophecy even contains a MESSAGE (re: don't mess with Mother Nature or you'll be sorry), which is more than I can say for most horror movies produced today. Is it scary? No. Vastly amusing? You bet your bottom dollar.” “Genre” films have the ability to examine an issue without ever having to discuss said issue. As exceptional as 12 Years a Slave is, we know it’s about slavery and race in the United States, it’s not going to be a commentary on Cold War hysteria. It also requires a different mindset. You’re not going into Slave expecting a creature-feature and vice versa. So, was it hard for horror audiences to adjust to a more message-driven movie or was it like Frankenheimer believed? Potential to be great if it was handled better. As a fan of the movie (and not because of its silly elements) I want to believe in the latter and that something amazing just wasn’t reached. But other message-driven examples pop up like 2018’s Winchester, that received criticism of not being effective because it spent too much time discussing gun control. The Black Christmas remake received similar commentary from reviewers such as Kimberley Elizabeth, “The feminism-heavy message of the film comes off more manufactured than genuine, and too blatant to be anything but an orchestrated cash-grab…” Could these have worked without going back to the writing stage and toning down the “politics”? I don’t know, I thought I’d have a better sense by the end. However, evidence suggests it doesn’t matter how experimental the piece may be or how important the message, because this is a storytelling medium. Once something else is given priority such as, message/theme, special effects, new technology, jump scares, gags, or even star power, there’s the risk of an audience not connecting. I believe we all can agree, “connection” is the most important aspect when creating content meant to be viewed by as many people as possible.
Check out our episode on Prophecy (1979) below