Home / Film / Feature Articles / If You Go Out to the Woods Today: Mamma Bear Syndrome in ‘Prophecy’ (1979)

If You Go Out to the Woods Today: Mamma Bear Syndrome in ‘Prophecy’ (1979)

In 1979, two films of the eco-horror subgenre brought a complexity and innovative in depth understanding of indigenous cultures, practices and traditions to the foreground and unified it with environmental concern and welfare: Arthur Hiller’s killer bat film from Columbia Pictures Nightwing, and the Paramount cult classic Prophecy which really does make the eternal struggle of the Native American Indian the main focal point of the story. Director John Frankenheimer (a master of storytelling and a dedicated craftsman in painting up character intricacies) had often been quoted as saying that Prophecy was not a great “moment in his varied and vast career” and that drinking heavily during this period was a massive factor in the film not being a personal favorite. However, this outing about a mutant bear is not only a successful look at nature as an extension of America’s original people (which it shares with its relative Nightwing) but on top of that (and something that Hiller’s film doesn’t employ) is an acute critique on the role of motherhood on multiple facets of the theme: personal (Talia Shire and the mother bear), environmental (the state of the forest) and spiritual (the indigenous people and their connection to the land). From this fact, Prophecy must be read as one of the most important of the eco-horror films of its time and its distinct, and yet intelligently concocted, environmental message about the dire results of pollution and the monstrous and chaotic imbalances of nature that causes such horrendous tragedy is profound and a necessary mirror on a planet gasping in desperation for global attention.

It also handles the concept of commerce and trade versus nature and environmental well-being without pretension and without being overtly preach. Because the writing is so smartly conceived and the direction so sharp, the film becomes much more than a canvas for a “green is good and industry is bad” mantra. Robert Foxworth plays a doctor in public health who specializes in dealing with the underprivileged; we first see him tending to a baby who has been severely bitten by rats in a black ghetto in Washington DC. (The scene early in the film depicting the black ghetto is juxtaposed with images from a rally involving Native American Indians demanding respect and the reclamation of their land – this narrative driven theme of two worlds completely ruined by industry, greed and racial oppression will soon spill over into the second and last act of Prophecy. Foxworth’s wife played by Talia Shire is a classical musician (she plays the cello – the most mournful of instruments) and she has just found out that she is having a baby. We learn fast that she doesn’t want to let Foxworth know that she is pregnant, so she keeps her newfound condition a secret. Foxworth’s character has strong political views about over population and is completely opposed to becoming a father. Shire, however, wants the baby and can’t bring herself to have an abortion. Early on, Foxworth is offered a job in Maine where there is much political unrest involving two opposing sides: millinery workers and loggers who run a large paper mill and local American Indian tribes who are angry at the destruction of their forest. To the Indians, the forest is their life and they have a clear dependence on the natural greenery and waterways. They are described as a “fishing people” and therefore clean healthy water is essential to their livelihood, something that the paper mill has been responsible for ruining for some time. The water has been poisoned by mercury and Foxworth is asked to visit Maine in order to see what has been happening to local Opies (OP’s – original people) who have been becoming sick, mentally ill and losing babies as a result. This is perfectly handled as the issues arising in Washington (as depicted briefly early in the film) regarding the destruction of not only the forests, waters and land of the native people but of their actual existence and visibility as rightful owners of America are but part of a trickling down effect of what is happening in the deep green forests of Maine.

We the audience learn quickly that the mill is to blame for the ill health of many of the native tribes as well as the mutations within the forest. Fish have become oversized, tadpoles are as big as dogs and raccoons without rabies are attacking people viciously and mercilessly. But a large mutant creature (unseen for most of the first two thirds of the picture) is the most feared and is doing mighty damage around the forest. She is a mutant bear and is talked about as an Indian legend called the Katahdin, which has become a terrifying reality for anyone who crosses her path. An Indian elder says that she has awakened to protect his people and that she is made up of many parts of all of God’s creations, however when the mutant comes face to face with the ill-fated old man she tears him apart and swallows him whole. The film suggests that even folkloric lore and ancient legend has no chance against mutations created by science – science completely at the servitude of corporate demand. The mutant bear herself is a great work of puppetry and SFX wizardry, with her skinless snout oozing bloody gore, its claws extending from masses of red raw flesh; she races through the thickets of the forest with great ease and precision.

But it is Shire’s characterization of the haunted pregnant cellist that is the most quietly interesting. She is shy and retiring but strong in her own strange way. During a romantic moment with Foxworth, she explains that she admires the daughter of the aforementioned Indian elder because the young Indian woman remained strong even when scared in the face of adversity; but Shire’s character is just as strong — she develops her strength through understanding the condition of the forest. Shire’s character is almost analogous with the forest and both Shire and the forest harbor secrets: Shire’s being an unborn baby and the forest’s being the mutant bear. Also, both are mothering something unnatural and potentially destructive. Shire learns a horrifying truth about the condition of her unborn baby. She has eaten polluted fish from the polluted waterways that will in fact contaminate her embryo and mutate her infant making her more in tune with the forest, which of course is home to mutant beasts and a poisoned water supply.

A superb and subtle scene that really captures Shire’s understanding of what is to come is where she looks onto a mutant bear cub she and Foxworth have found with deep sympathy. Much like Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) giving in to her maternal instincts and soothing her crying demonic baby (“Aren’t you his mother Rosemary?”), so will Shire have to contend with a deformed skinless bloody mass of a child who may just look not unlike the mutant bear cub. Foxworth’s character however, a man completely uninterested in the trappings of parental responsibilities, has to battle this beast in order to give in — he has to slay the dragon before he can tend to the nest. Much like the multi-faceted and yet sublimely clear character of Michael Myers being an embodiment of Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode’s anxiety and panic of giving into sexual desires and the possibility of romance in Halloween, the mutant mother bear in Prophecy may be a physical manifestation of Foxworth’s fear of fatherhood; she is relentless in the last twenty minutes of the film chasing the surviving cast members and somewhat constantly at Foxworth’s heel. In the end, he overcomes the monster and slays her, stabbing her repeatedly, conquering the violent mutation as well as his fear of becoming a father.

Prophecy is a smart gem with lots of heart and, beautifully, it doesn’t give us a happy ending at all. There are consequences that linger long after the credits roll. Also, the final shot employs the Carrie (1976) gag that many horror movies of the 70s and 80s reveled in: that final shot — serene harmonious, everything seemingly ok until the “boo” happens and the monster leaps up in frame scaring the beejeezus out of the audience. In Prophecy’s case, a large mutant raccoon or some other kind of creature pops its head out to give us a final good old fashioned squeal – the next creature to wreak havoc on the forestlands of Maine! Of course revenge doesn’t have to be a direct response to nature being mistreated. The human characters that populate these animal themed horror movies may also be deserving of sweet revenge and beasts of all kinds can help out in the best way possible.

About Lee Gambin

Lee Gambin is a writer, author and film historian. He writes for Fangoria, Shock Till You Drop, Delirium, Warner Bros. and Scream Magazine. He has written the books Massacred By Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals of the 1970s and the soon to be released The Howling: Studies in the Horror Film. He runs Melbourne based film society Cinemaniacs and lectures on cinema studies, currently working on a lecture series called "Can You Dig It?: Tortured Young Men in Film from 1976-1986 while working on two new books - one on the Stephen King adaptation "Cujo" entitled Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo and another book with collaborator Cris Wilson called Tonight, On A Very Special Episode: A History of Sitcoms that Sometimes Got Serious.

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