Prophecy

Maggie’s got a ‘lil mutant in the oven
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1979
Director: 
John Frankenheimer
Starring: 
Robert Foxworth, Tallia Shire, Armand Assante, Richard Dysart, Victoria Hawks
The Setup: 
Mutant bear terrorizes Maine forest.
Discussion: 

A nice reader wrote me with a host of recommendations, and this one shot to the top of the list, since the cinematic representation of killer mutant animals is today’s highest calling of study, and obviously most relevant to our current geopolitical situation. I also always enjoy it when the Netflix envelope strays a bit from straightforward synopsis, so when this one began with “A contemporary story of stark terror,” I knew I must have a winner. We’re not long into the credits before we see that we’re going to be treated to a notable cast: Robert Foxworth, famed for his defining role on Falcon Crest! Talia Shire, famed for her role as Rocky’s girlfriend! The figure inside these parentheses represents the number of people who ever wanted to see Talia Shire again: ( ). We’ve also got some young and juicy Armond Assante, who, I will warn you now, steadfastly refuses to take off his shirt. And the big surprise to me: this is directed by John Frankenheimer!

During the credits we see a bunch of dogs running through the woods after something. One of them runs sheer off a cliff, and hangs there for a bit before the guys start to pull him up. But then—the dog is grabbed by someone—or some THING—below, and the rope snaps and he’s vanished. Gone fishin’—with a dog! Then one guy goes over—and is pulled down and dies, and another guy follows him, to the same fate. Dawn breaks, and we have classical music over footage of the bashed-up guys where they fell. That’s why you gotta love acclaimed directors directing trash genre movies: they’ve got PRETENTIONS! But already with this movie, we can see that everything is going to go on just a tiny bit too long—although I put that down to the more languid pace of 70s films.

Now: TALIA SHIRE. Mousiness has a name. She’s the lead cellist in a prominent symphony in Washington, DC! We get some shots such as the one at right, which seems endemic to the 70s and 80s. After rehearsal, her friend discusses how Maggie [that’s Talia] is pregnant but hasn’t told her husband Robert, because he’s all “who would bring a child into this troubled world?” and all. We soon meet Rob, as he drives through a local protest for “Indian” rights. This movie trades partially on native Americans, so it’s a little surprising to our PC 2009 ears to hear even the sympathetic people refer to them categorically as “Indians.” But Rob has another purpose: to go to a tenement where 11 black people are crammed into an apartment and, apparently, rats are munching on a woman’s baby at night. Rob, a bleeding-heart doctor with curly hair and a beard and a wish to save the world and surely a comprehensive Moody Blues album collection, feels their pain and is outraged.

When he comes outside is he met by some guy who wants him to go to Maine for two weeks as a representative of an environmental effort [so why not get an environmentalist?] to determine what’s happening in this disputed lumber land. You see, the lumber company owns it, but the Indians are refusing to give it up, and the situation is getting explosive. Blah, blah, they decide to go.

Rob and Maggie, who seemingly has brought nothing but her cello, arrive just as a dog is being airlifted into their camp. This is the sole survivor of the rescue party, the people we saw at the beginning, who were there looking for some hikers who had disappeared. There’s an Indian legend—isn’t there always an Indian legend?—about a mythical beast the Katahdin [spelling not guaranteed] that avenges the land or whatever. Rob and Maggie are being driven into the disputed land when they meet a roadblock of native Americans led by John, Armond Assante. I think it’s funny the filmmakers obviously felt viewers would be more sympathetic to the native American plight if its leader were hot like Armond Assante. The Indians won’t let them pass, tensions escalate, and before you know it we’ve got an axe-vs-chainsaw fight going on! That is what, we’ll discover, is one of the chief charms of this movie: situations get tense, more tense, then SHOOT OVER THE TOP! This is clearly supposed to be HARD-HITTING, and you know how delightful hysteria over the “hand-hitting” issues of decades past can be. Rob is outraged, OUTRAGED by the threats of violence, and Maggie does what she’ll do a lot of for the rest of the movie: sits mousily gazing downward in complete silence.

Soon they get installed in the standard gorgeous rustic wooden cabin with the mountain lake right outside. Rob goes fishing and, somewhat hilariously, a duck gets pulled under, then a big fake fish jumps in the foreground. We are later to understand that this is supposed to be a BIG fake fish—like five feet or so—but the way it’s filmed in the movie, and the fact that you only see it for a moment, you can’t tell this at all. We are soon treated to footage of all the woodland creatures fleeing in terror from some unseen menace. Always good for shits and giggles.

SPOILERS > > >
That night they’re enjoying some together time when Mousy Maggie broaches the topic of children in general, and finds that Robert cools WAY down, causing her not to take the topic further. I mention this because she will later claim that she “tried to tell him,” although I would argue that bringing up Italy does not necessarily tell me we’re having pizza for dinner. Their talk is interrupted by a noise at the door, where—SUDDEN RACCOON ATTACK! This thing really goes after Rob, then leaps onto Maggie, and there’s an amusing shot where she’s flung right across the room. Rob them makes to “fight” with it [i.e. it’s not convincing], and finally slays the thing. Rob, being a doctor, immediately gets to work taking tissue samples while Maggie amuses herself whimpering and feeling emotional torment.

Intercut in here are a father and his two kids hiking and camping—they’re obviously just being set up as victims. John the hot Indian comes to see Rob to show him something and tell him their side of the story. Apparently many of the native American children are being born deformed. Rob and Maggie go, and soon John’s beautiful GF is saying that before the lumber company came “Every rock, every tree had a story.” Yeah: and I’ll bet those stories were FUCKING BORING. “Dear Diary, today I sat on the forest floor, not moving.” Maggie turns to the woman and asks her if she can paint with all the colors of the wind. Anyway, John and co say that the Katahdin came to protect their people from the evil lumber folks, if you hadn’t guessed that already. They then show him—look quick, you’ll only see it for a half-second—a foot-long tadpole! There must be somethin’ fishy in that ther water! CUT TO THE EVIL PAPER MILL OF THE WHITE MAN.

Robert and Maggie [why drag her along everywhere just for her to do nothing?] go to said evil paper mill, run by evil, evil white men, and ask a bunch of pointed questions of Mr. Isley, who says categorically that NO chemicals have been dumped into the water, and Rob can go out and test for himself. So there. They go out for a boat ride, and Maggie gets some silver stuff on her leg, which Robert instructs her to touch! Nice one, Bob! You, me and everyone know it’s mercury—and this is your wife!

That night Rob reads an article aloud into a tape recorder, then PLAYS his recording to Maggie to explain what’s happening. I suspect this is because simpy reading from an article is not “cinematic” enough. Sho nuff, the culprit is mercury, AND it causes deformities, concentrating in the blood of fetuses! Maggie is having deep heartbreak, but Rob is oblivious to her because he is unraveling the mystery and saving the helpless. Maggie could say something at this point, but she prefers to simper in silence. Poor Talia is in the prototypical thankless role.

Now a particular highlight of the movie. Remember the father and his two kids who were out camping? Well, they’ve settled down for the night, and the boy has decided to encase himself completely in this sarcophagus-like sleeping bag that only allows his face to be visible. The monster attacks, going for his sister, at which point the boy gets up and, rather than unzipping his bag, merely stands within it and HOPS over to help. Well, remember how I said this movie goes from zero to over the top in seconds? The monster backhands him, he goes flying through the air, bashes into a rock and EXPLODES IN A PUFF OF FEATHERS! Ho-HO! It’s appalling and hilarious at the same time. We see all the feathers falling and hear the rest of the family being devoured, and that’s it. Dramatic!

The white men come to arrest John for the murders, because the Indians MUST be behind it! John chooses the simple escape route of entering a cabin and hurling himself through the rear window. Rob, Maggie and John’s GF take off in a helicopter to some secret place in the woods. The weather looks perfectly fine, but we are to understand that there’s a huge storm coming up any second.

They land, reunite with John, and soon find two mutant baby bears caught in a net across the river. One is alive, and they wrap it up and are going to take it back, but—the SUDDEN STORM! They have to hike to the elder’s tent, with Maggie carrying the mutant baby bear. This, as you can guess, causes her even more internalized heartache, as she is forced to imagine her own fetus being as deformed as this one. Rob is also crazed about keeping the baby bear alive, as evidence, though I don’t see why its corpse wouldn’t do just as well. They get it to the tent and minister to it all night.

Once the thing is stabilized, Maggie is simpering in the corner. Rob thinks she’s just so concerned with the baby bear and the injustice of it all, and takes her outside to comfort her. He’s one of these jerks that just tells women he knows what they’re going through but never actually stops to ASK them what’s wrong. You know what, both our main characters are total jerks! Maggie finally blurts out her secret, saying, as I mentioned, that she “tried to tell him.” She also articulates the movie’s viewpoint that he’s “too busy saving the world to be a human being!” Then—BEAR ATTACK!

Yes, our monster is finally revealed to be nothing more than a deformed bear. Snore. This is after build-up that it’s a kind of dragon or an amalgam of every creature in the forest. No, just a boring ‘ol deformed bear. And he comes accompanied by the native American elder, as though they’re in cahoots! Our heroes escape down a series of tunnels, carrying the deformed little sprog, as we see the reflection of fire burning in the eyes of the elder—he burns with righteous rage!

Underground, it is split-diopter festival ’79 as we have a surfeit of shots of a person in the extreme foreground and the extreme background both in focus [see below]. They finally decide they have to run somewhere or other, and Mr. Isley runs to the radio tower to contact help. He is of course killed, which we knew he had to be because he knew about the mercury and turned a blind eye.

Our heroes run, Talia still clutching the deformed baby, which has all become a little funny by now. They reach a lake, and start swimming. What about all that deadly mercury in the water? Talia is swimming with the baby! Why can’t Rob, Mr. Concerned, carry it for a while? Well, problem solved as it starts biting into her neck, and they drown it! Carried it all that way for nothin’ huh?

Then they see the bear on the other side of the lake, where it kills the elder dude, as if to say that it really is just a deformity and not some avenging spirit called down by the Native Americans. Then it starts crossing the lake toward them, finally collapses, and goes under. Rob celebrates and cheers, saying that at last the bear is dead! I guess he’s too busy saving the world to ever go see a movie, huh? Sure enough, the bear rears up out of the water and comes after them again. Oh by the way, the whole time the bear is crossing the lake, our heroes just stand there gaping at it in terror, when—shouldn’t you guys be running? Isn’t this when you should be gaining some distance? But whatever. Anyway, the bear is rearing, and Rob grabs and arrow and makes what can only be described as his LEAP OF RAGE, which is rather something to see. He stabs the thing repeatedly with the arrow, carried away with primal aggression, until it finally dies.

The last thing we see is that they escape, and the movie ends, which is a bit of a surprise, as I was sure we would see some hint that justice for the native Americans had been secured, and I was REALLY surprised that we didn’t get some assurance that Rob has come to appreciate his wife in a way he hadn’t before and is ready to love her, deformed demon baby or no. But we get none of it, regardless of the fact that this leaves ALL the thematic content of our film with no resolution. But whatever, they killed the bear.
< < < SPOILERS END

It was fairly solid as a killer mutant animal movie goes. You don’t get a lot of killing and the terror and suspense sequences really aren’t that great, but it makes up for that in the sheer flamboyance of some of its touches, such as the amazing exploding sleeping bag. It’s a bit of a bummer that after all the build-up, the thing turns out to be a boring old mutant bear, like ANY other mutant bear, but this is only because expectations have been raised. There’s also a lot of talk and consideration of serious, serious social issues—please, BE SERIOUS!—and they are handled in such a drearily preachy and heavy-handed way that they become more amusing as artifacts of an era gone by than anything. They totally should have brought in the weeping Indian from that famous ad.

The other thing is that our two main actors are vacuums of charisma. Talia, as we have discussed, really has NOTHING to do here except simper and mope—oh, and carry mutant babies [in both senses] as required. Foxworth tries hard for bluster and deploys his main asset, his piercing blue eyes, to deft effect, but the reality is he’s just not the greatest actor, has little presence, and his whole role is built around what an asshole he is to his wife. But the problem behind all these issues is the director, who can’t decide whether it’s a serious, artsy movie about a killer mutant bear, or a killer mutant bear movie with a few fancy flourishes. So it kind of tries to combine both, the result of which is it starts to feel really long, and never attains the momentum of fun that something like Day of the Animals does.

But you know, for all that, it’s pretty okay, and anyone who loves killer mutant animal movies will not be sorry at all to have watched it. There are also the crazy over-the-top sequences to push it up in estimation. Ultimately maybe it’s one of those things one is happy to watch—and happy to criticize.

Should you watch it: 

If you like killer mutant animal movies, you pretty much have to. It is your DESTINY! If not, it’s amusing enough but in no way essential.

Comments

I began reading this article but then I wondered: "Wait, maybe the movie is on Youtube!" And quite surprisingly, it is! So now I'll watch the movie, and then read your review. But it's not much a matter of the review spoiling the movie (which ain't a masterpiece by any means) as it is the other way around, if you catch my drift. Looking forward to it!

Yes, I sometimes think it's better to read this site AFTER you've seen the movie, so we can kind of laugh at it together... hope you enjoy!