Welcome back to Anatomy of a Scene, and the October Horror edition. Last time, we looked at The Cat People. This time, something equally disarming, but on the other end of the spectrum. Sometimes a scene is memorable because of how well it utilizes the tools at hand. Sometimes, it’s classic because of how it transcends the medium to make us feel something more than we might. And sometimes, a scene is special because it isn’t any of those things–because it’s just clearly insane, wrong-headed, failing in a way that can’t be seen as anything other than perplexingly brilliant. That’s where this week’s scene comes in. Let’s meet John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy.
In 1979 director John Frankenheimer made a film called Prophecy (not the Chris Walken angel war thingee) based off a novel by the author of The Omen. It was an environmental knee-jerk thriller with Robert Foxworth looking like Bob Ross (please don’t cut down the happy little trees), Talia Share as his wife, and Armand Assante….as a Native American. This motley crew discover mercury poisoning in the water in New England and its aberrant effects on the local wildlife. The film’s heavy is a result of the mercury mutation; an enraged mother bruin that looks like what would happen if you threw Gentle Ben and a meatloaf into the Brundle Machine and hit ‘deepfry’.
There are plenty of goofball good times to be had with Prophecy but the hands-down best scene of the film involves an attack on a family camping in the woods. The monster rolls up and mauls the father and the sister and then the young boy tries to escape by running away in his STILL ZIPPED UP sleeping bag! The bear is having none of that, so with one swipe of its mighty paw it lobs the kid into the side of a rock where he explodes in a flurry of feathers and busted Gortex.
Check it out:
A family camping trip about to become a massacre– One of the pleasures of Prophecy is just how hokey it is. Frankenheimer was a great director, though, and his eye for details and composition are still strong. Take the campsite. Looks totally artificial, but also serene, and he’s left the family outside under the stars. Open for attack. It’s a peaceful composition–looks like anybody’s evening in the woods.
Billy in his Chaquita Banana sleeping bag– Ok, this must be a seventies thing, because I can’t imagine sleeping in something like this. Just a hole for the face? Certainly humor had to be a part of this scene from the beginning, despite the fact the movie is mostly deadly serious elsewhere. Further vulnerability for the kid, but maybe the levity here is meant to be contrasted with what’s coming through woods. Of course, there’s nothing scarier than that sleeping bag in this scene.
Smokey the Inside-Out Bear–The way the bear attacks, and the fact you can see the really bad dentistry on dad’s fillings (not captured here, see the clip below) hobbles what could have been a scary scene. This is the first time where you really get a look at the monster, and if the FX had been worthy, this could have been a masterful setpiece, considering the monster takes no prisoners and has invaded a serene family outing. But the beast is so dippy looking, that again, everything veers into comedy. We are bewildered, not afraid.
C’mon guys!! I can’t move! I CAN’T MOVE!! Cmon guys!!!–This next part happens fast and its one of the reasons Prophecy still stands out in my mind. This should be in a Disney movie or a Saturday morning cartoon. The kid hopping back and forth in the sleeping bag, trying to get away from the bear. It more or less sums up the awkwardness of all my childhood family camping trips at one time. I don’t know why they included it but Im glad they did. Strangely, there’s no other cue to suggest we are supposed to be feeling anything other than terror.
For his theater merit badge Billy performed the stunning Dance of the Flatworm
Go, Billy Go!
Unfortunately, the bear mistakes Billy for a Taco Bell Crunch Wrap– If you listen to the commentary on Prophecy, you will learn–and its easy to see–that the monster delivered was not remotely what had been asked for, but by the time they had it, there wasn’t much to be done other than to shoot (with a camera, not a gun) the damn thing. So, it’s clear Frankenheimer is trying to find other things to focus on in the scene, with only the smallest glimpes of the beast, which he still has to mostly conceal for later when it attacks the truck. So we have the shot of a grimacing mouth, and then back to…
In a last ditch attempt to fight back Billy screams “I hate the forest! I hope it burns down on your stupid head!”–The kid screaming, the bear growling, and he’s still peering out of the yellow bannana sleeping bag. Civilized humans, all wrapped up and ready for eating at the hands of a sullied nature. Still, John, why the sleeping bag? I really need to look at that commentary again. Then the bear’s paw comes up and smacks the kid…
That yellow shape flying through the air…yea, thats Billy– Killing children is still a not often broken taboo in Hollywood, especially in the late 70s. So it is surprising that a PG horror like Prophecy would break that tradition, especially for a scene so arbitrary as this one. But they do, and not in a normal way either. There’s no blood–Im sure that was a caveat or stipulation–that there be no blood. So Frankenheimer, knowing that an empty sleeping bag slapping against a rock isn’t impressive, and doesn’t properly demonstrate the monster’s strength. So he has it just evaporate into a giant pile of feathers. Massive force, blam feathers, and the shock is still there, with no blood or mess. By the time you realize the blood wasn’t there, you aren’t five anymore but much older and have already endured nightmares.
The guys down at the plant stuffed that one really good….seven geese were stripped naked in the making of this sleeping bag
Snow in July! It’s a Christmas miracle!
Next time, we will take a look at a scene from Charles Laughton’s classic Gothic thriller, Night of the Hunter. I promise, no meatloaf bears in that!