Prophecy (1979) 1/2 (out of 4)
Directed by: John Frankenheimer
Starring: Robert Foxworth, Talia Shire, Armand Assante, Richard Dysart, Victoria Racimo, George Clutesi
C.H.U.D. (1984) (out of 4)
Directed by: Douglas Cheek
Starring: John Heard, Daniel Stern, Christopher Curry, Kim Greist, J.C. Quinn, George Martin
Ah, eco-terror films. Born in the paranoid 1950s, giving us the nature-run-amok theme involving giant insects and killer rabbits and such, they are fun items, I admit, but I think they possess a certain limitation – after all the warnings about the dangers of polluting the environment and mother nature’s revenge on the human race, they still usually end up as simple B-movie monster fare. Naturally, the best of the environmental-horror flicks try to work around these limitations through quirky characters, decent suspense, or witty dialogue. They don’t always succeed, but hey, if you find yourself worrying about the environment afterward I suppose some good came out of it, right?
The two movies I want to review today cover the same basic ground – monsters created by mankind’s negligence and greed run amok. The difference between them is in attitude and location. Prophecy, released in 1979, sets its monster in the pristine wilderness of Maine and wants to believe that everyone has the best intentions but are simply ignorant of their situation. C.H.U.D., from 1984, hits the streets of New York City and calls out the authorities for willful deceit and corruption. But both deal with contamination and genetic mutation, and if they could actually talk you would probably hear them shouting stuff like “You idiots! Don’t you see what you’re doing to the planet!”. Both feature pregnant main characters (“Think about the world you want to bring your children up in!”). Of course, both have weaknesses that pretty much derail them, although C.H.U.D. manages to hold up better after all these years.
Prophecy shows the corruption of the natural world by man’s interference. When we begin, mill workers in the forests of Maine are slaughtered by an unknown entity. The next morning we are treated to a camera pan of their mangled bodies, set to classical music. Only later to we discover our heroine Maggie (Talia Shire) playing the cello in an orchestra. She’s worried because she’s pregnant but her husband Dr. Bob Verne (Robert Foxworth) doesn’t want any children and she doesn’t know how to break the news. “The world is such a mess it’s unfair to bring a child into it,” she says at one point. And so begins the movie’s liberal-tinged onslaught.
When we first see Dr. Verne he is saving a baby in the inner city from rat bites. He is picked by government man Vic (Graham Jarvis) to travel to Maine to mediate a dispute between lumberjacks from the Pitney Mills Paper Company and the Indian tribes in the area. The mill people have timber rights to 100,000 acres of forestland that the local O.P.s are blockading. The US government hopes to break the standstill by using Dr. Verne to write a report for the EPA. Vic hopes that because Dr. Verne is good with people, he can get the lumber company and the Indians to play nice. Of course, nowhere during the course of the film do we actually witness Dr. Verne using his supposed skills with people to get anything done. When the lumber mill operator Isley (Richard Dysart) threatens tribe leader John Hawks (Armand Assante) with a chainsaw, the doc just sits back and never gets out of the car. His tour of the lumber plant ends with a big argument with Isley – wow, so he’s good with people, huh?
After being attacked by a crazed raccoon, witnessing extra-large fish (including a giant tadpole), and hearing stories about deformed Indian babies, Dr. Verne thinks it’s time to check out the mill. Isley assures them that everything is proper, but later Verne discovers mercury in the area. After Maggie gets some of it on her hands she doesn’t seem too bothered by it. In fact, for a pregnant lady, she seems strangely dispassionate. A normal person would have immediately informed her husband about the pregnancy and then left the area for safety, long before anybody is attacked by a mutant bear.
Oh yes, did I mention that the monster is a mutant bear? A rather silly looking one – cheesy effects, rubbery suit, etc. – but the bear is at least ferocious, as it slashes, eats, cuts off heads, and so on. When one poor family is killed, the boy, trapped in a tight yellow sleeping bag, is whacked away into a rock. As his body hits, his sleeping bag seems to explode white feathers all over the place. How bizarre. Personally, I think the monster looks like Manbearpig, from South Park. I wonder if Prophecy is where they got their inspiration from.
The idea here is that if pregnant females consume fish with methylmercury in it, the poison jumps the placental barrier. This probably explains the mutant cubs that our heroes discover, and try to get to safety to use as evidence. Having consumed fish herself, Maggie understandably worries about what kind of baby she’ll have (as evidenced by Prophecy‘s poster, of a mutant monster in a womb). Of course, here is where the movie drops the ball – after all is said and done there is no followup on Maggie’s baby. No discussions on what she’ll do (besides her intentions on keeping it), how the baby turns out, any of it. I suppose we’re just going to have to be happy with Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive. By the way, it seems to me that Cohen (God Told Me To, The Stuff) would have been a better candidate to direct this movie than John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Black Sunday). Frankenheimer brings A-list sensibilities to a B-picture and I think the result is mixed. There are a few scenes that work – one nicely shot sequence in underground tunnels is suspenseful, and there’s no denying the beauty of the scenery. But other sequences seem too serious in tone for a movie about a giant manbearpig. (Prophecy overdoes it on the environmentalism message). The characters, though likable, behave nonsensically. Talia Shire’s milquetoast mom hauls a mutant bear cub all over the place while being chased by mommy bear without once considering that perhaps she shouldn’t be doing that. Only when the cub starts chewing on her neck does she think to dispose of it. I guess she’s really attached to the idea of having a mutant baby. The biggest problem with Prophecy though, is that most of the monster sequences are unrealistic and seem cut to shreds by the producers to garner a PG rating (even though this movie is very violent for a PG – in today’s world it would most likely be PG-13 – but hey, it’s the 70s). I also wonder if there is uncut footage regarding the aftermath of Maggie’s pregnancy lying around somewhere.
C.H.U.D.‘s best gimmick involves the title itself, which refers to the “monsters in the sewers”. They’re called Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers. Now tell me that’s not brilliant! John Heard is George Cooper, a photographer who does pieces on the homeless who live under the streets of NYC. Kim Greist plays his pregnant model girlfriend. Daniel Stern is AJ, the soup kitchen guy who’s friends with Captain Bosch, played by Christopher Curry. Bosch’s wife disappeared while out walking the dog one night – well, actually an unseen monster pulled her down into the sewers. A couple more missing persons cases turn up, including assorted homeless (called undergrounders) and a little girl’s grandpa, who’s grabbed by a CHUD right out of a phone booth.
A meeting with shady city leaders exposes government bureaucrat Wilson (George Martin) as the bad guy, responsible for a major coverup involving the dumping of toxic waste under the city. Greist’s character is attacked in her apartment by a CHUD while the rest of the cast gets trapped underground while Wilson decides to flood the sewers with gas to kill off the CHUDs. The CHUDs, of course, are the undergrounders after they undergo ugly transformations due to radiation exposure.
C.H.U.D.‘s major weakness is that it plods along for too many stretches without really showing us the monsters. When the CHUDs do make their appearance, it’s fleeting, and we never get a serious look at them for too long. Perhaps the creators of the film thought the makeup effects weren’t up to par, although personally I liked what I saw. As a B-movie picture, C.H.U.D. is just too damn talky for its own good, but I must say that I liked the characters more than usual, so I suppose that I can’t complain about this point. Heard, Stern, Greist, and Curry all give good performances for this sort of thing, and hell, even John Goodman makes an appearance (briefly – in a diner scene where police officers are attacked by CHUDs. This diner scene, by the way, originally was tacked on to the end of the theatrical release, but this DVD release restores it to the middle of the film, where it was originally intended to be).
The ending to C.H.U.D. is a bit weak, as everything culminates in a face off with bad guy Wilson – it basically comes down to a gunfight. For a monster movie, I think it’s unacceptable not to have a face off with the monsters themselves. (At least Prophecy knew enough to do this). But C.H.U.D. is still a better film than Prophecy because it has more going for it – the city setting seems to work better for this kind of picture, the characters are more fleshed out, CHUDs look cooler than Manbearpig, and, well, radioactive toxic waste is more interesting than boring old mercury poisoning.
If you pay attention, part of each film deals with man’s mistreatment of man – in each case there’s a forgotten people (Prophecy‘s Native Americans, C.H.U.D.‘s homeless) who are given vindication if not true justice. We disregard them (and nature) at our own peril. That’s the message, I think, and I’m sure it’s fairly accurate since both movies tend to shove the idea into our faces. Perhaps they have to, considering that otherwise we’d all be commenting on how fake their rubbery monster suits look. (But we do that anyway). In any case, these pro-environment movies are what I consider the last gasp of the cinema of environmental horror, and they certainly look it. I only recommend watching either of these on rainy days or very late nights. Booze helps.
- Bill Gordon