The Frankenheimer Monster

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Had heard great things about how bad John Frankenheimer’s PROPHECY was, but we still couldn’t believe our eyes. Actually, it’s a movie that gets magically worse as it goes on, starting kind of OK and actually starting to get interesting until the giant mutant grizzly bear wobbles onto the screen.

Like GODZILLA VERSUS THE SMOG MONSTER, this is a film with something to say about pollution. How it’s bad, and stuff. But the technical details are kind of plausible, and the human cost evoked with some conviction, until the giant mutant grizzly bear wobbles onto the screen.

Frankenheimer always delivers technical competence and guts at least — this movie compares favourably with his delirious, delightful, godawful ISLAND OF DR MOREAU, in that the technical competence and guts are stretched awful thin at times — you now have an unpleasant mental image of intestines being stretched to snapping point, I know, and I wouldn’t have handed that to you for anything in the world except that it’s kind of an appropriate image to carry in your mind when considering PROPHECY. Until the giant mutant grizzly bear wobbles onto the screen.

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Sadly, this isn’t the monster.

Makeup effects by the Burman brothers — Thomas and Ellis Jnr, who also worked on THE MANITOU, making them masters of late seventies Amerindian prosthetics movies (what, no NIGHTWING?). They have some good credits, and some really bad ones, though I’m disinclined to blame them for HOWARD THE DUCK — life is so much simpler if you just blame George Lucas for every awful thing involving George Lucas. I don’t want to blame them for PROPHECY either, and the script (by OMEN guy David Seltzer) is certainly guilty of multiple compound stupidities. Frankenheimer seems to be doing everything a profoundly drunk, talented man can do to disguise the bad moments and capitalise on the good ones, until the giant mutant grizzly bear wobbles onto the screen.

When it does, replacing the tentative feeling of “this movie might actually be OK” with one of “this movie just became awesomely terrible,” it’s tempting to wonder what could have been done to salvage the bad bear suit. Can a movie about a giant mutant grizzly bear get by without a convincing giant mutant grizzly bear? Well, of course it can — look at JAWS. Of course, the giant mutant grizzly bear in that movie was a shark, and it swam underwater, and you could keep it offscreen. When it did appear, it looked fake as hell, though, and yet the movie survived.

The problem with the bear suit is that it moves like Godzilla, ie like a man in a costume wobbling about. Slow-motion might have helped, and keeping the goofy thing in silhouette for maybe 95% of the action might have helped. POV shots might have helped. God knows, Frankenheimer doesn’t linger on the beastie, anymore than he lingers on the Goodyear blimp nosediving the football stadium in BLACK SUNDAY, but even allowing the fucker to take a single step exposes it outright as the laborious make-believe of a sweaty man in a hot costume. He might as well be dressed as Minnie Mouse.

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The best monster shot because it’s eerie, and the monster is too far away to make out.

And then the movie ends, and we’re waiting for some horrible pay-off to the fact that leading lady Talia Shire is pregnant, and she ate the fish from the polluted river, and the mutagens are raging within her. And instead, as she and her hubby are airlifted out, another giant mutant grizzly bear wobbles onto the screen.

My good friend screenwriter Colin McLaren refers to the “closeup of a bee” ending, that staple of 70s horror movies that says “the Whole Thing is going to Start All Over Again…” and reflects the fact that 70s filmmakers and their audiences expected to be unsettled, rather than reassured, by horror movie endings and movie endings in general. Of course it quickly became a cliché and wouldn’t unsettle anyone anymore by the time of PROPHECY. But while ending Q THE WINGED SERPENT with a shot of a giant egg may be knee-achingly predictable, ending a giant mutant grizzly bear with a close-up of ANOTHER giant mutant grizzly bear is just hysterically pathetic. And this one looks like a glove puppet. It’s not even uglier than the first one.

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I think my search to find the most stinking John Frankenheimer movie is over. Back to the good ones, if I can identify them.

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14 Responses to “The Frankenheimer Monster”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    Never seen PROPHECY, but must admit I love the THE ISLAND OF DR MOREAU – a glorious high camp horror movie with perhaps the only performance by Marlon Brando’s I ever enjoyed!

  2. Brando’s Moreau is kind of a cross between his Fletcher Christian and Dick Emery’s naughty vicar.


  3. Compare and contrast.

  4. My favorite man-in-a-bearsuit movie

  5. A truly great monster — the perfect surrealist juxtaposition, and a brilliant encapsulation of Cartesian dualism. The whole of 2001: A Space Odyssey in a single moth-eaten costume.

  6. This, for me, is the start of John Frankenheimer’s ‘vulgar’ period, followed by his kung-fu picture (written by John Sayles) Holcroft, the very sleazy 52 Pick Up and climaxing with Don Johnson’s vomit.

    The next year he began his ‘restrained studio professional’ with the uninspired “Year of the Gun”-which for my money the most unenjoyable bad John Frankenheimer film.
    A lot of his last 12 years were spent taking on studio projects that he didn’t have much interest in, including Moreau. Ironically that may be his most ‘vulgar’ film but compared to Richard Stanley’s script its very conservative (the hero doesn’t even get eaten)

    Just before he died and he was going to do the Exorcist prequel, another project I can’t imagine he’d be that interested in.
    However despite his previous record with horror (this) I’m still curious about what he would’ve done with it.

    Highly recommend The Horsemen and Gypsy Moths if you haven’t seen them already

  7. Still to watch those two.

    Seconds, in my view, is a truly great horror movie. The fact that he’d already made one follow-up to a Friedkin, with French Connection II, makes the Exorcist prequel an intriguing prospect.

    I read one JF interview where he claimed that Moreau was a masterpiece which would be appreicated in later years. In a way, through Mike Myers’ appropriation of Mini-Me, it’s come true.

    I do suspect I’ll find his best later work in the TV films. Even his BMW ad is pretty good.

  8. Tony Williams Says:

    I don’t think Marlon had seen Dick Emery as Mandy when he made THE MISSOURI BREAKS. His most well known comic character’s line must have been based on Joan Barry’s Roedean dubbing of Anny Ondra when she says “Oooh, you are awful!” in BLACKMAIL.


  9. A wonderfully basic concept for a sketch character.

  10. Jeff Gee Says:

    I assumed from the title this was going to be a post about Michael Bay…

  11. Why? Is there a Bay-Frankenheimer connection I’m unaware of?

  12. Jeff Gee Says:

    Bay claims to be Frankenheimer’s son. Check out their respective Wikipedia pages for the back and forth on it. I can’t believe there hasn’t been a shitty movie about it already. Maybe Harrison Ford as Frankenheimer and Shia Lebeouf as Bay?

  13. I really will have to see this someday.

    You know, the sad thing is, that mutant bear actually looks reasonably scary in a still. Or at least gross enough to be unsettling.

    Surprised you hadn’t heard the Frankenheimer-Bay story before, DC. It’s my favorite Thing About Michael Bay, who already gives us so many delightful things to make fun of. Now that you know that, didn’t the world just become a little more interesting for you?

  14. Bay may be living proof that talent gets watered down by the passing of the generations, if his claim is true. Or that talent is a recessive trait but assholism a dominant one.

    I do find it incredibly easy to believe that Frankenheimer had a blood test that disproved his paternity but Bay decided to go on believing. It feels poetically apt.

    The mutant bear DESIGN in Prophecy is pretty disturbing. You wouldn’t want to stroke it. The whole problem is one of motion. Even if you could get a special effect to walk like a bear, it would probably look crap because bears have a silly way of walking. What makes them scary is that they’re big, predatory and REAL.

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