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Prophecy (1979): Horror in the Woods

Updated on October 15, 2014

Terror that Works on So Many Levels

ManBearPig! Now that I have your attention, I’d like to talk a little about a subject that is near and dear to my heart: ManBearPig. But first let me attempt to rebuild the anticipation I just squandered by shouting “ManBearPig!” at the beginning of this article and establish a context for that exclamation after the fact.

Some elements of pop culture manage to transcend the plane of one-hit wonders, rising higher than Urkel’s suspenders in our collective consciousness to actually contribute to a greater understanding of a facet of society that seems foreign or even frightening to many who didn’t get in on the ground floor. One example of this is MC Hammer’s parachute pants and their insightful commentary on how people in the 1980s had no concept of fabric conservation. Another (read: more relevant) example is South Park. Admittedly, I’ve always been more of a fan of The Simpsons, but there are times when the subtle brilliance of 1990s Simpsons simply isn’t brazen enough to jar us from the sleepwalking monotony of the day-to-day. South Park is the proverbial brick-through-our front-porch-window-at-two-in-the-morning wakeup call that raises our awareness of pop culture news and keeps us frosty (because it’s the middle of winter and now there’s a big gaping hole in your front window with no one to fix it because where are you going to find a window repair guy at 2AM?).

South Park has infamously created episodes about subjects like Scientology and Mormonism that rose to national prominence and generated considerable discussion about topics many had been unfamiliar with up to that point. What I’m most concerned with at present, however, is their episode featuring ManBearPig. For those that haven’t seen it, the episode is about Al Gore (that guy who “invented the internet”) claiming the greatest threat to the world is ManBearPig, a creature that is “half man, half bear, half pig.” Al Gore’s South Park character is determined to raise awareness about this fictional creature in order to draw attention to himself and seem more important to the rest of the world. It’s clear that the premise is designed to poke fun at Gore’s campaign about global warming, but what isn’t clear is whether or not Matt Stone and Trey Parker (the show’s creators) had seen the film Prophecy (1979).

Prophecy is an environmental horror film—released nearly three decades before the 2006 South Park episode—about a doctor who is enlisted by the EPA to assess the damage allegedly being caused by a logging operation deep in the woods of Maine. Once Dr. Robert Verne (Robert Foxworth) and his wife Maggie (Talia Shire) arrive, they find Native Americans who claim their land is being illegally ravaged and loggers who claim the Native Americans have killed some of their workers. The tension between them has reached a boiling point and the threat of a violent confrontation is imminent. The Native Americans (called “O.P.s” or “Opies” for “original people”) claim the deaths of the workers have been caused by a vengeful nature spirit named Katahdin, who is just defending the land.

Eventually, it becomes clear that the logging company was unknowingly releasing mercury into the rivers, causing monstrous mutations in forest creatures and giving birth (literally) to Katahdin aka ManBearPig. Katahdin (which will be henceforth referred to exclusively as ManBearPig, because if you haven’t noticed I’m going for a record here) is a gigantic bear that walks like a man and has a large patch of scar tissue on its face that kind of makes it look like a pig. You’d think a film attempting to create a genuinely scary representation of such a ridiculous monster using only ‘70s special effects would fail spectacularly, but you’d be wrong. Dead wrong. When using close-up shots of only its head and shoulders, ManBearPig looks like a ridiculous animatronic hood ornament, flapping its arms and rotating its head from side to side, and we’re forced to assume the director just mounted those robotic parts to his car and drove through the woods during filming. But surprisingly—and counter intuitively—ManBearPig earns its rightful place in your nightmares from the wide-angle shots where it can be seen in its entirety, running with all the coordination and enthusiasm of a five-year-old after an ice cream social. I have yet to figure out which is more terrifying: investing yourself in the fantasy of the movie and imagining ManBearPig as reality, or realizing that ManBearPig is a ten-foot robotic monstrosity that was actually constructed for the production and could be behind you right now dripping WD40 onto your shoulder from its soulless, rusty jaws.

Aside from ManBearPig, Prophecy also shares in South Park’s theme of raising awareness about issues that are not getting the attention they deserve. The fact that it is a film about the dangers of man’s destructive influence on the environment is pretty clear, but it also adds more dimensions to the typical horror story about people getting attacked by something in the woods. For example, Dr. Verne is adamant about not having children because he doesn’t want to bring them into such a terrible world (his last job was to give emergency medical attention to impoverished tenants forced to live in rat-infested buildings). However, unbeknownst to him, his wife has been pregnant from the start of the movie and is too afraid to tell him about it. Verne is too caught up in his work to allow his wife an opportunity to discuss it, suggesting that while we may be concentrating our efforts and trying to do good elsewhere, there may be issues of equal or greater concern lurking right in our own backyard.

There are many other stirring questions raised by Prophecy about the complex relationships between man and nature, husband and wife, and people of different cultures sharing the same living space and resources that I could have addressed instead of talking about ManBearPig, but the intent of the film is not to force audiences to sit through a lecture, rather the intent is to generate discussion and leave room for viewers to form their own opinions (the film’s ending is left fairly open). So if you’re in the mood for a different kind of horror movie that challenges you to come to terms with fears residing in both the natural and supernatural realms (or if you just want to see ManBearPig in all his gory live-action glory), then Prophecy is your golden ticket.

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