31 Days of Fright: Halloween III: Season of the Witch

In northern California, most kids go trick-or-treating at abandoned gas stations.

In northern California, most kids go trick-or-treating at abandoned gas stations.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! The most recent film is Halloween III: Season of the Witch, directed by Tommy Lee Wallace (Fright Night, Part 2, the television miniseries of Stephen King’s It). Halloween III: Season of the Witch is yet another of my donor-less viewings. I included it on the list because not only is it sometimes referred to as the best of the many Halloween movies, it is also sometimes referred to as one of the better horror movies, in general. We’ll see! Halloween III was rented from my other favourite video store – one with an exhaustive collection – Bay Street Video.

What happens:

Be forewarned if you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into, but Halloween III is that rarest of beasts: a Halloween without a Michael Myers. (Just so you don’t expect Michael Myers to show up in the final act.) What we have instead is horrific parable of corporate malfeasance, though much more premeditated than that seen in Prophecy. The film opens with some moody Carpenter-esque music (makes sense, since he wrote the music) over a slowly building LED display of a jack o’ lantern. Halloween III, this title sequence boldly proclaims, is a horror movie of the (early) digital age.

A lone man runs along a northern California highway late at night on October 23. Pursuing him at some distance is a shark-like car. The man, Harry Grimbridge (Al Berry) turns into a gas service station and attempts to enter the office or garage, but none of the buildings are unlocked. He crouches, stock-still, as the car slowly passes by the garage entrance. Thinking himself in the clear, he looks for somewhere else to hide, but the car reverses and pulls into the service station. Harry backs right into a well-manicured man in a suit, who promptly pushes him to the ground and starts to choke him. Harry pulls out the chain weight that’s keeping a car in place, and the car rolls right into his attacker, pinning him between two cars. Another besuited man exits the car and chases after Harry deeper into the station’s junkyard.

As much as I wanted it to be, that's not Topher Grace.

As much as I wanted it to be, that’s not Topher Grace.

An hour later, a gas station attendant half-watches a news report on how a block from Stonehenge has gone missing. An irritating commercial for Silver Shamrock novelties, advertising their Halloween masks, follows, complete with a bouncy “London Bridge” jingle. The attendant hears something outside in the storm. He goes to investigate and Harry leaps out at him, collapsing at the attendant’s feet. “They’re coming,” he moans. In his hand, he clutches a jack o’lantern mask.

Not far away, Dr. Dan Challis (Tom Atkins) visits his ex-wife, Linda (Nancy Kyes), and two kids. He’s brought them some Halloween gifts – two masks. The ungrateful kids, however, are disappointed. Their mother already bought them better masks from Silver Shamrock. Dr. Challis’s beeper goes off and he’s called in to work. Linda, noticing Challis is a bit tipsy, sneers, “drinking and doctoring: a great combination.” But Dan isn’t going to let a little thing like reduced motor skills stop him from fulfilling his hospital duties. The gas station attendant has brought in the exhausted and unresponsive Harry Grimbridge. But when a patient’s television plays the bouncy Silver Shamrock commercial, his eyes widen and he gasps, “they’re going to kill us.” Dan has the on-duty nurse, Agnes (Maidie Norman) bring Harry to a hospital bed.

The suited men, however, have been stalking the hospital from the outside. While Dr. Challis subjects Nurse Agnes to some old-fashioned sexual harassment – naturally, she’s charmed – the suited man sneaks into Harry’s hospital room, dons leather gloves, and digs his fingers into the prone Harry’s eye sockets. He twists and squeezes. Something gives and Harry Grimbridge dies. Nurse Agnes enters the room and asks the suited man what he’s doing. He exits without speaking, and the nurse, seeing Grimbridge dead, screams. Dr. Challis runs after the man in the suit, but before he can catch up to him in the parking lot, the man has entered his car. Then he douses himself in gasoline and sets himself and the car on fire. We can tell from his facial expression that Dr. Challis is mildly intrigued.

With the hospital murder-suicide, Dan calls his ex-wife to cancel his childcare responsibilities. The man’s daughter arrives to identify the body and is horrified by the state of her dad’s face. When she asks the police what happened, they assume the killer was a drug addict, high out of his mind. Dubious of the police’s claims, Dan later visits the coroner, the amiable Teddy (Wendy Wessberg). He asks Teddy to let him know if she finds any information on the immolated perp, but she only has ashes to go on at this point. Dan can’t imagine this murder was drug-related, noting how the killer seemed in total control and was dressed like a businessman. (Do you not realize how many drugs businessmen use, Dr. Challis?) Teddy agrees there must be something funny happening: “He had to be one strong businessman, I can tell you that. You don’t just pull someone’s skull apart without a little lower-arm strength, know what I mean?” (Do we ever.)

The good doctor drinks alone at a bar, which seems to play exclusively children’s programming – Dan can’t escape that Silver Shamrock commercial. Grimbridge’s daughter, Ellie (Stacey Nelkin), tracks Dan down and asks him about her dad’s final moments. Dan first lies, saying he talked about how he loved his daughter, but eventually he lets the truth slip about her dad’s bizarre last words and how he kept clutching that mask. Ellie takes Dan to her dad’s shop. Grimbridge ran a novelty shop in town, and the jack o’lantern mask was one of the Silver Shamrock masks he sold. Going through her dad’s extremely detailed records, Ellie is able to pinpoint when something seemed to go wrong – it was during a trip to Santa Mira, to the Silver Shamrock factory where they produce both those masks and those awful commercials. Soon, Dan is cancelling yet again on his ex-wife, and the duo are on a road trip to Santa Mira.

She was looking for her father's murderer; what she found was true love.

She was looking for her father’s murderer; what she found was true love.

Santa Mira, if you couldn’t tell by the name, is a largely Irish-American community centred around the Silver Shamrock factory, one of the largest producers of Halloween novelties and masks in the United States. Dan and Ellie’s arrival attracts a lot of attention – both from the locals in this cloistered town, and the ever-present security cameras. They decide to pose as a couple and check in to the local motel. Dan does a bit of detective work and notes that Harry, Ellie’s dad, checked into the motel on October 20. A hearse-like black car coasts by the motel parking lot and the hotel manger identifies it as the car of Mr. Cochran, owner of Silver Shamrock. Suddenly, the sleepy motel becomes a hive of activity, the Kupfer family – Buddy (Ralph Strait), Betty (Jadeen Barbor), and Little Buddy (Brad Schacter) – arrives in their RV, nearly driving over Dan. Another guest, a buyer unhappy with her Silver Shamrock mask order, also pulls into the parking lot.

Dan and Ellie realize they have to say overnight at the motel and Dan awkwardly asks where he should sleep – should he get another room? sleep in the car? Ellie cocks her eyebrow and asks, “Where do you want to sleep, Mr. Challis?” Thus begins their romantic relationship. At 6 p.m., factory loudspeakers announce the nightly curfew to the town, and the residents dutifully lock up their doors. Dan, however, brazenly flouts the curfew to pick up some booze. He runs into Starker (Jon Terry), a homeless man who asks for a swig from his bottle. Starker volunteers his thoughts on Cochran, whom he hates because he set up a massive factory in Santa Mira and brought in all his own workers. He doesn’t hire anyone local. Beyond that, Cochran has placed cameras all around the town, keeping tabs on every resident. Starker has heard rumours about the factory and says, cryptically, that this will be the last Halloween for the Silver Shamrock factory. He has plans for them.

That evening, Starker is accosted by two men in fine suits in his temporary junkyard home. He pleads forgiveness, but the men make Starker kneel, then one pulls Starker’s head off with his bare hands! Back at the motel, Ellie makes a friend with that buyer, Marge Guttman (Garn Stephens), who mistakes Ellie for another novelties purchaser. Marge has a store in San Francisco, and tells Ellie all about how easily the Silver Shamrock logo falls off the masks, thus ensuring the movie passes the Bechdel Test. Marge then returns to her room, knocking the medallion with the silver logo on it onto her carpet. Dan calls Teddy at her office and she says autopsy results on the murderer will be delayed; they had been doing an autopsy on part of the car by accident. The ashes they analyzed was all metal and plastic. After checking in with Teddy, Dan returns to his motel room and makes very awkward love with Ellie.

Just the other side of a thin motel-room wall, Marge sits in bed, reading. She spots the logo medallion on the floor and picks it up for closer inspection. With her reading glasses, she can see that the logo medallion is actually some kind of microchip. She takes a bobby pin and sticks it into the chip, causing a blue beam of light to blast her in the face. All that’s left of Marge’s mouth is a gory, bloody socket. Her bloodshot eyes stare down at her mess of a lower face in disbelief until a large locust crawls out of the mouth wound and up her forehead. (Just in case you were wondering when this movie was going to get gory.)

Dan and Ellie are woken from their post-coital slumber by a commotion outside. A number of men in white coats haul a stretcher into the back of an ambulance. Dan, being a doctor, leaves the room and asks what’s happening, though none of the “doctors” assembled will say much. Ellie recognizes that the body under the sheet must be that of her new friend Marge. Dan asks who is in charge of the patient, and the hotel manager answers that Mr. Cochran is. Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy) arrives in his car and tries to allay Dan’s concerns. Marge, he says, will be taken to a medical facility at the factory. But Dan overhears Cochran talking to one of the “doctors” about a “misfire.” He’s about to ask a few more questions, but Ellie stops him, realizing they’re already attracting undue attention.

On the morning of October 30, Dan again calls in to Teddy, who says that the autopsy has become a total mystery: there’s nothing to indicate there ever was a body in the ashes they collected. Dan asks her to move on from the autopsy and instead find whatever she can about Conal Cochran. “This’ll cost you some serious dinners,” she flirts. (Everyone is totally charmed by Dr. Dan Challis.) Dan and Ellie visit the Silver Shamrock factory and inquire about Harry Grimbridge’s last order. The staff at the factory assure her that Grimbridge picked it up. The Kupfers arrive at the factory reception, too, and are warmly greeted by Mr. Cochran, dressed like a robber baron from the 1920s, complete with pocket watch and chain. Buddy Kupfer was the number one salesman of Silver Shamrock masks this past year, and as thanks, Cochran is going to give his family a tour of the mask factory. (Though how Kupfer is able to get away from his work during what must be his busiest time of year is never explained.) Kupfer insists they bring Ellie and Dan (whom he believes are called The Smiths) along on their Willy-Wonka-esque tour.

Conal Cochran, TCB.

Conal Cochran, TCB.

The group tours the factory floor and even visits a bit of a Silver Shamrock museum, which delights Buddy. Cochran is something of an idol of his – ”He invented sticky toilet paper!” – but his son, Buddy Jr., just wants a jack o’lantern mask. Cochran makes sure Little Buddy gets a mask that has been through the “final process,” and puts it on the child’s face himself. Buddy Sr., intrigued, wants to know what this “final process” involves. Cochran is reticent, saying the final process is a trade secret, and involves volatile chemicals. Dan, growing bored with all the mask shop talk, notices an abundance of men in suits on the factory grounds – men who look a lot like the man who killed Ellie’s father. He brings this to Ellie’s attention and she soon notices her father’s car in a Silver Shamrock garage. She runs to the car, but her pathway is blocked by a number of those quiet men in suits.

Finally creeped out to their personal limits, Ellie and Dan make plans to leave town. Ellie begins to pack her things in the motel room and Dan goes to use the motel reception’s phone to alert the police. But none of the emergency or information numbers are accessible. Failing in his telephonic efforts, Dan returns to the motel room to find the door wide open and Ellie absent. He calls for her and looks outside to see a wall of men in suits. Dan locks the door and sneaks out the bathroom window while the suits try to forcefully enter through the front door. Dan runs through the night, evading any cars he sees on the road. One such car has the abducted Ellie confined in its backseat. Dan again tries to call for help – this time, from a pay phone – but is again blocked from reaching the outside world. He formulates a new plan to break into the Silver Shamrock factory.

Unfortunately, they're not about to embark on some dazzling choreography, a la New World Order.

Unfortunately, they’re not about to embark on some dazzling choreography, a la New World Order.

Dan shimmies in through a window and sneaks through the factory, eventually reaching Cochran’s office. He opens the door to find an old woman knitting. Dan grabs the old woman by the shoulders and demands to know where Ellie is. When she fails to respond, he shakes her, sending her head toppling to the ground. The old knitting woman is a robot! But she looked so life-like … wait a minute. As if already reading the audience’s thoughts, one of the suits appears and grabs Dan by the head. Tom punches at the suited man desperately, eventually reaching into the man’s chest. Instead of pulling out a bunch of intestines (which would be really impressive), he pulls out a bunch of wires coated in (seemingly) Orangina. Half-melted orange concentrate similarly pours out the man’s mouth. He must be a robot, too!

Dan is quickly apprehended by two more of Cochran’s goons, who restrain him as the factory owner himself arrives. Cochran reveals that his workers are, in fact, robots. The insides, he says, were easier to fashion than the outsides. But it was just another form of mask-making in the end. Cochran takes Dan to the room where the “final processing” is done, and outlines his nefarious plans. In the centre of a massive control room, surrounded by computer terminals and robot lab technicians, is a big chunk of Stonehenge. Cochran’s drones are chipping off pieces of the mystical rock and using them to fashion microchips that are place the Silver Shamrock medallions affixed to every mask. Cochran instructs Dan to watch as he tests out his plan on his guinea pigs: the Kupfers.

The Kupfers are brought to a bunker (Test Room A) that’s made up like a suburban living room. Betty Kupfer begins to feel uncomfortable, but the television soon turns on and the repetitive Silver Shamrock commercial plays. The voiceover of the commercial instructs all children to put on their masks and watch the television screen, instructions that Little Buddy dutifully follows. He stares as an LED image of a jack o’lantern flashes before his eyes. Slowly, the mask becomes more organic, starts to rot, and the child collapses in front of the TV. From the pumpkin mask, dozens of insects crawl out, followed by a few large snakes. Betty Kupfer faints, while Big Buddy tries to escape the room. The snakes attack him and he collapses. Dr. Challis watches, dumbfounded. He realizes that children will be wearing these masks across the United States, and when they see that commercial on Halloween night, they, too, will die, their heads turned to mush, insects, and snakes (I guess).

I can see why this show is so popular!

I can see why this show is so popular!

Teddy, meanwhile, tries to call Dan at the motel, but the motel number has been disconnected. A man in a suit, one office over, extracts a power drill from a drawer. Teddy absent-mindedly plays with some of the small car parts recovered from the murder-suicide and makes a startling realization: the part isn’t from the car, it’s from the murderer. At the moment of her epiphany, the suit grabs her and power-drills her skull to the ground. Back at the Silver Shamrock factory, Cochran has bound Dan Challis to a chair positioned in front of a television that plays the Halloween Horror-Thon (programming that features his commercials all night long). Dan demands to know why Cochran is doing this, and Cochran scoffs, “Do I need a reason? I do love a good joke, and this is the best ever. A joke on the children.” But pressed a bit further, he reveals himself to be a follower of witchcraft, taking Halloween back to its roots: the festival of Samhain, when the barriers between the real and the unreal fell. The places a Silver Shamrock skull mask on Dan’s face and wishes him a “Happy Halloween.”

After Cochran leaves, Dan desperately tries to escape the chair. He manages to kick in the television screen, then cuts himself free from his bonds with a handy pocketknife he had on him. (Cochran, search the captives! That’s villain rule number one!) He tosses the skull mask over the security camera and escapes the room. One of the robot lab technicians notices an obstruction over the camera in Challis’s room and alerts Cochran, who is busy on the phone schmoozing TV execs. The robots investigate the prisoner’s room, but Dan has escaped. He’s busy crawling through the ventilation ducts over the control room. Dan calls his ex from the factory floor in an attempt to convince her to throw out their kids’ masks. His ex-wife, pretty fed up with Dan’s nonsense by this point, refuses, saying Dan is either drunk or jealous.

With his children facing certain doom, Dan goes to free Ellie, but Cochran sees him rescue her. Dan and Ellie then sneak into the massive control room, hidden by a cart full of masks. Dan, who is clearly the most stealthy man in history, somehow manages to sneak behind all the robots and start up the final commercial within the room, then carries a bunch of Silver Shamrock medallions to the catwalk overhead, from which he tosses them like confetti. The combination of the subliminally messaged commercial with the microchip logos causes the robots to short-circuit and vomit up pea soup. Cochran realizes what’s happened, but is powerless to undo the actions Dan set in motion. The chunk of Stonehenge hums and a circle of power develops around the pile of logo medallions. A giant blue ray connects the two, driving right through Cochran, who dissipates into the ether.

A scene from Stargate: Origins?

A scene from Stargate: Origins?

Dan and Ellie leap into their car and speed away from the factory. Dan says that they have to alert people and make sure their children don’t watch the fateful commercial at 9 p.m. Ellie, however, reaches over and begins to claw at Dan’s face with super-strength. She’s not Ellie anymore; she’s one of Cochran’s creations! Dan pulls at the steering wheel and the car collides with a tree. He staggers out the car and walks over to the passenger side, where Ellie’s severed robot arm is still gripping the door handle. Ellie surprises Dan from behind, choking him with her one remaining arm. Dan reaches back for a tire iron and hits the robot Ellie until her head falls off. When he returns to the car, the disembodied arm tries to choke him, but he eventually breaks free. And then – once more, for good measure – Ellie’s headless, one-armed body makes a final Hail-Mary attack, but Dan easily bests it. What remains of Ellie collapses.

Hey, remember that gas station attendant at the beginning? Well, he’s back to his old tricks, watching television in the gas station office. A bloodied, haggard Dan rushes up to his gas station and demands to use the phone. While the Horror-Thon plays, Dan pleads with someone on the other end of the telephone – presumably a television programmer – to take the commercials off the air. As he does, three children wearing Silver Shamrock masks enter the gas station, trick-or-treating, and the attendant gives them candy. The Silver Shamrock commercial plays and the one child stares at the screen until a new screen – “Experiencing Technical Difficulties: Please Stand By” – appears. He changes the channel; it’s also on the fritz. But the third channel is still running the commercial. Dan shouts into the phone – “Stop it! Stop it!” – as the jack o’lantern begins to flash on the television screen.

Dr. Dan Challis is all about the do-not-call list.

Dr. Dan Challis is all about the do-not-call list.

Takeaway points:

  • Fans of the Halloween movies may be inclined to ask, “Where’s Michael Myers?” After all, most Halloween movies feature the sociopathic masked killer. Halloween III is the odd film out. At the time of Halloween III, producer John Carpenter planned to make a new Halloween movie each year, each with a totally different Halloween-themed tale. The series would be like an anthology of Halloween-set stories. But Halloween III tanked at the box office and the series returned by giving the people what they wanted: more Michael Myers!
  • As ham-fisted as it may be, Halloween III is undoubtedly a strong corporate critique and a cautionary tale about merchandising to kids. After all, kids who watch too many commercials in this film literally die. A pretty pointed criticism, I’d say. Though it would be more pointed if the business owner had a believable motive – like improving company shares, rather than taking innate pleasure children’s deaths and having a steadfast commitment to the Irish witch lifestyle. Halloween III‘s willingness to murder children like Little Buddy, along with the real downer of the ending, demonstrates how damaging the filmmakers think children’s marketing really is. (That said, Carpenter has always been willing to kill children in his movies.) Though the film wasn’t directed by John Carpenter, you can easily view Halloween III as a kind of proto-They Live, which took this idea of subliminal corporate messaging and ran with it.
  • Perhaps the quaintest thing is how Halloween III uses the factory’s private surveillance – cameras all over town – as a clear indication of its evil nature. In 1982, the sight of these hidden cameras would have tweaked any viewer to some business wrongdoing going down, but I feel that privately operated security cameras are so ubiquitous now, the depiction of the cameras as ominous is just adorable. In 2016, we’re alarmed when we’re not under surveillance.
  • One thing Halloween III does share with the original is the intensely moody electronic score, provided by John Carpenter himself. The music in Halloween III is everything. The score gives the scenes any suspense and terror they may possess and shoulders the majority of the work building the spooky atmosphere in Santa Mira.
  • I can’t be the only one who watched Halloween III and saw the clear parallels between Conal Cochran’s mask-based murder plot and The Riddler’s similarly ludicrous scheme to beam television directly into viewers’ brains in Batman Forever. Rest assured, Halloween III is the superior third film of the two series.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Somebody lied to me when they claimed this was the best Halloween movie. Halloween III is, for sure, a movie of note, but one cannot place it in the realm of the terrifying. There is some very impressive gore on display and a novel take on the Invasion of the Body Snatchers theme, but it’s also, at times, quite laughable.

Betty Kupfer, apparently in June Carter Cash cosplay, for the factory tour.

Betty Kupfer, apparently in June Carter Cash cosplay, for the factory tour.

Best outfit: My eye for labels isn’t great, but I’m pretty sure the moustachioed Dr. Dan Challis is wearing a Members’ Only jacket for the majority of the film. But if you want to talk bold fashion choices, I have two words for you: Betty Kupfer.

Best line: “We had a time getting it here. You wouldn’t believe how we did it.” – Conal Cochran, referring to the clandestine transport of a rock from Stonehenge to northern California. And no, we wouldn’t.

Best kill: It’s unclear whether Marge Guttman actually dies from blasting herself in the face with a Stonehenge ray, but the result is grue-some to the max.

Unexpected cameo: The star of the film, Tom Atkins, is forever remembered by horror fans as either Ray Cameron, the no-nonsense cop from Night of the Creeps or Frank McCrae from Maniac Cop. There’s also a stellar voice-over cameo by Jamie Lee Curtis, the star of the original Halloween, who provides the voice of the operator when Dan Challis tries to call out of Santa Mira.

Unexpected lesson(s) learned: If you find a television commercial to be annoying, it’s most likely because the company responsible has devised a plot to make your children’s heads explode into a pile of bugs and snakes (or something).

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Silver Shamrock

Next up: Re-Animator (1985).

31 Days of Fright: Prophecy

Katahdin, about to commit a grizzly ... uh, *grisly* murder.

Katahdin, about to commit a grizzly … uh, *grisly* murder.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Last night’s film was Prophecy, directed by John Frankenheimer (The French Connection, Seconds, The Manchurian Candidate). I donated $25 to my own fundraiser so I could secure a spot for this mutant bear movie to compare it to the bear mauling flick du jour, The Revenant. Well, that and to watch this classic scene – shown to me by my former coworker, the excellent writer Kevin Hardcastle (Debris) – in context. A couple of questionable movie enthusiasts – friends Meg and Phil – came over to watch Prophecy – not to be confused with the Christopher Walken alien movie of the same name – with me as part of a semi-regular series of screenings I hold in my apartment, Not-Good Tuesdays. Prophecy was rented – like most of these movies – from Queen Video.

What happens:

Prophecy opens in a dense pine forest. A search-and-rescue team, visible only by their head lamps, races through the trees. Their bloodhounds lead the hunt, but one dog becomes so eager he runs straight off a cliff. The rescuer struggles to hold the hound up by his leash. Something starts pulling on the other end, and the other rescuers help him to pull the dog to safety, but when they do, the collar is empty. “I didn’t hear him hit,” marvels one. Two of the rescuers – Jim and Bill – rappel down the cliff face to see what happened to the dog. The lone rescuer left at the top of the cliff hears them scream, so he rappels after them. But he gets into a bit of a mishap and lands square on his back onto a rocky outcropping. Unable to move, he turns his head and sees his dead compatriots. A roar breaks through the silence and the man screams. When we next see him (and the other two rescuers), they lie bleeding at the bottom of the cliff face, their helmets stained with blood. A classical score plays over the tableau.


Search-and-rescue workers demonstrating the improper way to work on your tan.

However, there’s a very good explanation for the classical music: it’s being played by one of our protagonists, Maggie (Talia Shire, fresh from her work on the Rocky movies), a cellist with the orchestra. Following a rehearsal, a fellow cellist asks Maggie if she’s told her husband yet that she’s pregnant. Maggie has not, as she knows her husband, who is what conservative types might call a Social Justice Warrior, doesn’t want to bring another child into the world. (That old story.) Her friend worries that Maggie will be pressured into an abortion. That very do-gooder husband, Rob Verne (Robert Foxworth), is across town, visiting an inner-city slum. A public-health official, he makes a house call to a woman whose child displays a strange rash. She complained that it was from the rats in the apartment, but her landlord insists there are no rats in the building and the child merely has chicken pox. Outraged with this landlord, Rob calls an ambulance and sends the mother and child to the hospital. Rob would join them, too, but he’s interrupted by an old friend with an intriguing job offer.

The friend, Victor Shusette (Graham Jarvis), had asked him to attend a hearing of the Indian Affairs Bureau. He wants Rob to work with the Environmental Protection Agency. A paper company, Pitney Mills Timber, bought land in Maine and are hoping to log it, but the local indigenous population has blockaded the lumberjacks’ entrance to the forest. Instead of ruling on the legality of ownership of the land, the weak-willed state is hoping to pass the buck to the E.P.A., whose report will decide whether the company can continue logging. At first, Rob balks at the opportunity, but he can’t deny two weeks in the pristine Maine wilderness with his wife Maggie isn’t appealing. Perhaps it could rejuvenate their strained relationship.

A small plane brings the couple to the Androscoggin River shore, covered with logs as far as the eye can see. (“Things got very Ed Burtynsky all of a sudden,” Meg noted.) At the landing site, they run into a father and his two teenage kids, who are embarking on a camping trip. They also see a dog being airlifted out of the area by a helicopter. The paper mill director, Mr. Isley (Richard Dysart) greets Rob and Maggie and immediately demonstrates his familiarity with wood by identifying the trees used in Maggie’s cello. (That’s right, she brought her cello along.) When they ask about the unusual transport for the dog, Isley notes the dog is the only remaining member of their search-and-rescue team. A lumberjack went missing and the search team that went into the woods to find him have also vanished. Isley warns the woods aren’t a safe place to be anymore. Tensions are high with the “Opies,” after all.

Clearly a big influence on seminal film, Operation: Dumbo Drop.

Clearly a big influence on seminal film, Operation: Dumbo Drop.

By “Opies,” Isley means the indigenous people in the area: “Original People.” “That’s what they call themselves now,” he says condescendingly. Isley says the Opies have a legend about Katahdin, a bigfoot-type creature “larger than a dragon, with the eyes of a cat.” However, Isley suspects the missing people are the doing of the Opies themselves, not some mythical creature. (He would, being firmly in the finely carpented pocket of Big Wood.) Speaking of the Opies, viewers meet them soon, as Isley’s attempt to drive Rob and Maggie to their cabin is barricaded by a wall of Opie protestors. Their leader, John Hawks (the very Italian-American Armand Assante) doesn’t care that Rob is with the E.P.A. He won’t let a truck from the lumber company enter the woods. After a tense standoff, they move out of the way, only to reveal a heavy chain has been stretched across the path between two trees.

Isley orders his employee Kelso (Everett Creach) to cut down the trees, and Kelso emerges from a truck, brandishing a chainsaw. “You cut my head off before you cut these trees,” John Hawks shouts, and lifts an axe. An epic chainsaw / axe battle follows, as the liberal Rob – long-held beliefs being tested – tries to defuse the situation. The chainsaw prevails and Kelso holds a chainsaw to the neck of the prone John Hawks. Ramona (Victoria Racimo), another Opie protestor, cuts the chain and lets the truck pass.

Isley brings Rob and Maggie to their water-access-only cabin. Rob opens the next day by fishing on his boat, and is soon astonished by the size of the salmon he sees in the river. Maggie is not surprised, noting that they are in the land of Paul Bunyan now (though I thought Paul Bunyan was more of a Michigan / Minnesota thing). She prepares the fish Rob caught for dinner and Rob settles comfortably into this newly domestic life. Not too comfortably, though, as he stiffens at Maggie’s mere mention of starting a family. Rob can’t fathom having a child in this chaotic world. Their marital tensions are soon interrupted by a scratching at the door. Rob goes to the cabin entrance and finds a raccoon convulsing on the front porch. Suddenly the raccoon bolts up his pant leg and begins to attack. The raccoon races into the cabin and starts to attack Maggie, as well. Thinking quickly, Rob grabs an oar and pins the rabid creature against the wall. Then he drives the raccoon straight into their roaring fire, like a boss.

Looks like somebody brought an axe to a chainsaw fight.

Looks like somebody brought an axe to a chainsaw fight.

The campers from the landing site continue their trek into the woods, but as campers go, they’re not happy. (It looks like they’re in the middle of a grim death march.) The only joy the teenage girl has is her belt radio, which blasts all your favourite hits of the ’70s. The father hears something in the woods – ”The bear loves disco,” Phil suggested – but they find nothing and continue on their hike. Rob calls Shusette back at home and tells him he’ll be sending home blood samples from the angry raccoon. He’s sure it wasn’t rabies, but the animal was definitely ill. John Hawks and Ramona then introduce themselves to Rob and tell him they need to speak privately. Rob refuses to join them, somewhat scared of the Opies. John becomes fairly irritated with Rob’s racism, complaining that he was educated in settler schools, but learning settler language was a total waste of time, because no white men ever listen to anything he says.

John Hawks says that his people are sick and dying. They don’t drink, but act as if they’re hammered. Ramona notes she’s seen many babies in their community born dead or deformed. “The end of this forest,” John insists, “is the end of my people.” Rob decides to take Maggie and follow John and Ramona to their village. Before they do, John shows them a traditional Opie settlement, complete with tipis, built by Ramona’s grandfather, Hector M’Rai (George Clutesi). Hawks wants Rob to see how they lived before the lumberjacks destroyed their home. “We were once a magical people,” Hawks says. (And the audience cringes.) While speaking of magic, Hector shows them what he says is a magical spot – an idyllic pond, only somewhat marred by the piles of cut lumber. Something bubbles, breaking the calm surface of the water, and Hawks retrieves it with his fishing net. Lying in the net: a tadpole the size of a large fish. And what’s upriver from this pond? The paper mill.

I'd say that's more than a TAD-pole.

I’d say that’s more than a TAD-pole.

Rob and Maggie demand a tour of the paper mill from Mr. Isley. He shows them the pulp and paper process from top to bottom and the audience learns a whole lot about paper production. (Prophecy is mostly an educational film.) Rob is determined to find out what’s causing these bizarre problems in the animals. Chlorine is used to bleach the paper, but Isley swears it never leaves the mill. Rob interrogates him about the log transport, but Isley says a private company does the transport for them. Facing Rob’s righteous fury, Isley barks back, asking how many sheets of paper his report to the E.P.A. will use. “How many sheets of paper fill the filing cabinets in Washington?!” he shouts. Isley insists he’s just a business provider meeting a demand. Isley even suggests Rob test the water if he’s doubtful. Finding no obvious corporate malfeasance, Rob and Maggie leave the mill by boat, but Rob notices silvery stuff on his wife’s boot. “They gave us a trick question in medical school,” he says. “What’s the only liquid in the world that isn’t wet?” Mercury.

Mercury, heavier than water, might not appear in the water test. (I’m not sure if that’s scientifically sound.) Rob does some research on mercury poisoning while back at the cabin, orating his findings into a tape recorder. Mercury is used by the lumber company as a “de-sliming agent,” but inadvertently poisons the river’s fish. The Opies subsist on those fish. They seem drunk because the mercury has attacked their nervous system. The mercury would also explain the “rabid” raccoon’s behaviour. Maggie asks Rob what he’s found and instead of just telling her, Rob plays his recording. Mercury also affects fetal development (explaining the Opie infant mortality rates and deformities) – it’s the only mutagen that jumps the placental barrier. “Freakism!” Rob shouts. Maggie, horrified that she has eaten the tainted fish with a little zygote growing inside her, is crestfallen. Despite the many, many hints she drops, Rob never catches on to the fact his wife is pregnant and concerned about their unborn child.

Rob wonders aloud whether the legend of Katahdin is really just a mutant animal of some kind. Well, those valiant campers we met earlier are about to answer his question for him. They rest in sleeping bags at their campsite, the younger boy zipped up tight in a yellow, banana-like bag. The family is awakened by a rampaging mutant bear – part bear, part deli meat, and constantly bleeding – who tears into their camp. The banana boy attempts to hop away and the monster bear – in one of the most amazing horror movie kills in history – swats him, rocketing him into a large rock, where he explodes into feathers. (Seriously. Just watch it.)


Sure hope nothing happens to me while I’m tightly encased in my sleeping bag packed with feathers.

Rob and Maggie begin running blood tests of the Opie community. But before long, the 5-0 rolls in, hoping to arrest all the Opies they can. Isley, somehow leading the charge, says a family was found murdered at their campsite last night, and all the Opies are “guilty as hell.” All the evidence he requires is at the hospital, “in buckets.” The sheriff grabs John Hawks to arrest him, but Hawks resists, punching the cop in the face and running into the woods. Rob and Maggie ask Ramona to hire a helicopter to take them to where the campers were found. They fly to the remote area and land just as a nasty storm starts to brew. The helicopter pilot, Huntoon (Tom McFadden) warns Ramona and Rob they only have about ten minutes before he can’t fly out anymore due to the weather. Rob and Ramona find massive claw marks against the trees in the area, far too high for any normal bear. Maggie, however, stays with the pilot and pretends her morning sickness is actually just airsickness.

Rob and Ramona find John Hawks at the murder site, now sporting a quiver of arrows, and all three discuss what might have caused such destruction. The helicopter pilot makes small talk with the feeling-queasy Maggie and points out poacher nets in the creek. Maggie walks out into the increasingly intense storm and spots two hideous mutant bear cubs trapped in the net. (If she was feeling queasy before …) Rob, John Hawks, and Ramona rejoin Maggie and see the slimy cub-creatures. “We gotta’ get this one warm,” Rob says, freeing the one that’s writhing and moaning and clutching it to his chest. The mutant cub is evidence he can use against the paper company. John Hawks, feeling empty-handed, picks up the dead one and stuffs it into his jacket. They return to the helicopter, hoping to airlift their mutant beasts back to town, but the pilot says the storm has made it too dangerous. Rob insists they get the mutant cub somewhere safe, so Ramona suggests the traditional village her grandfather built. They can find shelter inside the tents!

When they arrive at Hector’s village, Ramona’s grandfather is nowhere to be found. But they enter one of the tents anyway and Rob begins to set up an emergency triage station. He instructs John Hawks to find reporters from the newspapers, employees from the paper mill – even the sheriff – and bring them to see the monster they’ve found. Hawks leaves, but refuses to have any business with the sheriff. Maggie begins to zone out, clearly envisioning the melted bear cub as some sort of parallel to the fetus growing inside her. Taking a break from cub care, Rob takes Maggie outside and says he thinks that Hector was correct: this Katahdin has awakened to protect the Opie community. The mutant bears will generate a media stir that could bring the paper company to justice. That’s when Maggie confesses she’s pregnant, and totally terrified because she’s eaten a mercury-laden fish. “Why didn’t I know?” Rob wonders. “You didn’t want to know,” Maggie says.

Ramona calls for Rob: the pulpy bear has started to stir. The police then arrive and John Hawks hides in the ancient system of tunnels that run under the village. Rob shows Isley the mutant bear cub and Isley is clearly digusted. Rob demands to know if Isley knew what the mercury was doing to the environment. “I didn’t want to,” he gasps, paralleling Maggie’s earlier comments. A bear-like shape moves through the forest toward the village and everyone panics, but it’s only grandpa Hector, cloaked in a bearskin. However, the real demon bear makes a grand entrance seconds later. Katahdin smashes its way into camp, swatting people and knocking over gasoline cans, causing fires as far as the eye can see. The bear partially mauls the helicopter pilot, but Hector, standing like a sentry, remains unharmed by the monster. (Maybe Katahdin thinks he’s a bear, too.) Rob grabs the injured pilot and all the survivors of the bear attack hide in the tunnels. They hide in silence, their tense eyeballs shifting back and forth in the dark, as screams of horror emanate from aboveground. Maggie holds the mutant cub to her chest. Once things fall silent, the sheriff climbs the ladder out of the tunnels to see the coast is clear. If the bloody corpse that drops down seconds later is any sign, the coast is definitely not clear.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth: Bear Edition.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth: Bear Edition.

Eventually, the coast does become clear, and the survivors try to figure out what course of action to take. They want to get the mutant cub to safety, but they also have to find medical assistance for the pilot. And though the helicopter has a radio, it apparently only works when the chopper is in the air. (Again, not sure about that science.) Isley offers to go on his lonesome to a nearby telecommunications tower to radio for help. The others fashion a makeshift stretcher and try to carry the pilot back to the Opie Village. (Shades of both Rituals and The Revenant.)

The Opie village is mostly empty, the villagers mysteriously gone, but John Hawks, bow-and-arrow in hand, goes scouting and finds an armoured truck abandoned up the road. Into the truck piles John, Rob, Maggie, Ramona, grandpa Hector, and the injured pilot, lying in the back.They make a treacherous escape, driving the truck over rocky pathways in the dead of night. Rob trains his high-powered flashlight on the trees ahead when suddenly, who should appear but Katahdin! The bear sends the truck toppling over. In the panic, the mutant cub attacks Maggie, biting her throat. The gang escapes from the truck, all except for the injured Huntoon, pinned by the overturned vehicle. Hawks tries to free him, but Katahdin arrives and bites the pilot’s head clean off.

The remaining survivors run into the river, the cub still biting and tearing at Maggie’s throat. (Why is she still carrying that cub?!) Rob pulls the little ground-beef cub from his wife and drowns it in the water. Grandpa Hector, however, doesn’t join the rest of the crew in their swim across the river. Instead he stands at the shore, welcoming Katahdin. As the others swim away, they see Hector being tossed around by the bear like a rag doll.

Our heroes make it to the far shore, beaching themselves on the dock outside Rob and Maggie’s cabin. Unfortunately, Katahdin is still slowly pursuing them, walking deeper and deeper into the water like some mutant-bear Viriginia Woolf. Our heroes do nothing but recuperate on the dock. Once the bear completely falls below the water line, Rob cheers, “It’s drowned!” (Clearly, his studies never told him about how well bears can swim.) They wait forever on the dock and – surprising no one but them – Katahdin emerges out of the water yards from where they’re resting. (What did they expect?) The four survivors hurry into the cabin and begin to bar the doors and windows with furniture.

Rob finds a rifle. (“No silver bullets,” quipped Phil.) The towering bear smashes its way into the cabin through the roof. Rob falls on his back and shoots. Katahdin retreats, but then blasts through the front wall. A chunk of wood flies forward, knocking Ramona over (perhaps killing her). John Hawks fires a few arrows into the bear, but Katahdin bats him away, killing our Opie hero instantly. Rob picks up the bow and arrow and attempts to figure out how to use it, but Katahdin picks him up in its massive paws. Rob takes the arrow and stabs the bear’s eyes over and over repeatedly. Blood spurts profusely and, eventually, Katahdin falls backward into the water, dead.

Rob, however, isn’t content to leave it at that. He takes a flying leap off the dock, arrow held above his head like a sword. He stabs the animal several more times (though it’s very dead). In the post-climactic scene, we see Rob and the totally-okay-and-convalescing Maggie, safe and sound in a plane flying over the Androscoggin River. No need to worry, the white characters of the movie have survived unscathed. Suddenly, a mutant bear head pops up in front of the camera, the Prophecy‘s version of Carrie’s hand shooting out of her grave.


“I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.” – Grandpa Hector

Takeaway points:

  • Prophecy is quite explicitly an eco-horror film. That is, it’s a film where human disregard for the natural environment causes the horror, causes the dangers that threaten human life. The use of mercury at the paper mill causes illness and mutation, and one of those mutations – the mutant Katahdin – seems to be exacting the natural world’s revenge on the human population. The film’s writer, David Seltzer, based the story on an IRL environmental disaster in the Japanese city of Minamata. In 1958, researchers discovered mercury waste from a chemical plant was being dumped into a nearby river, causing loss of vision and muscular control, and even insanity in the local population. What’s interesting about this eco-horror story is that this environmental disaster is not just the doing of an evil corporation. We’re implicated. When Isley reminds Rob Verne how much paper he uses, that he’s merely meeting the demand for his product, he reminds audiences that when you point a finger, four more fingers are pointing back at you. Our way of life is unsustainable without the creation of these Katahdin-like monsters. And we’re only able to live in our culture because we remain willfully ignorant of the toll modern industrial production has on the earth. As both Isley and Rob say, we don’t want to know. (Personally, I see this as a bit of a rationalization on Isley’s part, but I’m not sure the filmmakers see it the same way.)
  • Much moreso than many horror films, Prophecy’s depiction of indigenous culture is problematic, at best. For one, the lead indigenous role is played by the Italian-American Armand Assante, who wasn’t even really a marquee name by this point. Furthermore, a whole uncomfortable “magical native” vibe runs through the script. John Hawks even explicitly says at one point, “we were once a magical people.” The film sort of turns indigenous people into mythical creatures not unlike Katahdin itself. It also doesn’t give them a name. The Opies in Prophecy are not any particular tribe or people. The geographic setting of the movie might suggest they are Abenaki, but this would involve the filmmakers actually researching about the local indigenous people of Maine. Something they were clearly not interested in, given that the Opies dwell in tipis, though tipis were used nearly nowhere outside the North American plains. (Even the word “Opies” just made me uncomfortable. It’s like the filmmakers invented a new racial slur.) Note also that every single indigenous character dies at the hands of the mutant bear, while our white leads make it home safely. Even though this Katahdin was supposed to be some sort of protector to the Opie culture.
  • The film does a weird job in portraying Rob as a liberal do-gooder interested in social justice. He does display a righteous single-mindedness which is sometimes indicative of the males of the species, but what’s strange is how little he seems to care about the problems faced by indigenous groups in the area. In the city, he focuses on improving the lot of the inner-city black community, but doubts the reasons for the Opies’ protests. He scoffs at their plight, noting that people living in tenement housing would kill to live in such wide open wilderness. Really, Rob?
  • Obviously, one feels compelled to compare Prophecy to another movie with a bear-mauling centrepiece: Oscar darling The Revenant. Is The Revenant a better film than Prophecy? Probably. Does Leonardo Dicaprio explode against a rock when the bear swats at him. No. There are pros and cons to both films.
  • Prophecy is allegedly one of master of horror Stephen King‘s favourite movies. I think this can be entirely attributed to the fact that it takes place in his beloved Maine.
  • Film critic Leonard Maltin famously referred to the mutant as “a giant salami,” which is pretty accurate.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Though Prophecy is pretty terrible – this is far from Frankenheimer’s best work – it’s also terribly entertaining. I was willing to watch Prophecy for the exploding boy in the sleeping bag alone. No one even told me there’d be a raccoon attack and a chainsaw-axe battle in store! You might have nightmares about the seriously twitchy, goopy-looking mutant bear and cubs, but that’s the only real source of terror in Prophecy.

You don't think this is an appropriate camping outfit? Should I do up my buttons?

You don’t think this is an appropriate camping outfit? Should I do up my buttons?

Best outfit: Despite being filmed in the late 1970s, Prophecy doesn’t display any of the fashion excesses of the era. The clothing is fairly reserved. But I do admire the audacity with which Rob Verne dresses for what is – for all intents and purposes – a camping trip: tinted sunglasses, open shirt, tan blazer.

Best line: “I’m strictly a rat-bite and gas-leak man.” – Rob Verne, noting his unsuitability for an E.P.A. job (or outlining a pretty decent OKCupid profile)

Best kill: Easiest choice in history: the kid in the yellow sleeping bag just explodes when Katahdin sends him flying into a giant rock. Explodes. here’s no topping it.

Unexpected cameo: Richard Dysart, who plays Isley, played Leland Mackenzie on several seasons of L.A. Law. And the actress who plays Maggie’s cellist friend has the intriguing name Evans Evans. Better yet, the actor inside the mutant bear suit, Kevin Peter Hall, also portrayed the Predator in the first two Predator films, as well as Harry from Harry and the Hendersons. The guy was 6’9″! Tragically, he died at age 35 due to complications from AIDS.

Unexpected lesson(s) learned: There are many lessons to learn in Prophecy. I am basically qualified to run a paper mill and diagnose methyl mercury poisoning after watching it, so exhaustive is the exposition. But the most important lesson: if you find yourself in the middle of a bear attack, go for its eyes.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: De-Sliming Agent

Next up: Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982).