Cocaine Bear Is A Big Ol' Wimp: You Need To See The Mutant Killer Bear Movie Prophecy

Picture this: you're deep in the woods, alone save for your family, enjoying the silent majesty of a secluded night in nature while all manner of creatures great and small slumber peacefully around you. Most importantly, you're snug inside a yellow sleeping bag, looking for all the world like a giant banana.

Then, suddenly and without warning, a mutant killer bear emerges from the woods, its gaping maw looking like it's melting as it bellows an unholy roar and attacks. Trapped in your banana bag, you helplessly try to run away like you're in the world's worst potato sack race. It's all for nought, as the bear reaches out with one measly swipe of its paw, and you fly through the air only to hit a rock and shatter into a million feathery pieces.

If this scene sounds gloriously horrifying and/or exciting to you, then you need to see 1979's "Prophecy" as soon as possible. This weekend, a movie entitled "Cocaine Bear" hits cinema screens across the country, and while Mr. Cocaine Bear is surely a formidable foe, he has nothing on a mutated bear-thing that may or may not be the very embodiment of a Native American nature spirit who's hellbent on vengeance. Cocaine Bear may like to party, sure, but Katahdin is high on life, and she makes "Prophecy" a richly fascinating and entertaining experience.

'Prophecy' is messy, but that doesn't have to be a bad thing

Of course, if you happen to do any research before giving "Prophecy" a try, you may discover its reputation is less than stellar. Setting aside the typical monster movie bias (as evidenced by Siskel & Ebert's on-air review of the film, which Ebert erroneously compares to the not-very-similar "Alien"), "Prophecy" had a good deal of trouble behind-the-scenes, resulting in an admittedly messy final cut.

Perhaps audiences and critics were disappointed with the film given the involvement of numerous cinematic veterans, among them director John Frankenheimer (of "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Seconds" fame), writer David Seltzer (fresh off writing "The Omen") and star Talia Shire (coming from "The Godfather" and "Rocky"). Frankenheimer commissioned Seltzer to write an original horror movie for him to make, and the writer came up with a story that feels like a bizarre combination of "The China Syndrome" and "Jaws," where the mercury runoff from a paper mill is poisoning the local Native American population as well as the nearby wildlife, something that the owners of the mill are covering up.

Until, that is, a creature begins murdering people in and around the mill, causing the EPA to send representatives played by Shire and Robert Foxworth to investigate. According to an interview on the Blu-Ray release, Seltzer believed Frankenheimer was surrounded by too many yes-men to keep a handle on the material, while according to Frankenheimer's own memoir, his struggles with alcoholism proved highly distracting.

Yet while "Prophecy" is a little out of control, it's never dull, and its heady mixture of social and environmental commentary mixed with B-movie thrills is memorably special as a result.

The mutant killer bear's iconic monster movie pedigree

One of the points of contention while developing "Prophecy" was what its monster was to look like. The original script called for a creature that best represented what the Native American characters in the film called Katahdin, a forest spirit that is still described by one character in the movie as "larger than a dragon with the eyes of a cat."

Seltzer's concept called for a creature who represented the result of extreme biological pollution, a patchwork combination of every possible evolutionary aspect. When makeup effects designer Tom Burman balked at the concept, Frankenheimer decided to err on the side of making the monster be essentially a mutant bear.

No one involved with the production was particularly happy with the result, as Katahdin was brought to life via a series of clunky, chunky monster suits worn by various performers. According to Berman, Rick Baker's crew of effects designers heckled the monster off the screen at the movie's premiere.

Yet, Frankenheimer is far too responsible a filmmaker not to give it his all, resulting in amazing and grisly moments like the aforementioned sleeping bag kill. What's more, the screen presence of Katahdin is suitably menacing regardless of her physical appearance, and that's thanks to the efforts of suit performers Kevin Peter Hall and Tom McLoughlin. Hall would go on to play creatures in movies like "Without Warning" and "Harry and the Hendersons," but most famously he helped to create the character of the "Predator" in 1987. McLoughlin, meanwhile, would become a director himself, and helmed arguably the greatest "Friday the 13th" movie, "Jason Lives," in 1986. Clearly, the boastful tagline for "Prophecy" — "The Monster Movie" — was not inaccurate, just a little premature.

From 'Prophecy' to 'Jurassic Park'

"Prophecy" may be a movie of incredible disparate parts rather than a coherent whole, but those parts are great enough that it's likely they led to further greatness down the line. The eerie opening sequence, which features a group of men searching for the creature in the woods at night while using bright lights to pierce the darkness, is so evocative that it may have influenced a similar opening in Steven Spielberg's "E.T. The Extra Terrestrial," made just a few years later in 1982.

Whether Spielberg homaged Frankenheimer willfully or subconsciously, "Prophecy" seems to presage another future Spielberg film in a far more direct way. In "Prophecy," Maggie discovers a still-living cub of the mutated bear, and decides to nurse the baby back to health while hiding fearfully from its enraged mother. The suspenseful sequence in which Maggie and the other characters are cowering underground and trying to keep the cub quiet while its mother stalks them outside is highly reminiscent of a similar set piece in Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" sequel, "The Lost World."

"Prophecy" and the "Jurassic Park" series also share a deep respect for nature while condemning humanity's abuses of it. Sure, Katahdin may be an out-of-control creature whose rampage needs to be stopped, but the film is stalwart in maintaining that her rage is justified.

A movie with a message (and a mutant killer bear)

It's that message behind the film, which Shire discusses passionately in this video, that lends it a special quality and makes it worthy of remembering and rediscovering. While "Cocaine Bear" does seem like a deliciously kooky ironic satire on the drug problem, the themes raised by "Prophecy" are far more troubling and immediate.

It's even more troubling given that the film is now over 40 years old, and the issues it tackles aren't a bit less pressing. In addition to pollution creating a literal and figurative monster, the specter of corporate greed, widespread dismissal of environmental concerns and the abuse and exploitation of Native Americans and their lands are all problems that are alive and well today.

It's that vengeful spirit of Katahdin that is arguably the most relevant and most dire problem that the film concerns. During this week alone, Antarctica sea ice levels have reached a record low, countries like Italy and Argentina are facing drought, rising temperatures have resulted in an increase in mosquitoes that transmit malaria, and Southern California has been given a blizzard advisory warning. We may be dooming ourselves to extinction, and it's because of the attitudes and practices as seen in "Prophecy" that demonstrates the how and why.

Yet, not every movie about the climate crisis need be as dire as "First Reformed." Imagine if Ethan Hawke got to fight a mutant killer bear in that film, and you're starting to get the vibe of "Prophecy." So take a powder, Cocaine Bear — it's time to let Katahdin into your monster-loving heart. Just be careful where and how you sleep.