[1 August 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It was the golden age of gore, a small window of MPAA obliviousness in the early 1980s that allowed fright filmmakers worldwide to pile on the putrescence with reckless, fan-friendly abandon. As make-up masters like Rob Bottin and Tom Savini pushed the limits of their foul physical effects, directors like Sean Cunningham, William Lustig, Wes Craven, and Joseph Zito maximized splatter for the sake of a commercial calling card. In these heady, pre-VCR days of dated post-drive-in exploitation, you needed shock and sensationalism to make a difference. For every Hitchcockian wannabe like John Carpenter, there were auteurs who balked as such old school suspense, using ultra-violence and the differing variables of same to sell tickets and make their name.
Zito was one indeed one such cinematic salesman. In 1975, he made a sleazeball tie-in to the infamous Patty Hearst kidnapping case called Abduction. Four years later, Bloodrage saw a sexually frustrated young man homicidally take out his frustrations on local hookers. By 1980, he was poised to prove his mainstream moviemaking mantle. With the slasher phenomenon in full effect and a financier eager to drum up some dough, Zito contacted Savini (who was then working on Lustig’s lurid Maniac) and offered him a chance to work on something called The Prowler. With his autopsy specific talents and love of splatter, the king of zombie cruelty stepped in, staging the films many kills with exaggerated arterial spray. Thanks to a poor distribution deal, few saw this fetid little freakshow.
Now, Blue Underground rescues this repugnance from obscurity on a new Blu-ray release. One look, and it’s clear why the late Jack Valenti and his perversion of the parent’s advisor board had to respond. While The Prowler‘s storyline is silly and quite stupid, the brutality and bloodletting are sickeningly extreme. In a nine minute pre-credit sequence, we learn of the many men returning to the states after World War II. Quite a few had sweethearts waiting patiently for them. Even more got the notorious “Dear John” letter while fighting the Nazi/Japanese plague. One such note came from Rosemary Chatham. On the night of her graduation from college, she is killed by a masked murderer in army fatigues.
Fast forward 35 years, and the small town of Avalon Falls is still reeling from the killings. Sheriff George Fraser (Farley Granger) has reluctantly allowed another student get together at the school - the first in decades. While he’s off fishing, his deputy Mark London (Christopher Goutman) will oversee the shindig. This makes coed Pam McDonald (Vicky Dawson) quite happy. She has a crush on the cop and hopes he feels the same. Sure enough, the gala brings back the spree killing spirit of 1945, a masked maniac in fatigues filleting the various members of the student body in cruel, calculated fashion. London thinks it has something to do with crippled town patriarch Major Chatham (Laurence Tierney). Pam is sure of the connection, since she’s researched Rosemary’s death from years before.
Drenched in vein vodka and lacking anything remotely considered scary, The Prowler remains a pristine example of the knock-off mentality that swept through the industry once Halloween and Friday the 13th scored significant turnstile appeal. It’s reminiscent of such off the rack retreads as The Burning, Prom Night, Terror Train, and perhaps its most direct, distant Canadian cousin, My Bloody Valentine. All were built on the inventive deaths designed by their up and coming F/X giants and each used a similarly styled “past coming back to haunt you” narrative to support such slayings. Few were fully realized films - most were little more than quick attempts to cash-in. The Prowler is no different, even if it uses the GI angle as a way of differentiating itself from the rest of the ‘secondary school as Hell’ rabble.
Most of the fault lies in the direction. Zito may be the cinematic sultan of tension, but that’s not the same as mastering suspense. There is no dread here, just a stomach tightening tendency to want the plotline to pick up the pace and get to the garroting. Zito will linger on moments, following Pam as she circumvents tricky hallways, running away from a mostly unseen evil. He wanders aimlessly around deserted buildings, tries to inspire fear with a visit to a nondescript graveyard. If it wasn’t for the set-piece murders, this movie would have nothing. The acting is aimless, the atmosphere unexceptional. Indeed, all Zito offers is frustration, which is a far cry from fear or fright.
Luckily, Savini steps up and does some of his best post-Dawn of the Dead work. The opening pitchfork murder is memorable, but a later return of the tool in a naked chick’s torso is far more satisfying (and sordid). Equally “enjoyable” is a bayonet through the head, Savini taking the effect to horrific extremes when the killer continues to plunge the blade deeper into the victim’s brain, his now dead eyes rolling grotesquely white during the death struggle. Later, another nimble lass gets the patented “blade to the throat” treatment, while another takes it straight through the windpipe, a torrent of gore gushing from the wound. Naturally, Savini saves the best for last, as a shotgun dismantles a man’s head with smashed melon efficiency. Where Zito is mundane, his handpicked production crew is sensational.
Still, it’s not enough to totally save The Prowler, something both men more or less admit to during the ported over commentary track included here. Genial and jovial, Savini and Zito would later work together on Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter (yeah…right), Invasion USA, and Red Scorpion and their mutual admiration society is in full effect here. While the hired hand is lax in his memory of specifics, the director is full of details, remembering almost everything about the production. Savini is saved by some home movie footage of his work on the gore effects, several shots revealing the magic behind the massacres. While the rest of the cast is left out of the mix, at least the two main men behind the scenes are present and accounted for. Neither is taking the blame, though, over what would eventually happen to their main cinematic subgenre.
Indeed, after numerous complaints from parents and exhibitors, the MPAA stepped in and put the kibosh on excessive violence, turning the once potent “R” into a ridiculous shadow of its former ratings self. By the mid ‘80s, gorehounds had to seek out unrated direct-to-video fare and foreign films for their blood buffets. As a relic from a bygone era, The Prowler is fascinating if flawed. As an example of what a few like-minded macabre mavens could do with $1 million and a bucket of red Kayro syrup, the results speak for themselves - both for good and for bad.