Wednesday, 2 March 2011

The Prowler (1981)

Country: USA

Rosemary's Killer

The celluloid highway has some interesting intersections and junctions, some are unjustifiably overgrown, others deserve to be riddled with potholes. The slasher film is a road that is very well travelled, but deserves the utmost neglect. If one is a fan of genre films, one must inevitably accept that derivation is something the genre fan not only accepts, but is comfortable and happy with. The genre fan searches like a gold prospector for those rare genre films that attempt to do something radical within a highly commercialised and derivative form. My reason for dismissing slasher films is that, in my view, this is the one subgenre that has the least amount of imagination. Few subgenres hold so rigidly to a template as the slasher film. The mean spirited nature of the films are fine with me, the wonderful make up effects and scenes of graphic violence are also fine, the rampant misogyny that masquerades as gender equality through the insulting device of the ‘final girl’ is also fine with me too. But the singular lack of revisionism makes this subgenre a wasteland of creativity. The slasher film represents the horror genre at its most juvenile and moronic. This has nothing to do with the adolescent concerns of the screenplay, but it has everything to do with a mindlessly literal attitude to the propagation of a genre. I’m sure my esteemed readership will offer individual examples that may challenge this reading, but in the main the slasher film remains such a stupid, hollow and vacuous experience because of the inability of filmmakers to think even slightly outside of the box.

The Prowler is a 1981 slasher film directed by Joseph Zito. It was independently produced and distributed and had a reasonably generous budget of $1,000,000. On the back of this Zito was handed the reigns of Friday the 13th Part 4: The Final Chapter (1984), an atrocious and thick headed instalment in one of the most brainless franchises ever produced in America. I gather that some horror fans rave like mouthing baboons about how good the fourth Friday the 13th picture is, that should be enough to tell you to steer clear of it. Zito is a more interesting director than these two films suggest. The action movies he made in collaboration with Chuck Norris - Missing in Action (1984), and Invasion USA (1985) are enjoyable, and Red Scorpion (1988) has managed to acquire something of a cult following due to its casting of Dolph Lundgren. Although he only directed nine films, his two slasher films are forgettable excrement. One of the major weaknesses of The Prowler is its obvious thematic similarity to the marginally superior My Bloody Valentine (1981). Both films utilise a past event to trigger violence and chaos in the present. This proximity was enhanced enormously at the time due to the fact that both films opened within months of each other. There is no doubt that The Prowler was the box office loser, and has struggled for decades to have its moment in the sun. This battle has not been helped by the brutality of the violence, which has regularly been truncated in patchy prints and shoddy transfers. If The Prowler possesses anything that separates it from its contemporaries then surely it is the viciousness of the murders and the unflinching manner in which Zito shoots them.

The film opens promisingly enough with grainy newsreel footage from June 1945 showing the return of thousands of GI’s from the war in Europe. Unfortunately one soldier will return home to Avalon Bay in New Jersey knowing his sweetheart has abandoned him in favour of someone else. The GI uses a pitchfork in a way it was not intended as a way of revenge during a graduation dance. If the film had opted to remain set in the past then The Prowler would have possessed an element of innovation. But instead Glenn Leopold and Neal Barbera’s screenplay cuts to present day Avalon Bay exactly thirty five years after the tragic events that opened the film. In all that time the enigmatic Major Chatham (the barely seen Lawrence Tierney) whose daughter was pitch forked into oblivion, has ensured no graduation dances have gone ahead. But this is 1980 and it means Pam MacDonald (Vicky Dawson) and her loathsome young friends are not interested in all that past shit and are determined to have their ball. This is the perfect time for a prowler to don his WW2 army fatigues (replete with knife and shotgun) and decorate Avalon Bay with the blood and guts of the teen characters we naturally don’t give a toss about.

To be fair The Prowler does try to build a mystery, it does try to create an element of suspense, and the revelation of the identity of the killer is a surprise that does work rather well. But far too much energy is expended on deputy sheriff Mark London (Christopher Goutman) and Pam’s rather ineffectual and tedious investigation. The killer is sighted far too early in the proceedings, and vanishes from the film for very long stretches. When he does appear he is very distinctive indeed, and the stalking scenes are among the most disturbing seen in any slasher film. A suitably eerie and atmospheric old house is the locus for a number of sequences, even though the man that owns it (the wheelchair bound Major) is never seen inside. Mark London is a wet hero, who fails numerous times to assert his masculinity. Pam is marginally more resourceful, but equally irritating. The film overflows with plot strands that remain undeveloped, but what it does have is a very professional and impressive visual style thanks to DOP Raoul Lomas. This is enhanced by a solidly effective score by Richard Einhorn who also did the music for the excellent Shock Waves (1977) and the repulsive Don’t Go in the House (1980). Naturally the makeup effects by Tom Savini grab much of the viewers attention, and arguably Savini reached his most inventive and effective in this otherwise dreary slasher film.

© Shaun Anderson 2011


  1. This is a middle of the road slasher for me. The only lingering "interest" is in the lingering brutality of the murders. I used to own the (really) old VCII tape of this one. The print was horrible, but it was complete, at least complete enough that the extended deaths and final twitching of corpses were present in that color battered VHS tape.

    Interesting that you mention RED SCORPION, Shaun. Savini did gore effects in that one, too.

  2. I didn't know that Savini did the effects in RED SCORPION Brian. I have the standard Blue Underground disc of THE PROWLER, but I gather they have also given it the Blu Ray treatment which surprises me somewhat. It doesn't leap out of the horror history books as a film deserving of the HD treatment. The murders are unusually nasty, not at all lightened by the usual cheap gags that is the slasher norm. Thanks for dropping by :-)

  3. If it wasnt for Savini's make up effects, this movie wouldnt be all that great, I thought it has moments where it simply drags too much and turns utterly boring.

  4. I've never seen "The Prowler" and probably won't because I also agree that slasher films are the least interesting of the horror genre. The only slasher I've enjoyed in the last couple of years was "Cold Prey" but I think that had more to do with the heroine, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, than anything else.

  5. Loved the kills in The Prowler but other than that it didn't really do anything special for the genre.

  6. @ Franco - totally agree about Savini's contribution. From a personal view, I think THE PROWLER, MANIAC and THE BURNING represented his best work.

    @ Dr Blood - I do think its worth a view, simply for Savini's contribution, and the novel and distinctive attire of the killer. I agree with you totally about slasher films. I can count on one hand the number of slasher films i think are any good.

    @ TheGirl - I couldn't agree more with what you say.

    Many thanks for the comments one and all!

  7. Spot on review. The Prowler is a standard slasher, but with some truly excellent FX work and an effective killer. If only this had a better script, it could have been great.

  8. I enjoy 'The Prowler', if only to see Farley Granger. Mr. Granger is apparently dismissive of his 70s-era giallo exploits (and there's some great films he appeared in there), so I wonder how he might remember 'The Prowler'...

  9. I cant disagree with anything said here, I love THE PROWLER, but only in the same superficial way that I love all American Slashers. Some of the most memorable deaths in the Slasher genre as far as I am considered, and definitely some of the most ruthless. As brainless as they may be, Shaun, isnt there some guilty pleasure in watching the embodiment of social control blast through teenagers? =D

  10. @ Becky - Thanks for the kind words, I agree with everything you say. It just loses it in the middle with a rather insipid and uninspired police investigation.

    @ Jonny - I think one of the best films Granger appeared in was WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS? If he's dismissive of his giallo exploits, he is clearly one of these asshole actors that eagerly took the money, and then did their best to distance themselves from the film once the cheque had been cashed.

    @ Carl - I kinda half enjoyed THE PROWLER Carl, but its a bit difficult for me to fully enjoy a film like this, because its incredibly mean spirited. I do think this is one of the more distinctive slasher films, and I've been saying for about five years that it has great remake potential.

    Thanks for the comments :-)

  11. I've been a-hankering to see this one for quite some time. Really enjoyed your review, which put it all nicely in context. This is widely regarded as one of the better slashers from the Golden Era. I liked your comparisons with MBV - one of my fave slashers - and if that is only marginally better than this, I think I know what to expect from it!

  12. Thanks for stopping by James; many thanks for the kind words. As far as slasher films go (which isn't very far in my view) it's not bad. Like you I prefer MBV (I also think it was remade quite well too), but THE PROWLER is worth watching purely for its mean spirit.


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