In the realms of slasher exploitation ,The Prowler begins rather curiously. For me, the Italian giallo’s bastard offspring represents a generational shift in terms of what was acceptable as entertainment on British and American shores. Horror fans will be aware of the outrage the sub-genre caused at its apotheosis and the almost puritanical reaction of parents worried about their children’s mental health. In the US, ‘The Satanic Panic’ took precedence, kick-started by William Friedkin’s The Exorcist and landing in the lap of heavy metal music by way of some real-life, ritualistic serial killers — most notably the uncaptured ‘Zodiac Killer’, later brought to the silver screen in a series of fact-based American thrillers.
In the UK, it was the ‘video nasty’ scandal that caught fire during the early 1980s, a tabloid-driven crusade against independent filmmakers that would see 72 movies banned under the 1984 Video Recordings Act. Such widespread moral panic was pounced upon by a Conservative government looking to win favour during a time of economic and social upheaval, and for a while society closed the book on the kind of cynical violence teenagers would devour in their droves. In hindsight, it all seems just a little bit silly. Of those 72 movies deemed unfit for public consumption, precisely none of them deserved to be banished to cinematic purgatory, though some were lousy enough to remain there. In the end, it was a case of the old guard fearing the new guard, an unwillingness to accept the changing times and tastes of the emerging generation. It’s a story as old as time.
Fittingly, the movie begins way back in 1945 with a public service announcement that welcomes home the brave American soldiers returning from the battle-torn trenches of The Second World War. The film warns that it may take some time for loved ones to re-adapt to society, and when we suddenly cut to a narrated love letter in which a young girl named Rosemary informs her dear departed soldier that she can no longer continue to wait for him, the typical slasher set-up is revealed and director Joseph Zito’s intentions are laid bare (an alternate title for The Prowler was the more literal and wholly less marketable Rosemary’s Killer). Still, it’s a fresh and intriguing (if wholly superficial) opening that seems to recall the Uncle Sam ethics of a generation entrenched in ‘video nasty’ outrage.
Beyond this quasi-insightful, pot-stirring quirk, The Prowler is typical slasher fare in terms of its dynamics. We have an emotional trigger, a seemingly indomitable, masked killer, a cast of archetypal teen victims and a softly lit, American-as-apple-pie final girl who will ultimately outwit our soon-to-be-unveiled menace, but those who bask in the sub-genre’s dead-eyed cynicism are not looking for originality. Slashers are transparently formulaic, and asides from the prerequisite twist fans are not expecting too many surprises. Instead, the beauty is in the execution, both figuratively and literally.
As far as the sub-genre goes, The Prowler is certainly one of the superior efforts to come out of what fans lovingly refer to as the Golden Age, and it’s all in the visuals. Shooting the movie’s makeup effects was a long, laborious process, meaning the schedule had to be built around them, and it shows. The film is mercifully short-lived and wastes little time on the Nouvelle hors d’oeuvres, slapping us in the face with a bloody T-bone and leaving us sucking on the grisly remains. Zito would forge his fairly short-lived directorial career in the decade of decadence, and he would leave quite the impression on the cult market, dipping his toe in the Friday the 13th series and climbing aboard the Golan-Globus freight train to front exploitative Cannon classics Missing In Action and Invasion U.S.A., the latter causing quite the stir thanks to its reliance on gratuitous violence and casual xenophobia — the kind of ingredients that saw the Israeli producers ostracised from Hollywood’s affluent elite. Zito had a very particular formula, and for the most part it worked a treat.
The Prowler is similarly explicit. Our titular killer, daubed in military garb and carrying a pitchfork and bayonet, is reminiscent of the kind of action character Zito would later forge, with a few lock-and-load shots and a couple of firearms thrown into the fray, and the series of murders committed by his hand are some of the most brutal and ingenious I have personally ever witnessed. Whether deserving or not, pre-certificate slashers still carry something of a stigma, but the majority were cut to ribbons in order to attain an R rating, and The Prowler was no different. Many post-crackdown slashers suffered from an even more ignominious fate. One only has to look at the raw footage excluded from the later Friday the 13th instalments to see just how futile the sub-genre is when stripped of its graphic embellishments. Luckily, the likes of The Prowler still exist in the way they were originally intended, and today we are able to see with our own eyes exactly what all the fuss was about.
Younger viewers will no doubt be left feeling disappointed, but back in the early ’80s the likes of influential film critics and slasher witch hunters Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert would have choked on their own sense of injustice. The Prowler is unashamedly graphic. It delights in the icky details and relishes in its ability to push the visual boundaries. All of this comes courtesy of practical effects legend Tom Savini, who would later collaborate with Zito on the highly misleading Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter, which is pretty tame compared with this effort, though that can partially be attributed to the movie’s time of release. Savini cites The Prowler as the best work he ever produced, and it’s difficult to argue. The wounds inflicted are as real as anything you will see pre-CGI, and far more authentic than much of what you will see after. The movie is caked in so much blood, by the end you’ll feel like you’ve been to an all-night Blade-style rave hosted by Lucio Fulci at his most shamelessly exhibitionist. Zito once told a guard at a movie theatre that he was in fact the director of The Prowler, to which he responded, “You really DID kill those people, right?”. Back in 1981, such a question would have been on the tip of everybody’s tongue.
Interestingly, it was Savini himself inside the killer’s costume as he set about executing his gallery of prosthetic slaughter, which speaks to his dedication as an artist and importance to this movie and the genre as a whole. Assistant director Peter Giuliano also chipped in for scenes in which our killer stalked the corridors of the college campus, though the character’s third portrayer I will keep a secret for fear of giving away just a little too much. The movie is fairly tense, and though the look of our killer is no doubt iconic, he lacks the presence of a Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, something a trio of different actors may have contributed to.
Of course, all that is peripheral. The Prowler is about the thrill and execution of the kill; nothing more, nothing less, and thanks to Savini’s dedication and inimitable, morally questionable brand of magic, the film is able to conjure the kind of startling images rarely glimpsed in such a cheapskate sub-genre. In the end, it comes down to a simple question: do you get a thrill from watching teenagers put so mercilessly to the slaughter? If the answer is No, you’ll hate this movie. If the answer is Yes, in The Prowler you have one of the most effective the sub-genre has to offer.