The Prowler (1981)

Director: Joseph Zito
X | 1h 29min | Horror, Slasher

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In the realms of slasher exploitation, The Prowler begins rather curiously. The Italian giallo’s bastard offspring represented 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. At the turn of the 80s, just as the soon-to-be-infamous slasher was beginning to take off, an increase in highly publicised violent acts, including the assassination of former Beatles star John Lennon, led to a Motion Picture Association of America crackdown on creative violence.

In the UK, it was the ‘video nasty’ scandal that caught fire, a tabloid-driven crusade against independent filmmakers that saw 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 that teenagers devoured in their droves, but that didn’t stop them from seeking out those fabled uncut versions.

Such movies took on an almost mythical status, whispered in playgrounds and rented under the counter in grubby VHS stores across the UK, establishments that were raided on a regular basis in what was a blatant attack on civil liberties. ‘Nasties’ such as the infamous Faces of Death, a ‘snuff’ movie that supposedly featured real-life acts of murder (in reality, most were staged, other scenes consisting of footage culled from accidents that had resulted in death), were absolutely shocking to audiences who’d been weaned on the Gothic and supernatural horror of yesteryear, particularly the slasher, which replaced the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein with suburban madmen that were much closer to home, channelling the energy of real-life serial killers during the phenomenon’s peak years. Movies are almost always a reflection of reality, but slashers were viewed as cause and motivation for potential real-life killers to set up shop, something that’s hard to refute.

In 1996, British serial killer and respected cinema manager Peter Howard Moore was sentenced to life in prison for the murder and mutilation of four young men. Dubbed the ‘Man in Black’, Moore was also found guilty of committing 39 sex attacks on men in North Wales and Merseyside over a 20-year period. When questioned by police, the deranged killer spoke of an accomplice named Jason. Only later did the authorities realise that he was referring to fictional serial killer Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th movies. It became clear that Moore was obsessed with the slasher sub-genre, living out fantasies based on those movies, heinous acts that he admitted to doing “for fun”. The slasher may have been harmless fun for the most part, but for those with barely contained psychotic tendencies, they were a source of inspiration.

Despite being rough around the edges, The Prowler is certainly one of the nastier efforts to come out of what fans lovingly refer to as the slasher’s golden age, and it’s all in the visuals. The film has a dreamy, almost woozy aesthetic that juxtaposes beautifully with sobering acts of explicit violence. It can be truly hypnotic at times. It also suffers from some pretty notable pacing issues, even with a scant running time of just 89 minutes, but for pure, unabashed gore it’s hard to top. In fact, if any slasher is deserving of the ‘video nasty’ label, it’s The Prowler, at least in its full, uncut form, which we’re now able to enjoy without fear of moral persecution. It’s right up there with Tony Maylam’s summer camp splatterfest The Burning and George Mihalka’s similarly dead-eyed My Bloody Valentine, movies which capture the era in all of its brutal glory.

Of those movies, only The Burning made the video nasty grade. All three were released in 1981, arguably the slasher’s immoral peak content-wise, but The Prowler and My Bloody Valentine managed to to wash-up on the bloody shores of UK rentals while The Burning drowned in the shallow waters of censorship ignominy. The reasons for this were simple. Though all three movies were heavily cut for theatrical distribution, VHS distributor Thorn EMI accidentally released an uncut version of The Burning in Britain without the British Board of Film Classification’s approval. They later attempted to release a BBFC approved cut, but relationships were strained. Punishment had to be served.

As with any government-imposed crusade, hypocrisy and petulance are par for the course, so The Burning wasn’t the only film to suffer such a fate. Trawling through some of those movies that did attain ‘video nasty’ infamy, it’s easy to deduce that much of that list was selected on a whim, the act of retribution more important than the details. Famously, the Friday the 13th series would later use working titles based on David Bowie songs in order to dodge the beady eyes of the censors, who were known to target films based on titles alone. The fact that censorship proponent, Mary Whitehouse, who would label Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead ‘the number one ‘video nasty’ after exerts were screened in a special parliamentary session, later admitted to having never seen the film, speaks volumes. Ultimately, it was a case of the old guard fearing the new, an unwillingness to accept the changing times and tastes of the emerging generation. It’s a story as old as time.

Fittingly, The Prowler begins way back in 1945 with a public service announcement that welcomes home 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’s no longer willing to wait for him, the typical slasher set-up is revealed, director Joseph Zito’s intentions laid bare (an alternate title for The Prowler was the more literal and wholly less marketable Rosemary’s Killer). 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 quirk, The Prowler is typical slasher fare. In fact, it’s rather underwhelming from a storytelling standpoint, even for a genre renown for being so rigidly formulaic, with characters who peruse a broken screenplay that plays out as if someone dropped the pages and hastily shuffled them back together. All the tropes are there ― 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 none of them are particularly remarkable. It’s textbook stuff that just happened to arrive during the sub-genre’s alluring peak. Not that slasher fans will care. Those who bask in the sub-genre’s dead-eyed cynicism aren’t looking for originality or even technical competence for the most part. The beauty is in the execution, quite literally, an area where The Prowler excels and then some.

The Prowler, in its modern, uncut form, is unashamedly graphic. It delights in the icky details and relishes in its ability to push the visual boundaries. Despite a relatively low-output career, director Joseph Zito would leave quite the impression on the cult market, 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 Prowler‘s eponymous 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 in for good measure. The series of murders committed by his hand are some of the most brutal and ingenious I have personally ever witnessed. Even by today’s standards they’re utterly convincing, more hands-on and tangible than anything achievable using CGI. At times it’s like watching a magician at work.

It may come as no surprise that the man responsible was practical effects icon Tom Savini, who used his experience as a former Vietnam War photographer to bring the horrors of conflict to the silver screen. Savini, who first came to prominence after bagging a Best Make-Up Effects nomination for his work on George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead at the 7th annual Saturn Awards, would soon become synonymous with the slasher sub-genre, working on such classics as Friday the 13th, Eyes of a Stranger, The Burning and Alone in the Dark. He would also lend his inimitable skills to various other sub-genres, working on such practical effects wonders as Creepshow, Day of the Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, but even with such an astonishing resume, Savini would cite The Prowler as some of his best work, and he proves the absolute lifeblood of a movie that meanders through uneven spells like a POV presence begging to be let off the leash.

The Prowler, drenched in the kind of aesthetic realism that had parent groups reaching for the flaming torches, is caked in so much blood you’ll feel like you’ve been to an all-night Blade-style rave hosted by Lucio Fulci at his most shamelessly exhibitionist. 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 stalks the corridors of a college campus, though the character’s third portrayer I’ll keep a secret for fear of giving away just a little too much.

Shooting The Prowler‘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, even if waiting times for some courses do threaten to turn us cold. Savini’s work on The Prowler was enough to bag him and Zito what was initially supposed to be the final Friday the 13th instalment. Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter, which many credit as the finest, most brutal entry, saw Savini return to the series for the first time since the original. This pleased him no end, despite the fact that his omission from Friday the 13th Parts 2 and 3 always stuck in his craw. Not only had he given birth to Jason back in 1980, he would get to kill him for what was (supposed to be) the last time. Again, the movie would prove some of his finest work, and despite never reaching the heights of contemporaries such as the Oscar-winning Rick Baker, in horror circles he breathes the same air.

Despite featuring a killer who lacks the franchise-spinning lore of Jason Voorhees, an inferior cast, flawed structure and pacing, and, perhaps most crucially, a truly memorable final girl, The Prowler more than earns its reputation as one of the most infamous entries of the slasher’s golden age. Ultimately, it’s about the thrill and execution of the kill; nothing more, nothing less, and thanks to Savini’s dedication and morally questionable brand of magic, the film conjures 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.

Digging the Weeds

Fans of gore are really spoilt for choice in the kill department. Savini is a master practitioner who’s always looking for innovative ways to shock and disgust, and there isn’t a scene wasted with a series of kills that would each top the majority of lazily conceived cash-ins the genre would quickly become notorious for. If a poolside slaying offers bloody panache, then the mind-blowingly authentic bayonet through the brain is truly awe-inspiring.

Still, nothing beats an excruciatingly protracted incident with a pitchfork through the abdomen in a Psycho nod that lacks any semblance of subtlety. Not even an exploding head, which we also get.

Hide and Seek

So our eponymous killer’s face is covered throughout, covered as in you can’t see any part of his face, and barring some kind of x-ray abilities he shouldn’t be able to see very much either, if anything at all.

It’s a cool looking costume that’s sure to put the willies up the gaggles of delectable teens wandering around campus, but if you’re planning a mass killing spree in a heavily populated area, a little pragmatism goes a long way.

Choice Dialogue

The scene is set. It’s 1945 and a couple of merry youngsters abandon their homecoming dance for a bit of early 20th century smooching, the kind that isn’t likely to win any Adult Video News awards, but what’s this? A barely glimpsed killer drives a pitchfork through the two of them, creating a crude high school yearbook kebab. Of course, all inside are oblivious, a fact punctuated when the party’s host takes to the mic and utters this immortal line:

Host: Hey, you alive out there?

A mercifully economic, golden age slasher that fulfils all your archetypal needs, is as transparently cynical as critics once decried. It may lack a truly memorable final girl, but for morally corrupt practical effects magic, this one is hard to top.

Edison Smith

6 comments

  1. “That’s the last time she’ll ever ask for a towel”, HA HA HE HE; that’s my favorite kill in the film, real sharp and steamy. I had the pleasure of viewing “The Prowler” on YouTube a few years ago (20150maybe); it was a real clean upload, but to venture a guess it’s been removed. No matter, it’s my second favorite film Farley Granger is in (#1 is “Rope”).

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      1. Oh yeah, “Strangers on a Train” also brings the good stuff. That concept has been redone (I’m thinging of a TV movie starring Linda Purl) and spoofed (“The Simpsons” and their criscross) so many times; it’s been a part of our pop culture for so long, but the original treatment is the best. Hey, didn’t Savini do the effects for “Maniac” as well? I think that film also has some good artistic gore.

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