The Prowler (1981)

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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.

Okay, so that’s pretty nasty.

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.

Tampon ads would also be subjected to censorship.

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.

That’s the last time she’ll ever ask for a towel.

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.

Locating his prey was the most challenging task.

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.

Digging the Weeds

Fans of grue are really spoilt for choice in the kill department. Savini is a master practitioner who is always looking for innovative ways to shock, and there isn’t a second wasted on 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 is sure to put the willies up the gaggles of delectable teens wandering around campus (no pun intended), 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


  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”).


      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.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: