The Prowler Review

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by Chris McEneany Jul 25, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    The Prowler Review

    In a neat retro-spin on the oft-used device of a traumatised Vietnam veteran going on a murderous rampage, the unhinged maniac of this quaint little ol' shocker from the halcyon days of stalk 'n' slash, 1981's The Prowler, is actually a GI returning from the Second World War to find that his lover has given up waiting for his return from bashing Hitler and moved on to somebody else that wasn't called up to fight the good fight. Naturally, this “Dear John” takes the hump and, bedecked in the fatigues that helped him win the war, he seeks revenge. And, in the film's rather protracted prologue, he catches the couple mid-smooch in a gazebo on the night of the graduation ball, and sinks a non-regulation pitchfork right through the pair of them. Well, she got his point of view in the end, didn't she?

    Flash forward to 1980 and there's another graduation ball in the offing and, hey, someone dressed in old army clobber, his face eerily masked by a grungy sniper veil beneath his helmet, has armed himself with a pitchfork, a wickedly long bayonet and a sawn-off shotgun and seems hell-bent on re-enacting the dark deeds of yesteryear. Brace yourselves, folks, 'cause this guy has a bad case of the Michael Myers/Jason Vorhees Syndrome about him and, with the town sheriff (Farley Granger) out on a fishing trip, only his rather ineffectual Deputy Mark London (Christopher Gautman) is left on-hand to keep the young and the pretty free from getting impaled, stabbed clean-through or getting their throats sliced open. It's gonna be a long and bloody night, all right, as the madman goes on some covert manoeuvres that definitely weren't part of Uncle Sam's Axis-battering masterplan.

    Heavily censored in the UK (as well as many other territories) where it was known by its alternate title of Rosemary's Killer, Joseph Zito's gory thrill-killer is now presented fully uncut for your delectation by those excellent and stalwart champions of horror and exploitation, Blue Underground. And, in the wake of The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue, My Bloody Valentine, The Toolbox Murders and The New York Ripper (all BD's reviewed separately), this comes as yet another hugely welcome release for horror fans, especially as its showcases the sadistic talents of the God of Gore, himself, Tom Savini on the hi-def format that we know and love. Whilst many of us ghouls with unapologetically jaded tastes still await the arrival of Bill Lustig's Maniac and The Burning from Tony Maylam, which really can't be that far off now (and both, incidentally, featuring Savini's distinctive brand of Grand Guignol), titles like this get the nostalgic blood pumping once again with added vigour. The Prowler isn't a good film, as I'm pretty sure even the uninitiated can probably guess, but as far as the genre goes, it certainly ticks all the right boxes and delivers some extreme violence and a fair amount of tension along the way, as several bottom rung performers trot out their dismal lines and blunder around dark and dangerous settings, putting themselves in dire jeopardy at every opportunity.

    Being honest, Joseph Zito wasn't any great shakes as a film director, although his low-budget kudos was dramatically cemented with the ever-cool Chuck Norris actioners Missing In Action and Invasion USA, and the Russki retaliation to Rambo of Red Scorpion with Dolph Lundgren (the latter two films even boasting more makeup fx from his tried and trusted “blood-boy” Tom Savini). He would tackle the slasher genre one more time after this, with the really rather poorly constructed, yet amazingly splattery Friday The 13th : The Final Chapter in 1984 (yep, you guessed it, Savini once again), which does go to show that, in horror stakes, he possibly peaked a little too soon with this. His cast are perfunctory, although Vicky Dawson does admirably well in the screaming and running categories as the doe-eyed heroine, Pam, and Cindy Weintraub (who would go on to star in Roger Corman's ace Humanoids From The Deep - BD review coming soon) does a neatly provocative spin on Halloween's PJ Soles, as the mischievous exhibitionist good-time-gal Lisa, a girl who definitely finds herself in deep water at one point and, ahem, up to her neck in trouble. His leading man, however, is one of the blandest you can imagine. As the incredibly inept deputy, and also Pam's boyfriend, Christopher Gautman strikes a weird chord as Mark. Not only does he possess a sleepwalking style of acting - and looking like a cross between Christopher Walken and Jim Caviezel doesn't help him out much, either - but he is very badly written and left to snuff the suspense out of several scenes all by himself. We are asked to believe that this guy, even knowing that a dangerous prowler is on the loose, will leave his girlfriend alone and totally vulnerable not just once, but about four times as he goes off on clueless investigations of his own! He even seems incredibly nervous, himself, when poking about a suspect's house and his extremely tentative probing of the dormitory grounds through which Pam has just been stalked by the killer and molested by the lecherous wheelchair-bound old Major Chatham (an otherwise redundant Lawrence Tierney) just has you gaping in disbelief at his complete uselessness in the face of burgeoning atrocity. A ridiculously long-drawn-out phone-call to summon rescue becomes an incredible waste of time for both himself and us in a set-piece that is supposed to fray our nerves but just lulls you to sleep, although Gautman can't be held responsible for this screen-time-chewing indulgence. But being both puny and indecisive, Gautman's left-in-the-lurch rozzer is a very poor first line of defence for anybody caught up in the carnage, that's for sure.

    Having said that, this is the genre that brought the blokes down to the same level as the ladies. From Halloween onwards, the men caught up in these night-long bloodbaths may have acted tough, but when they came up against the killer, themselves, their bravado was sure to vacate the premises pretty damn pronto. The slasher pic was the great leveller of gender in this respect. Aye, the women that weren't caught in the buff, all ran and fell and ran some more before receiving the business end of the murderer's latest weapon in true stereotypical gusto. But the menfolk, sports jocks and studs all, fared little better. Offed much quicker - as Dario Argento often opined, we don't get the same frisson from seeing a man in jeopardy (unless its Bruce Campbell's Ash, of course) - they are hacked-down as mere starters to the main course of female tormenting. And thus, in the slipstream of the great Laurie Strode, the leading girls were soon forced to learn some escape and evasion tactics of their own, to learn how to equip themselves and to adapt to their harrowing ordeals and even to eventually turn the tables on their morally reprehensible, and usually physically impervious aggressors. So, despite what the critics often say about this misogynistic genre, the slasher film rather ironically comes to empower the female protagonist far more than any action film, or thriller ever does. The ultimate horror heroines are, arguably, Alien's Ellen Ripley and Elm Street's Nancy, but it is funny just how resilient all the lesser damsels prove to be once they've outwitted a masked madman for the first time. Vicky starts off as a whimpering wreck, but she steadily attunes to her dilemma as the big game of hide and seek commences in the old spook house, the determination to fight back sort of heart-warming. And, considering that she is on the run from a loony with a pitchfork, she becomes a sort of soul-sister to Amy Steel's equally harassed camp counsellor in Friday The 13th Part 2 that hit screen right about the same time.

    And there is also something to be said for having a killer who isn't just some sort of unstoppable supernatural angel of death. The screenplay from Glenn Leopold and Neal F. Barbera does actually attempt to maintain a level of mystery surrounding the rampage and its camouflaged perpetrator. Letters and photographs, vandalised gravestones and strange trinkets all form a succession of clues as to who is hiding behind that strangely insectoid mask, and a cluster of false suspects all line up for a shot at the Red Herring title, too. As far as small-town paranoia goes, The Prowler hits a couple of nerves squarely on the head. We've even got the simple-but-horny ogre that helps out in the local store but who is know to gawp a little too long at the ladies, and has a habit of cropping up in the least likely of places.

    But you aren't watching this for its witty, intuitive screenplay, its sympathetic performances, or its observations on obsession, crushed love and post traumatic stress disorder, are you? Nope. You want blood, don't you?

    Well, on that score, you certainly won't feel short-changed. The level of brutality in The Prowler is quite staggering. Those more familiar with the old cut down British version, that went by the title Rosemary's Killer, will find this a much harder experience to endure. The pitchfork murders are profoundly nasty, with the killer's boot pressing down viciously to push the prongs through two torsos during the double-event murder that opens the film. And then a truly grim shower-slaying that has the poor writhing victim pushed up the wall, the spikes gouging through her stomach actually scraping against the tiles behind her. In fact, Sherry (Lisa Dunsmith), who has the misfortune to dangle at the end of those cruel tines, is so damn gorgeous that you really don't want to see her get hurt, making her demise all the more traumatic than the usual nudie cutie that you often cannot wait to see getting skewered ... in a manner of speaking, you understand. We're not talking about the desperately seedy and unsettling violence of Maniac here, though. Or the down 'n' dirty mutilation of Nightmares In A Damaged Brain. These are pretty much conventional kills for the genre, and it is just the devastating effect of their accomplishment that makes them stand out. You aren't going to feel tainted and sullied after viewing The Prowler, as you definitely do after enduring those relentlessly gruesome delights.

    There must have a special on for sclera contact lenses in 1981, because both this and David Cronenberg's Scanners make a meal of the pure white variety. In Scanners, Stephen Lack's good psychic does battle with Michael Ironside's nasty one, the two tearing each other apart simply by force of mind, and the breathtaking FX-work from the great Dick Smith. In one terrific moment, Lack's eyeballs burst out of his skull whilst, in an even more bizarre image, Ironside's turn completely white like peeled hard-boiled eggs. In Zito's slasher, Tom Savini adopts this gimmick when an unwitting victim gets a bayonet rammed all the way through his cranium from the top down, until it pops out of his chin. In a wonderfully sick twist from the norm, his eyes then roll over white - like a shark's - and the effect is truly ghastly. So ghastly, in fact, that Zito cannot resist another opportunity with which to have those ghost-orbs make us gasp during an authentically jolting shock much later on. As you can tell, the gore-fx are technically supreme. Savini had come a long way since his bloody marathon of Dawn Of The Dead. After his barnstorming work on both The Burning and Maniac, which found him honing interpersonal mayhem to almost an art-form, his techniques had improved tenfold. His blood was the right colour and texture now - rich, dark and red - and his latex appliances and arterial tubing much less stagey than they'd appeared in the likes of Friday The 13th. It is true that the bodycount is deceptively low, but the onscreen deaths are all now considered to be classics of the form that actually feel painful. It is also pleasing to see that he managed to find room for his trademark head-explosion in the film. After Dawn and Maniac (in which it is his own noggin getting blasted apart), this is possibly the most accomplished.

    Doing exactly what its says on the tin, the film certainly lives up to its title of The Prowler. Much in the same way that Tobe Hooper's and Steven Spielberg's Poltergeist hurled every supernatural angle of the phenomena at the screen, literally exhausting the concept and making it the final word on the subject, Zito's film absolutely maximises the suspenseful past-time of simply moving stealthily through creepy buildings, investigating yards, basements, trees and graveyards, and generally spends a great deal of its running time with the characters, both good and bad, simply lurking about in the shadows. This is standard for the material, of course, but Zito actually has his main two characters mount an inept but protracted search of the same old house twice, and he is lucky that he stages this recurring set-piece with just enough apprehension for us to go along for the ride without trying to shake off a feeling of deja-vu. But there are plenty of stylistic flourishes to be savoured besides the murders, themselves. There is a cool moment when Zito juxtaposes the delectable young ladies getting glammed-up for the evening's shindig with the killer tooling-up for his own night on the town. They're putting on their glad-rags and makeup, while he have cuts to him tying up his gaiters, buttoning-down his combat jacket and sheathing that humongous bayonet. The swimming pool sequence is marvellously staged, taking the typical slasher modus operandi and, well, submerging it. A brisk wrecking-spree in a ghostly room where all the furniture has been shrouded with white sheets is visually stylish, almost gothic. There is a macabre poetry to leaving a blood-spattered rose on the decimated remains of the victims, too. And it is tempting to freeze the frame on the lead singer of the band to see if that really is Mark Knopfler under the cap and the curls!

    It is absolutely great to see another old slasher resurface, especially one that has the spurting gore from the grand master of mutilation, Tom Savini. The retro angle is a taboo-baiting delight, but The Prowler has a few nice moments up its sleeve and a reasonably unexpected denouement. The scares are a touch too telegraphed and the film does feel limited in scale despite the narrative taking in a few more venues than the usual camp site or sorority house, but this remains one of the better examples of the form. There was a time when it seemed that such material wouldn't grace a hi-def platter, but with the likes of Blue Underground, Shout! Factory and Arrow video, exploitation and horror fans can languish in a steady drip-feed of trashy depravity.

    Good gory fun, The Prowler is a blast of old school thrills and blood-spills.

    The Rundown

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