|Although nearly forgotten today by all but the most ardent fans due to its limited theatrical distribution at the heyday of slasher movie mania in the early 1980s and its long absence on home video, Joseph Zito’s The Prowler is a better-than-expected entry into that most despised of genres. It elevates what might have been a routine, low-budget exercise in cheap sensationalism and gory special effects into a stylish mystery that also features plenty of cheap sensationalism and gory special effects, the latter courtesy of splatter maestro Tom Savini, who had reached perhaps the zenith of realistically gruesome on-screen gore a year earlier with William Lustig’s Maniac (1980). In fact, Savini’s effects, which include a litany of disturbingly realistic impalings via both pitchfork and bayonet, throat slittings, and one exploding head, are frequently cited as the film’s chief attribute, but I would argue that Zito’s attention to direction and style, as well as the film’s unusual evocation of history to underscore its murder mystery, is more central to its effectiveness.|
The film begins with a startling image, not of horror or violence, but rather a newsreel clip of thousands of GIs returning to New York Harbor on a massive British ship. More News on March than Friday the 13th, this effective, but nevertheless tongue-in-cheek opening establishes that not all soldiers returning from World War II were welcomed with open arms, but rather by “Dear John” letters informing them that their beloveds had moved on (the newsreel narrator’s reference to postwar psychological trauma is wildly out of place historically speaking, but narratively essential). When the newsreel ends we are solemn witness to one such letter, and then we cut to the graduation dance at a small college, where a young woman and her boyfriend slip away to a make-out point only to be stabbed to death with a pitchfork by someone wearing a GI uniform--the jilted boyfriend to whom the letter was written, perhaps?
The story then cuts ahead 35 years to that same college, which is holding its first graduation dance since the murders in 1945, much to the chagrin of the mysterious Major Catham (Lawrence Tierney), who lives next door and whose daughter was the victim of the earlier murder. No one else seems to be bothered much, particularly not the local sheriff (Farley Granger, who played one of the leads in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train), who feels comfortable enough to leave town for his yearly fishing trip, thus leaving the young deputy Mark London (Christopher Goutman) in charge.
Mark has his eye on college senior Pam MacDonald (Vicky Dawson), whose sweet disposition, lack of interest in drinking, and stylish leanings toward virginal white all but ensure that she will be the fabled “Final Girl” once the mystery GI slasher starts creating mayhem again, which leaves her more party-hardy friends Lisa (Cindy Weintraub) and Sherry (Lisa Dunsheath) and their boyfriends destined for grisly demises, many of which involve them being naked and wet (in both showers and pools) and therefore extremely vulnerable. The question of the killer’s true identity is something of a non-issue, although screenwriters Neal Barbera and Glenn Leopold, who spent most of their careers writing for animated children’s programs like Yogi’s Gang and Smurfs, provide more than enough red herrings to keep one’s focus mildly diverted from the obvious.
In this regard, The Prowler is standard fare as far as slasher movies go. Having been released in 1981, at the end of the first major cycle kicked off by John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), the road had already been tread too many times to offer much in the way of originality. Instead, The Prowler differentiates itself with minor deviations from the formula (the already mentioned use of history, the centrality of a law officer to the story), Savini’s superior gore effects, and an effective use of atmosphere and style that the lesser slasher movies tended to ignore (the film was shot on location during the off-season in the seaside town of Cape May, New Jersey). Director Joseph Zito, who developed a short career helming a series of reactionary, B-level action movies like the Chuck Norris vehicles Missing in Action (1984) and Invasion U.S.A. (1986), is no Orson Welles, but he knows that a little style can go a long way in this kind of material, and his fluid tracking shots and sharp editing help make up for the film’s otherwise heavy reliance on stock shock moments and handheld first-person suspense. He also gives us one of the genre’s truly bizarre endings, which is on one level yet another sigh-inducing retread of the last-minute surprise that was all but requisite following Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), but on another level is a weirdly surreal bit of art-film-infused ambiguity, leaving us with a strange sense of dislocation that feels imported from another film altogether. Whether that is an attribute or a detriment will be up to the individual viewer.
Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (2.5)
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