The Prowler (1981)

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*. What an odd slasher film. We begin with an extended historical introduction, complete with newsreel and a Dear John letter read in voiceover, all suggesting an elaborate back story. We’re later led to expect something more along these lines as we explore Major Chatham’s mansion with its clues to the past and what happened thirt-five years earlier.
*. And then . . . nothing. No connection is made between the killer and any part of this historical material. Indeed there is no explanation at all for why the killer has decided to get dressed up like a WW2 soldier and go on a killing spree. One supposes he was the jilted lover, triggered into going full slasher with the revival of the graduation dance, but none of those dots are connected.
*. Does this matter? Producer-director Joseph Zito: “I never ever ever was terribly concerned about how this film would work as a murder mystery. I never thought it would work as a murder mystery.”
*. Zito remarks on the commentary that the period intro was a “big burden” for a low-budget slasher film. So why did they do it when it serves so little function? I wonder if it had something to do with being wed to the slasher convention of having a movie built around the anniversary of a particularly meaningful date, starting with Halloween through titles like Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine, Silent Night, Deadly Night, April Fool’s Day, and Prom Night.
*. The idea of having the slasher be a guy dressed up as a soldier probably seemed like a good one at the time, but in practice it makes the Prowler look like one of those plastic toy soldiers come to life: a drab green all over and a scarf covering the face. At least that’s all I could think of. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, if you look at the poster or DVD box cover I think you’ll see what I’m talking about.
*. I’m also not convinced that a pitchfork is that effective a weapon, and I dare say I’ve used one more than most people I know have (though not for killing people). Not to mention the fact that it’s a bit incongruous for a soldier to be carrying one around. The bayonet I understand, but a soldier with a pitchfork? And yet the movie was re-released in the U.S. under the title The Pitchfork Massacre. Audiences must have thought they were going off-road for another rural nightmare.

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*. OK, I’ll confess I didn’t recognize Farley Granger as Sheriff Fraser. I also didn’t recognize Lawrence Tierney as Major Chatham (though he’s hardly seen). But can you blame me? How did these two end up here? Not that either of them were ever huge stars, but still.
*. Indeed, Tierney is used so little here it’s hard to figure why they even bothered getting him for the part. He has no lines and only really appears in one scene, for a total screen time I believe of well less than a minute. And how is he getting around so much in his wheelchair anyway?
*. On the commentary track, by the way, Zito says Tierney got an Academy Award nomination for Dillinger. He did not. The only nomination that movie received was for its screenplay.
*. I really love the job Blue Underground does putting out these trash horror pics with commentaries (an excellent one here with Joseph Zito and special effects man Tom Savini) as well as other extras, but this movie really looks terrible and the sound is awful. I wonder if there wasn’t anything they could do to clear it up.
*. Speaking of the DVD, on the cover it has a pull quote from Creature Features Movie Guide. I don’t know who or what that is, but the quote reads “Intense and suspenseful! One of the better slasher bloodbaths!” Do you think that calling this film one of the better slasher bloodbaths was meant as faint praise? I wonder if the exclamation marks were in the original.

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*. The band playing at the graduation dance was apparently called Nowherefast. They’re pretty good aren’t they?
*. I don’t think the pool murder scene worked the way they wanted it to. In the first place, Lisa (Cindy Weintraub) goes into a bizarre splashing fit that makes no sense at all after getting kicked back into the pool by the killer. Then I got the sense (perhaps mistaken) that they wanted the blood to pool out in front of the underwater light, turning everything red, and that this was an effect they didn’t get. That said, the bayonet sawing into her throat is well done.
*. Can we talk about Mark’s hair? Or is that a helmet he’s wearing? I wonder if we’ll ever see men’s hair like that again. Hopefully not.
*. Already by 1981 we were familiar with all of the clichés. The shower scene(s), the characters splitting up so as to be dispatched separately, the person being stalked trying to stay quiet while a rat is crawling over her, the last girl, the hard-to-kill killer, the shock ending. But it’s efficiently done, all the kills look good, and it led directly to Zito getting hired to direct Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. Excelsior!

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