Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Prowler (1981)

by Cameron “I woulda got away with it if not for those pesky kids” Ashley

The history of horror movies is in many ways the history of missed opportunity. For every Friday the 13th and Black Christmas, there’s some trash that, despite some seriously awesome moments, just fails due to either low budget, low creativity, or lack of talent. We’ve seen the proliferation of remakes of iconic horror brands, brands with in-built fan-bases featuring characters already burned into the popular consciousness. By and large, they have been remakes of films that already worked. By and large, these new efforts have sucked. If we have to have remakes, what I’d like to see is more remakes of the contenders of the genre, films that didn’t quite get over the line but are armed with enough potential for decent creative personnel to prove that you can, indeed, polish a turd.

Which brings us to The Prowler.

The Prowler, not to be confused with James Ellroy’s fave film noir of the same name, came out in 1981, during the Golden Age of slasher films. Directed by Joseph Zito, who went on to score big time in 1984 with Missing in Action (plus filming Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter that same year) and Invasion USA in 1985. The Prowler has a terrible score, overlong scenes building little to no tension, an unattractive final girl and a total non-twist conclusion. Its killer isn’t menacing enough; we get one pair of tits and what passes for beefcake kind of looks like Christopher Walken’s illegitimate half-brother. It’s a shame The Prowler doesn’t rock your face off. With a premise like the following, there’s little excuse:

It’s 1980. The kids of Avalon Bay are rolling joints and hoarding booze, getting ready for the first graduation dance since 1945, when a returning soldier stuck a pitchfork through his ex-girlfriend and the asshole she dumped him for whilst he was off fighting Nazis. The killer was never caught and the girl’s wheelchair-bound father, now more anti-dance than the preacher in Footloose, sits at the bedroom window of his gothic mansion perving at the chicks in the neighboring dorm. There’s a violent criminal from another town heading towards them. The local voyeur is out and about and on the make. The sheriff’s gone fishing and his deputy is out of his depth. Out in the cemetery, Rosemary’s grave has been dug up. And a psychopathic, heartbroken former GI has dusted off his uniform, sharpened his knife and is ready to learn these kids good for their loose ways.

How could this be anything but awesome? It’s got the kind of batshit-pseudo urban legend mythology that good slasher films thrive on. It’s got a girls dorm. It’s got legitimately good to great locations. It’s got Lawrence Tierney as Rosemary’s dad, Major Chatham. It’s got the legendary Tom fuckin’ Savini rocking the gore make-up! Why is The Prowler so...boring?

The problem lies chiefly with the screenplay which really just plods along right from the very opening (a 1940’s newsreel of soldiers returning home, into a flashback where Rosemary--the killer’s ex--gets hers), perhaps written with the expectation that Zito had the chops to bring the tension.

But here’s where things get a little strange. Neal Barbera and Glenn Leopold are the writers responsible for The Prowler. Barbera, unless there’s an IMDB cock-up, is in fact the son of the legendary Joseph Barbera and penned, believe it or not, episodes of Yogi Bear, the all-star team-up of Scooby’s Laff Olympics, Pebbles and Bam-Bam and the god-damn Banana Splits (one of my favourite shows of all time).

Leopold is another cartoon writer and sports a resume just as impressive as Barbera’s with episodes of the Godzilla cartoon (!!), Scooby-Doo, The Smurfs and, fuck me, Super-Friends under his belt.

You’d think these guys could pace a slasher film, which, when you think about it, is basically formulated like a pornographic episode of Scooby-Doo: small towns, gothic settings, masked criminals, meddling kids, and the fact that pretty much anyone over 30 is either creepy, touched in the head, wheelchair-bound or a combination of all three.

Sadly, what we get is a pretty laboured set-up and the let’s-look-down-this-hallway-for-looong-stretches-of-time repeatedly and it wears pretty thin pretty quickly. Adding to the woes is the grating score that just goes:


It’s the sound of my inner writer having a mental fucking breakdown at the waste.

The slightly frumpy Vicki Dawson plays our final girl Pam, and although she’s not the prettiest scream queen ever, she is at least sensible. She doesn’t bother to try and engage our prowler in any stilted horror film conversation, she just fucks off out of his way as quickly as she can, proving herself to be fairly capable even if she can’t figure out how to open locked doors very well. She takes no shit from boyfriend Deputy Mark London (the kinda-sorta Walken-esque featured Christopher Goutman) when he tries to shake her loose from his half-hearted hunt for the killer, and she proves to be an adequate sleuth, not on the Velma level by any means, but not bad.

Our killer, garbed in full army gear, complete with some camo mask on under his helmet is properly stoic and silent. He’s good with a knife and, for some reason...a pitchfork...but he’s really just not very scary, despite how he appears on the cover. He is, however, extremely violent. The gore in this film is crazy for the period, up there with the bloodiest (which perhaps is William Lustig’s Maniac, another Savini-spattered flick, but this is certainly debatable and I’m not the type of guy to re-watch things just to see which has the most viscera). It feels like Savini realized that this was a pretty boring affair and that he really needed to bring his entire supply of fake blood to salvage things.

He very nearly does.

If Zito lingers on the boring bits, he also lingers on the gruesome bits and there are some pretty unflinching death scenes here, cameras fixating on slashed throats and pitchforked torsos. The death sequences are far from classic or innovative, but they are effective and, combined with the strength of the film’s premise, are enough to drag The Prowler over the line into ‘Watchable.’ But why doesn’t our soldier have more weaponry in his arsenal than a knife, a gun and the random pitchfork? Why can’t he do crazy commando shit like tear throats out (RIP, Dalton) or McGuyver his surroundings into death traps with only a match stick and a pubic hair? Why does he just lumber around like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers instead of springing out or rolling about to give us a real spook? Come on, guys!

I realize that the guy must be pretty old, but he’s always right where you think he’s going to be and quite obviously never where Zito wants us to think he is. You can argue that audiences are now both accustomed to this shit and jaded by it, but (for example) Black Christmas was made in 1974 and that is still perhaps the creepiest thing ever filmed (digression: how hot was Margot Kidder back then? Seriously. What happened between Black Christmas and Superman?).

Our GI-prowler is neither creepy nor imposing nor creatively brutal, all of which adds up to him being a total D-lister on the cinematic spree-killer scale. His legend isn’t built up enough either--it should either permeate the town or poison those trying to bury it. The only person presumably still affected by it is Rosemary’s dad (Tierney) who has no dialogue, nor any scenes of any merit. It’s a befuddling waste of a potentially crucial and interesting character as well as an actor with serious presence. If you’ve got Lawrence Tierney and you’re only using him in longshots, you’ve got fucking rocks in your head. The revelation of the killer’s identity is a real groaner as it’s telegraphed pretty much from the start, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and the writers can’t be bothered building up their red herrings whatsoever. Must’ve been some All-New Popeye scripts in bad need of a story-edit.

Whilst relevant for slasher completists and Savini freaks, for the rest of us, The Prowler is perhaps best viewed either out of a curiosity to see what happens when two cartoon writers and a Chuck Norris director go “Hey, let’s do a film where a chick gets a tit cut off,” or with an eye toward the squandered potential in much of this genre. The Prowler could have and should have been a classic. Instead, it’s one of the cleverer ideas for a slasher film squandered, put together by a creative team who, at the very least, should have given us some thrills outside of just ultra-violent slaughter.

Ultimately, no amount of bloody Scooby Snacks can make this dog hunt. A remake, however, perhaps under the original Australian release title of Rosemary’s Killer or its other alias, The Graduation...well, it’s not the worst idea I ever heard. That would be the idea of a Videodrome remake. Don’t get me started...


  1. I've always thought that reason why a lot of slasher films fail (besides just shitty writing) is they miss the point. The best ones, the original Halloween and Black Christmas, I think function not so much as a morality tale (sex is bad m'kay. drugs are bad m'kay) but rather moving horror into the realm of the real.

    In crime fiction, Hammett gave crime back to the streets. Slasher films, I think were originally, giving horror back to the city. Fuck vampires, fucks werewolves, fuck haunted castles...the scary shit is just down your block.

    The good slasher films deal give voice to real anixety. "Holy shit, my daughter is away at college, what if something happens to her?" "I'm worried about Billy having sex, what if something bad happens to him?" "Who the fuck is that weird guy standing on the corner?"

    I think most of the films that came later missed that and piled on the gore and the tits. Gore doesn't mean shit if you don't care about the person getting eviserated. Gore is cheap and easy. And I like tits, I'd just rather not see them get cut off.

  2. And with that, expect to see Chad's own write-up of Black Christmas here in these very pages soon after he gets it to me.

  3. Chad, agreed completely, and this is exactly the case here. It's such a waste.

  4. Great piece. Makes me want to suffer through a viewing, although I will mentally pronounce the word 'prowler' using my default Marge Gunderson accent head voice.

    Off topic here: Videodrome remake?! What in the fucking fuck? Since the internet has, in all actuality, given birth to the New Flesh, and it turns out it's mostly just 'lolcats' and 'two girls and a cup', won't Cronenberg's painful, throbbing, pornogra-violent (just made that term up) vision seem a little silly at this point, no matter what we update?

    Although the image of the Star Wars Kid being crapped in a flabby, mucus-y pile, out of a real, working anus on the touchscreen of my iphone kind of works for me...

  5. Kevin, the sheer strength of Cronenberg's ideas are still evident and lend all his films a timelessness despite the actual aging of effects and such, I think. I haven't seen Videodrome in a few years, but I actually imagine it will still hold up okay. the rmeake is something I read somewhere and hopefully it doesn't come off as it's an AWFUL idea. and i'm pretty sure the working anus is a feature on the rumoured apple tablet thing. thanks for reading.