Written by: Neal F. Barbera and Glenn Leopold
Directed by: Joseph Zito
Reviewed by: Brett G.
The year was 1981. The world was a year removed from the release of Sean Cunninghamís slasher, Friday the 13th, and scores of imitators began to enter the fray. The fact that I own no less than ten slasher films from 1981 is a testament to this fact. Among these were several films that have been lost in time because they were simply that: cheap imitations of better films. On the other hand, several have withstood the test of time for whatever reason, and The Prowler clearly falls into this category. Even though it remains fairly obscure to the general public, any slasher fan worth his salt cites Joseph Zitoís film as one of the better films in the genre.
The film begins in 1945, and we learn that a young lady by the name of Rosemary has broken up with her boyfriend who has been serving in the war overseas. We are formally introduced to Rosemary when we see her attending her schoolís graduation dance with a new beau in tow. Eventually, in true slasher fashion, these two wander off to be alone down by the lakeóit might be 1945, but these kids want to party like itís 1985. Anyone who has seen any of these flicks knows what happens: the lights are cut by an unseen killer, and Rosemary is (rightly) concerned while her boyfriend just wants to keep making out. Of course, our pitchfork-wielding villain reveals himself, and offs the two lovebirds before they know what hit them. Nothing like a double impalement to start off a flick, eh?
After this tone setter, the film jumps ahead 35 years to everyoneís favorite decade, the 80s. It turns out that the graduation dance from earlier in the film was banned in the wake of the double murder. However, the girls at the college have decided to resurrect the old tradition, which should immediately raise some red flags for slasher fans. Itís at this point that weíre introduced to our two protagonists, deputy Mark London and his lady-friend Pam. The local sheriff is leaving town to go on his annual fishing trip, which means Mark is left to watch the town. This doesnít seem like a Herculean task until we learn that some maniac robbed a nearby store and stole a car in a nearby town. Pam, of course, is obviously concerned while Mark and Sheriff Fraiser shrug off the threat.
So our scene is set: a small, inadequately prepared town full of horny kids expecting a night of drinking and sex. Sounds like the perfect setup for a slasher movie, and the payoff doesnít disappoint, as an unseen masked man dressed in military fatigues begins to prowl the campus and murder the unsuspecting co-eds. Along the way, Mark and Pam gather clues about our mystery by raiding the house next door to campus belonging to Major Chatham (Lawrence Tiereny in a bizarre role), an old paraplegic who was responsible for keeping the dance cancelled for 35 years. As it turns out, heís Rosemaryís father; worse yet, we discover that the identity of her killer was never discovered, so he could still be alive and at large.
As the events of the film unfold, we learn that this is very much true, as our killer dispatches his victims with extreme prejudice. All of this is exquisitely realized through Tom Saviniís excellent gore effects, which are really the highlight of the film. Weíve got impalements, stabbings, slit throats, and an exploding head, with the latter serving as the visual climax that serves as the filmís ultimate payoff. As far as slasher villains go, the Prowler isnít as memorable as the stalwarts of the genre. He remains largely unseen throughout much of the film, as he silently stalks and disposes of his victims with efficiency. The army get-up is probably the most memorable aspect of the character (besides his gruesome demise), but itís not quite as iconic as say, a hockey mask, for example. That said, the carnage of the film isnít as continuous as one might think. In fact, if there is one fault to be found in The Prowler, itís the fact that our two main characters do a lot of prowling themselves. There are two long sequences wherein Mark and Pam search Major Chathamís house, which slows the filmís pace considerably. Although there is a bit of tension in the air because of the killerís proximity during these scenes, Zito just doesnít keep the pace fast enough for my liking.
Besides this minor complaint, everything else about The Prowler is well done. The acting is standard slasher fare, and while Mark and Pam are some of the more bland protagonists in slasher history, the characterization is adequate enough for me to care about their plight. Richard Einhornís score isnít exactly groundbreaking and features many cues that sound lifted directly from a Friday the 13th film, but it also gets the job done. The score featured at the end of the film (the requisite ďhappyĒ theme in a slasher flick) is, however, quite memorable, and you might find yourself humming it after the film is over. Plus, the band providing the music at the concert provides some pretty good tunes, too. Finally, while the plot itself is also standard slasher fare, it does feature a twist that is somewhat memorable if only because it comes out of left field and still manages to make sense. The film goes out of its way to set up some very shady characters, but youíll never guess which one emerges as the killer unless youíre truly paying attention. Zitoís direction is very well done, as he does manage to produce suspense when he doesnít let the film sprawl in a leisurely fashion. Most of this is achieved by Zitoís decision to keep the film extremely dark during many of the scenes while Einhornís score establishes a foreboding tone. Zito would later replicate this in his direction of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. If youíve seen that (and if you havenít, why are you reading this?), then youíll know what to expect here.
Thankfully, Blue Underground has given the film a more than adequate treatment on DVD. While their release is nearly five years old, it still holds up fairly well today. As I said earlier, the film is extremely dark, but this is apparently intentional. Blue Undergroundís transfer is also fairly grainy throughout, and the colors are very muted and subdued. However, the same could be said for The Final Chapter (mentioned above), so this could also be an intentional technique on the part of Zito. The mono soundtrack also gets the job done, but it is rather muted at times. As far as supplements go, thereís an audio commentary with Zito and Savini, and some behind the scenes gore footage with the latter. The theatrical trailer is also included, as is a posters and stills gallery. Itís not the most feature-packed disk, but Blue Underground has done this obscure flick proud. All things considered, The Prowler is definitely in the upper echelon of 80s slashers. While it isnít the best (or even the best film featuring Zito or Savini's involvement), itís something every slasher film must see. When I first obtained internet access on a regular basis a decade ago, this film was often referred to as one of the best slashers around. Once I sought it out, I must say I wasn't disappointed, as it's one of the few slashers I watch on an annual basis. I often pair it with My Bloody Valentine (another slasher from 1981), as they make a fine double feature as far as dance-centered slashers go. Buy it!
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