Friday, October 10, 2014

Slashtober 3-D (Part I):The Prowler (1981) dir. Joseph Zito

Logline: In the summer of 1945, the small New Jersey town of Avalon Bay was shocked by the gruesome double murder of two young lovers during the local graduation dance by an unknown assailant. Thirty-five dance-less years later, a group of college co-eds resolves to revive the town's abandoned graduation celebration despite the fact that it's the year 1980 and, as such, they'd probably all be happier off at a house party somewhere with a keg and "Funkytown" blaring on the stereo. Nevertheless: with the local sheriff (Farley Granger) away on a fishing trip, the combat-geared killer of thirty years prior is primed for his big, pitchfork-laden comeback. The residents of Avalon Bay are advised to check their bushes for The Prowler.

Crime in the Past: Can we fault Rosemary (Joy Glaccum) for ditching her GI boyfriend, off fighting overseas in World War II, through one of the era's many Dear John letters? She makes a strong case for her own innocence: she's a young girl, and she had resolved (okay, sure, "promised") to wait for her beau to return from the war, but boy that war sure is going on for a long time and she's not going to be young forever, you know? In this case, distance (or thousands of miles of ocean and war-torn European countryside) does not make the heart grow fonder. It's a bum situation, but Rosemary handles it with surprising maturity in her letter, which we have read to us through voice-over. She lets her unnamed high school lover down lightly, explaining her sympathetic dilemma and expressing her hope that they can still be friends when he returns. Rosemary's is not the best way to show appreciation for this particular Nazi-pummeling Defender of the American Way, but it's her choice, and she's honest, respectful, and realistic about their situation. 

So it's really rude that her former lover, upon his disembarkation from the Queen Mary, mails a pitchfork through the beating chests of Rosemary and her new boyfriend, Roy (Timothy Wahrer), at the 1945 graduation dance as his form of a reply letter. The USPS would deliver anything in those days.

Bodycount: 8 Dear... (er) Dead Johns.

Themes/Moral Code: In most ways, The Prowler's moral code is about as prudish as you'd expect: vodka, condoms, and rolling papers litter the trail to slasher hell. Bawdy college students of both sexes (though with special emphasis placed on the women) are punished for their transgressions, which are as various as flashing old men in wheelchairs, spiking the punch at the dance, and canoodling in the shower.

That said, the film does feature a few moments that undermine the typical slasher audience's expectations. For instance, consider the surprise arrival of creepy big lug Otto (Bill Hugh Collins) wielding a shotgun in the final act. Though a red herring for the killer in his early appearances, here he arrives as a hero, attempting to assist Pam (Vicky Dawson) in her tussle with the killer. "Attempting" is the key word, for Otto is almost immediately murdered by the killer after making his presence known, shattering our sense of momentary peace and prolonging the finale. With Otto dead and her boyfriend deputy, Mark (Christopher Goutman), lying unconscious in the other room, Pam is made of aware of the fact that the cinematic world she's living in is not one in which gallant men ride into the scene and save the day. This maiden will have to fend for herself.

Also reflect upon the moment that transpires just before the credits roll. Pam, relieved and exhausted after her victory against the killer, returns to her dorm room and discovers the still-living, lobotomized body of a friend of hers (and one the killer's victims) strung up in the showers. In this Carrie-inspired stinger, the poor boy reaches out towards Pam and the camera as if he were an undead creature, but in reality he's gasping for assistance. We realize he's been hanging around in that steamy tomb, hovering above his girlfriend's corpse with a belt around his neck, for almost the film's duration, and only now, at the conclusion, is his suffering allowed to end. This brief coda reminds us, in a rather chilling way, of the massive death toll that is often forgotten by the audience of slasher films and by the characters within them as the action rushes towards the final conflict. Forgetting the killer's demise and whatever little catharsis that brings, there's no happy ending in The Prowler. Just a lot of bodies.

Killer's Motivation: Our killer in both 1945 and 1980 is none other than our sheriff, George Fraser. His identity as the killer isn't exactly difficult to guess: the actor playing him, Farley Granger, is the film's only marquee name, and his early excuse of "Gone fishin'!" to explain his absence for the bulk of the film is about as subtle as "Gone slaughterin' the innocents!" We might imagine that his motivation for killing his ex-girlfriend Rosemary and her new, obnoxious boyfriend back in 1945 was due to rage and jealousy fueled by the misogynistic, macho bullshit expectation of men's possession of women as objects. Or, perhaps, we might imagine that he was merely homicidally offended that of all the other dudes she could have chosen over him, she chose the jackass Roy, whose proudest accomplishment is his access to his father's checkbook.

But, nah. This killing is no rational act. Georgie Boy seems to have suffered some sort of war trauma (witness his preference for killing in full combat gear) and has now psychotically associated it with the end of his romantic relationship. Suiting up in his murdering garb for him is like preparing to head into battle, and his enemies are young lovers everywhere. The revival of Avalon Bay's college dance awakens George's psychotic personality from its decades-long slumber, forcing him to relive that fateful night in 1945. As we see, he mistakes every girl he comes across for his once-beloved Rosemary, and thus must once again plunge the pitchfork into her heart and into his own.

The killer also seems to have a particular hang-up about young women submerged in water. That one I can't explain. He hates the juxtaposition of water as the symbol of purity with the nubile bodies of sexually-active women? We've dived too deep, I fear...

Final Girl: Pam is textbook. She's pretty, but not as conventionally pretty as her girlfriends. She's more motivated than her friends, as she demonstrates by spearheading the planning for the dance. She doesn't take part in the other teens' hanky-panky, nor does she imbibe alcohol or controlled substances. She's squeaky-clean. She's dating an older guy, Deputy Mark, and squabbles with him over his giving more attention to the other girls. (Perhaps, in grand final girl tradition, Pam doesn't put out.) Best of all, she's also an amateur sleuth, narrowing down the list of suspects quicker than the police manage to. When her strength is called upon, she goes at it with the killer and winds up blowing his face off with a shotgun. Pam is everything a final girl is prescribed to be, and that makes her a crushing bore.

Evaluation: The Prowler is a personal favorite, but I would never deny that it's an acquired pitchfork to the gut. Director Joseph Zito (he of Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Friday [1984], and a few Chuck Norris, Dolph Lundgren, and Gary Daniels action films) must have had a reputation on set for falling asleep on set and thus neglecting to communicate his directions to the actors. How else to explain the many unending sequences of characters aimlessly wandering through a handful of locations, discovering and accomplishing nothing? Could he have possibly imagined he was hired to direct a documentary on the formation of cobwebs? These laborious, suspense-free stretches of the film (seriously, they might make up as much as 1/4 of the running time) are so patience-testing that they're certain to turn off all but the most tolerant of viewers. In fear of having these moments transform the whole affair into cinematic molasses, editor Joel Goodman goes so far as to cut into them unrelated shots of the killer wandering around. But we're not fooled: this thing is padded, and it knows it.

But when it's not wasting our time, it's one the bizarro greats. Arguments for the defense: a) it's a partial period piece slasher, the most rarefied of its kind, b) it features some of Tom Savini's most brutal practical gore, and it utilizes these moments exceptionally well (like little shots of adrenaline to perk us up out of our collective slumber), c) and it boasts a wickedly bleak sense of humor that demonstrates a willingness to play around with the subgenre's conventions, even if only subtly (see: Themes/Moral Code section above or the opening "heeey, are you alive out there?!" type smash cuts, but particularly see Bill Nunnery as the character of "Hotel Clerk" about half way through the film, in one of the longest and most gleefully infuriating bits of character weirdness in all of slasherdom). The Prowler might suffer a few cuts and bruises while on its prowl, but it sure succeeds in breaking into my house every October.


  1. It took many, many viewings to come to my present state of love for The Prowler. Lots of wandering around. I'd say sadly your estimate of 1/4 is close to right.

  2. And where is the Tierney character while the prowler and our hapless heroes wander around his house and touch all of his cherished stuff? For an old wheelchair-bound shut in, he sure spends a lot of time wandering around outside.

    No matter--the Savini work is indeed a marvel. I also like the sets and locations here, even the ones we tip-toe through ad seeming infinitum--this one's got a whiff of that "sense of place" flavor that makes My Bloody Valentine such a standout.