In 1945, the small town of Avalon Bay saw its annual Graduation Dance interrupted by the brutal murder of Rosemary Chatham and her lover. 35 years later, the Graduation Dance tradition is being revived and the town is ready to put the bloody incident behind it – but someone is lurking in the shadows, ready to kill again.
Directed by FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER’s Joseph Zito, THE PROWLER is a fine example of the slasher movie formula put to good use by filmmakers with imagination and an innate understanding of the genre. The Neal Barbera/Glenn Leopold script employs the requisite anniversary plotline established in HALLOWEEN but adds a novel twist with the killer’s “Dear John” letter motive. Zito shows the same mastery of popcorn horror histrionics as in his later run-in with Jason Voorhees, placing an emphasis on simplicity, gore and careful pacing. Make-up master Tom Savini adds the final ingredient to this delectable, diabolical stew with perhaps the finest effects work of his storied career.
There is a palpable aura of death present throughout THE PROWLER, stemming as much from the story’s World War II elements as the killings taking place after the war. The lives of every person in tiny Avalon Bay seem constantly under the specter of death, with much of the dialogue in the 1945 opening centering on the local boys who didn’t make it home from Europe or the Pacific. Though the younger citizens are predictably oblivious, this pall is still present when the narrative shifts ahead to 1980, in the form of the old-timers who remain unconvinced that having a Graduation Dance and risking reliving ghastly memories is such a good idea. The killer’s dark Army uniform, helmet and bayonet – objects all synonymous with the bloody toll of war – further enhance the morbid atmosphere of the film.
For graphic, frighteningly realistic gore effects, this film is unmatched in slasher history. Pitchforks and bayonets slice and puncture tender flesh in vivid, unflinching detail, and each kill scene is deliberately and brutally prolonged to force the viewer to watch each victim die an agonizing, blood-soaked death. When the killer jams his bayonet down through the head and out the lower jaw of one victim, he holds it there for several torturous seconds, clutching the poor man as he squirms and breathes his last. In another scene, he slits the throat of a young girl with the sharp blade then deliberately saws it back and forth to cut even deeper. During a memorable swimming pool murder, the lighted pool’s water turns deep crimson as the legs of the victim twitch with their final nerve impulses. The movie even attempts to one-up the iconic shower scene from PSYCHO, showing in naked, bloody detail a shapely coed being skewered with the tines of the pitchfork. This movie madman isn’t merely vengeful and murderous; he’s downright sadistic, and Zito and Savini make no attempt to spare the audience his excesses.
The acting is generally above average for a low-budget drive-in film, though no one really stands out. Perhaps inspired by Betsy Palmer’s unforgettable turn in FRIDAY THE 13TH, the producers hired movie and TV veterans Farley Granger and Lawrence Tierney to play pivotal roles. The rest of the cast is comprised of unknowns, though nerdy Thom Bray would go on to play an even geekier version of his character here in the mid-80s TV series RIPTIDE, and victim Cindy Weintraub appeared in Roger Corman’s eco-exploitationer HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP. Vicky Dawson (who bears a slight resemblance to HALLOWEEN and THE DEVIL’S REJECTS star P.J. Soles) and Christopher Goutman are serviceable but not remarkable as the leads, though they fail to engender the degree of audience sympathy enjoyed by the heroes of better known period slice-and-dice fests like the first two HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13TH entries. The players here are never asked to do more than hit their cues and move the story along, and they all do so well enough that they almost inadvertently rise above the standard slasher movie archetypes.
Zito paces his story very well, giving the audience an unusual early look at the killer and a tease of his climactic pursuit of the heroine about a third of the way in. As noted, the director lingers almost voyeuristically on the kills, but also sets each one up expertly and manages to create and maintain considerable tension from start to finish. Many of the shots look remarkably like similar scenes in other, more famous fright films of that era, likely quite deliberately. It is a credit to Zito and company that sequences so clearly inspired by other movies are still quite frightening and have an energy all their own. Though it did not spawn half dozen sequels of its own, this movie is good enough to stand alongside the early entries in the best and longest-running modern horror franchises.
THE PROWLER is not perfect. While the plot is more imaginative and believable than most hack-and-slash programmers, the audience is never emotionally invested in the outcome the way they were when Laurie Strode was fleeing Michael Myers in HALLOWEEN or Sally Hardesty frantically flagged down a trucker to escape Leatherface and his raving kin in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. The killer’s identity is not very well concealed, and several would-be red herrings are thrown at the viewer without much follow up to keep us guessing. The great opening set-up is squandered a bit when no closing dialogue summation or killer’s monologue appears to tie things up in the final reel. We know why the killer went crazy and killed his first victim, but it’s never really made clear why he resumes his bloody fun once the Graduation Dance is reinstated, or how he selects his new targets. In the process of driving around looking for the prowler, our heroes make two separate trips to the same creepy old house, yet never bother to turn on a single light as they search the place. During their second visit, the masked murderer knocks out the male lead, but doesn’t kill him. He isn’t seen again until the final shot, when we learn that he is perfectly fine. We never learn why he alone was spared by such an otherwise vicious psychopath. At one point, it is clear that the killer has been inside a dormitory where two missing students (the girl in the shower, and her boyfriend) were last seen. The audience knows they have been killed, and it seems reasonable that the leads also suspect as much, yet no one makes any effort to really check. This leads to the movie’s worst, most illogical moment – a final scare that the viewer sees coming a mile away, and that ultimately makes no sense whatsoever. This scene was an obvious attempt to recreate the infamous Jason coda from the first FRIDAY THE 13TH, but it ends up being more laughable than shocking.
Despite these flaws, THE PROWLER is a gem worth seeking out for both casual horror fan and die-hard slasher aficionado alike. From its clever newsreel opening to its edge-of-your-seat final chase, it’s brutal, bloody fun – the kind of fear fest that will have you turning on lights in the house the moment the DVD has stopped and the room grows suddenly, deathly quiet. If you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out.