Butcher Block is a weekly series celebrating horror’s most extreme films and the minds behind them. Dedicated to graphic gore and splatter, each week will explore the dark, the disturbed, and the depraved in horror, and the blood and guts involved. For the films that use special effects of gore as an art form, and the fans that revel in the carnage, this series is for you.
In terms of plot, The Prowler isn’t exactly a standout among the sea of slashers released during the early ‘80s. It makes a bold statement by having its killer wear a World War II combat uniform and use a bayonet as his weapon of choice, and that the killer is driven to homicide from a Dear John letter gives it a little more daring depth than typically found in the sub-genre. But the whodunnit aspect of the slasher formula is fairly dull and more of an afterthought, and the college Spring dance setting feels a little uninspired. Yet, it’s still one of the best simply for its stunning showcase of unadulterated gore and sadistic kills, thanks to director Joseph Zito’s highlighting of Tom Savini’s breathtaking special makeup effects work.
It’s the effects work that makes The Prowler such a satisfying slasher, and Zito understood that well. It’s the realistic deaths that make the film so memorable, and the production schedule was based around the makeup effects work, which often took a full day to set up. The killer was portrayed by three different people; assistant director Peter Giuliano in the stalking scenes, actor Farley Granger for the identity reveal, and Tom Savini for all of the closeup shots of the killer slaying his victims. Considering all of the deaths are up close and personal, Savini was a very busy man on this set.
One of the deaths that ruffled the feathers of the MPAA the most was the throat slashing of Cindy Weintraub’s Lisa in the swimming pool. All alone, the Prowler kicks her in the face as she’s climbing out of the pool before hopping in himself to drag his knife across the throat. She sinks down beneath the surface, blood gushing out through the gaping wound. The Prowler’s boot seen kicking Lisa was actually a rubber leg over Savini’s arm, which he swung to emulate the kicking motion. It was Savini that climbed into the pool and slash Weintraub’s throat with a fake knife while fake blood was being pumped through it. Prosthetics were used for the underwater shots, with more blood being pumped through the gaping throat.
The best double kill in the film was that of Sherry’s impalement by pitchfork, which thanks to Savini’s rigging of a fake pitchfork, looked startlingly real. It was preceded by her boyfriend Carl getting a bayonet shoved through his skull. Though Savini already proved himself a master of exploding heads thanks to Maniac, he duplicated the effect here in the finale. Stuffing a dummy head with apple cores, leftovers from lunch that day, and prophylactics filled with fake blood, Savini fired a double-barreled shotgun into the fake head to make it explode during the shot.
It was their work on The Prowler that lead to Zito and Savini getting the job on Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, the fourth installment of a franchise built around its kill count. It’s easy to see why; The Prowler doesn’t seem interested in characterization or even much in the way of plot. It wanted to revel in its visceral deaths, and very few in the genre manage to be as realistic and bloody as the ones Savini created here. Savini has an extensive list of credits that showcases his unparalleled work, but it’s the excruciating realism in The Prowler that sets it apart as his best.