**½/**** Image B Sound B- Extras C-
starring Farley Granger, Vicky Dawson, Christopher Goutman, Cindy Weintraub
screenplay by Glenn Leopold and Neal E. Barbera
directed by Joseph Zito
by Jefferson Robbins Was it that the flicks got less suspenseful, or that I got savvier? Joseph Zito's The Prowler boasts an intimidating slasher (although "stabber" or "puncturer" is more apt, since he tends to pitchfork and bayonet his victims to death), a complement of gore F/X from the estimable Tom Savini, a compelling backstory that touches on the legacy of war, and a Final Girl (Vicky Dawson) who's fleet, smart, next-door pretty, and resourceful. Its closest equivalent is probably Friday the 13th Part 2, released just six months prior, which likewise coped with horror passed down through the generations. What it lacks, though, is tension and surprise--at least in retrospect. There are no real shocks to be had, beyond the graphic nature of the killings and the choice to open a scare flick with stock '40s newsreel footage.
The isolated Northeastern community of Avalon Bay revives its annual graduation dance, thirty-five years after two teen guests were murdered at the event in 1945. And with the renewed celebration comes a renewed killing spree. The Prowler, clad in World War II fatigues, helmet, and a camouflage balaclava, carries an array of armaments, unlike the single-weapon Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers. He's loaded for bear, in other words, and he has an agenda stemming back to a Dear John letter sent from an Avalon Bay co-ed to her serviceman beau fighting abroad. Having researched the early deaths, budding graduate Pam (Dawson) must convince her badly blow-dried local-cop love interest Mark (Christopher Goutman) that new mischief is afoot.
All this is fertile ground, but only Savini's work and Dawson's performance really come to flower. This heroine isn't the type to stand around and ask, "Who are you? What do you want?" while the killer lumbers towards her out of a darkened corner--she runs (and looks beautiful doing it), and we root for her to survive and turn the tables. Her contemporary in Friday the 13th Part 2, Amy Steel, had much the same toolkit, and the two actresses could pass for sisters. A double bill would make for some interesting discussion afterwards; as Alex Jackson notes in his omnibus reviews of the Friday the 13th series, the emphasis of that second instalment is likewise on death by penetration, not hacking or cutting.
On the subject of those kills, they may be some of Savini's best. No guts get unwound and devoured as in Dawn of the Dead or Day of the Dead, but the deaths are prolonged and painfully rendered. Zito's camera lingers well past the point of comfort, serving to give Savini's murder effects the loving gaze they deserve and to indict the viewer for failing to look away. What's missing, or at least not fully defined, is a motive. The masked killer's affect is hidden from us, and like most slasher films, the easy answer is that he's insane. The "why?" behind that madness--the one question Pam actually does ask of her attacker--goes overtly unaddressed. Turning it over in our heads later, we can assess The Prowler as a metaphor for post-traumatic stress disorder. It was made six years after Vietnam, and the shadowy Prowler could stand for a war-damaged generation returning home to afflict its inheritors, for whom battlefield bloodshed is beyond all reckoning. The survivors will be scarred as he was scarred upon being denied his promised reward. When one of his victims reaches out from death, Carrie-like, we know the trauma has been bequeathed.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Watching The Prowler today on Blue Underground's 1.85:1, 1080p Blu-ray edition, we're so jaded by psycho-killer plot forms that it's easy to see what's coming, however groundbreaking the film might have appeared upon release. (Probably not very, given the Friday the 13th typhoon.) Flickering grain is inherent in every layer save the deep blacks, though it reminds of a late-night TV showing in a way that's appropriate to this kind of entertainment, and I never found myself distracted by it. Plus, there's a soothing gauziness to golds, whites, and light sources that lends the picture a near-sepia feel, like the past is bleeding through. I don't have the set-up to fully appreciate the main 7.1 DTS-HD MA track, but downmixed to 5.1 it sounds like glorified stereo, only faintly seeping into the back channels when Richard Einhorn's score summons the strings. The disc additionally offers the film in DD 5.1 EX and cleaned-up centre-channel mono, the former delivering more or less the same listening experience as the lossless option.
Ported over from the film's 2003 DVD release, a feature-length commentary pairs frequent collaborators Zito and Savini, who plunge right into a chummy repartee without even introducing themselves. Zito nods to the production's use of veteran actors from the '40s, like Farley Granger and Lawrence Tierney (weirdly easy to miss, a Savini head cast could easily have played him), and explains how his producer passed up a chance to be distributed in a wide release by AVCO Embassy Pictures. Instead, the film went out market-by-market under the alternate title Rosemary's Killer, potentially squelching its chance at making a big splash. Screenwriters Neal Barbera and Glenn Leopold had day jobs working for Barbera's father Joseph--"These guys, when they weren't writing this kind of stuff, were writing Smurf dialogue," Zito says. Savini is chatty and jovial on the whole but relatively quiet on the subject of how he created his F/X, which is sort of the reason we listen to him. The closest we get is the special feature "Tom Savini's Behind the Scenes Gore Footage" (10 mins., SD), video coverage of the crucial killshots that's interesting but suffers from a lack of explanation by the master technician. The original theatrical trailer (SD) rounds out the platter. Originally published: November 11, 2010.