The Prowler (1981)

The Prowler begins unusually, with WWII newsreel footage documenting the return of American soldiers, informing the (perhaps uninformed) viewer as to the phenomenon known colloquially as the “Dear John” letter, the letter any serviceman stationed overseas at the time dreaded to receive from his girlfriend or wife, informing him that she, for whatever reason, could no longer wait for him and hoped he could forgive her for moving on with her life.

The importance of the brief history lesson and titbit of information becomes evident as such a letter then appears on the screen, the impetus for what’s to come. Signed “Rosemary” (hence the alternate title this is known by; Rosemary’s Killer), colour finally seeps into the black and white we’ve seen thus far, with the little flourish with which she signs her name – a red rose – becoming bloodily vivid, seguing into the prologue proper which is set in 1945, a graduation ball for the elite in the small New Jersey town of Avalon Bay. Everything seems idyllic, until a young couple are brutally murdered at the hands of a masked killer. Fast forward to Avalon Bay 1980, where the dream of the first graduation ball in 30 odd years turns to a nightmare as a masked killer, dressed in WWII combat fatigues and armed with an army issue bayonet and a pitchfork (yeah, that’s something I wasn’t sure about either) infiltrates the grounds and begins brutally slaughtering anyone he happens upon, leaving their dead bodies with the gift of a single red rose. It’s up to the local deputy and the girl he’s interested in (who happens to be one of the event’s organisers) to try and find out who the killer is and what his connection is to the old double murder, if any, before the body count rises any further.

As slashers go, The Prowler isn’t the greatest but it has two things going for it. The first and foremost attraction seems to be its entire raison d’être – to showcase the setpiece FX on the kills by master in the field Tom Savini. Gorehounds will not be disappointed, they’re simple in their own way (nothing as lavish as, for example, Savini’s FX in Day of the Dead, like the guy being ripped to pieces by a horde of zombies, screaming even as they carry off his head), but they are bloody, brutal, realistic and effective, they can genuinely hit that part of you that makes you wince a little, even if you’re also smiling with bloodlust at the same time. One setpiece in particular (which I won’t spoil for you) involving an unsuspecting young man as he prepares to join his girlfriend in the shower is especially memorable and nasty – in the best possible way, of course.

The other thing it has going for it is some decent direction by Joseph Zito (who would go on to helm Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, the fourth instalment in the franchise, aka “that one with Corey Feldman”). It’s nothing spectacular, but he knows how to keep the tension bubbling and how to film a good death scene. There are some other nice touches – like the letter in the beginning being suffused with colour to indicate the change from historical document to the film starting proper, and there’s the prologue itself, which is something of a period piece and done very well. Small touches like that give it kind of a class that is lacking in other low budget pictures of a similar nature (whether it’s deserving of it or not). Also of note is the cinematography which definitely takes a leaf from Dean Cundy’s amazing work on Halloween (1978), there’s some nice use of the locations, shadows and moonlight.

On the other hand, the storyline and motivation for the events of The Prowler are pretty threadbare and most of the characters, even the main ones, aren’t particular memorable or leave you caring one way or another whether they’re going to make it to the end or end up skewered. It could just be me, but it also suffers from perhaps one of the worst cases of Scooby-Doo syndrome, where the killer’s identity is so painfully obvious as soon as he appears that the movie is just playing catch-up to what the audience already knows right up until the last reel, so all references to the “mystery” are redundant and you wish they’d just skip it and get to more of the red stuff. But those things don’t matter much as they’re not its primary concern. Overall it’s not going to really be full of many surprises, but it’s efficient, rarely dull, looks pretty good and does what it set out to do – showcase Savini’s top class bloody FX.

Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

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