The early eighties is regarded by most fans as the Golden Age of the slasher movie, an era ushered in by John Carpenter’s Halloween and kept in business by scores of cheaply produced yet well-received films full of gore, nudity and dying kids. In 1981, a bloody little film called The Prowler flew in under the radar and became a seldom seen but never forgotten piece of horror history.
The Prowler starts in 1945 with a WWII soldier getting dumped by his girlfriend via a “Dear John” letter. The girlfriend, named Rosemary, attends a graduation dance in the town of Avalon Bay with her new boyfriend. They sneak out of the dance to fool around, and are brutally murdered by a maniac, who impales the couple with a pitchfork. The murderer leaves a single red rose in the young woman’s lifeless hand. The film then skips forward to 1980, and Avalon Bay is once again preparing for the graduation dance – the first one held since the murders. A young student named Pam (played by soap opera star Vicky Dawson) visits the town sheriff (fellow soap actor Farley Granger) to make some final plans for the event, and he shares some disturbing information with her; there was a robbery/murder in a neighboring town and the authorities are concerned that the killer may be heading their way. The sheriff is less concerned, as he departs on a fishing trip and leaves his deputy, a green rookie named Mark (Christopher Goutman, yet another soap opera stud), in charge of the town’s safety. Sure enough, the killer shows up and, dressed in G.I. issue combat fatigues, starts killing the townsfolk with a pitchfork, hunting knife and bayonet. It’s up to Mark and Pam to stop the killer before he stops them.
As one of the first films made by Joseph Zito (who would go on to make classics like Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter and Invasion U.S.A.), The Prowler showed what he could do with a small budget and a great idea. Seen as little more than an exploitation of a new genre of horror at the time, Zito’s film is actually a textbook example of the slasher sub-genre. The simple yet effective one-dimensional plot follows the formula to a T – it’s suspenseful and gory, it’s got enough T&A to keep the teenage boys interested, and the killer is the perfect faceless lunatic that thrives and threatens in movies like these. And, it’s just plain scary. In one chilling scene, Pam comes home to change after having spilt something on her dress. She enters her room and hears the shower running. Unbeknownst to her, her roommate is in the shower with her boyfriend, both dead, and the killer is still in the bathroom. She says “It’s just me, I’m closing the door!” and shuts the bathroom door. It’s the perfect aren’t-you-glad-you-didn’t-turn-on-the-lights moment on which these old splatter flicks were built.
One big reason why The Prowler stands out from the other slashers of the era is Tom Savini’s special effects. Light years ahead of his time, Savini’s makeup effects are legendary. He worked on most of George Romero’s films, a few more of Zito’s movies and a whole lot of the rest of the Golden Age slasher flicks. The Prowler is bloody, brutal and gory. In one scene, the killer sticks a long knife right through a victim’s head, plunging it in at the tip of his head and having it come out under his chin. In another standout scene, a man has his head blown off with a shotgun, literally exploding blood and brains everywhere. The makeup effects in The Prowler are all latex and corn-syrup, and are much more fun than the CG gore of today. Savini’s inventive techniques gave the blueprint for gore to filmmakers everywhere, and old-school splatter movies are better because of it.
The soundtrack by Richard Einhorn (Shock Waves, Don’t Go in the House) is a horror masterpiece. Combining modern (for the time) electronic music with classical sensibilities, the score is always noticeable but never distracting, driving the action instead of being pulled along by it. While not as iconic as some of its contemporaries (like John Carpenter’s eerie piano piece from Halloween or Harry Manfredini’s ki-ki-ki ha-ha-ha from Friday the 13th), Einhorn’s compositions are more musical and moody, creating tension where the visuals lack it.
The Prowler often gets lost in the sea of crazed killer movies that overshadowed it at the box office, but it is an unforgettable and graphic delight for those who are lucky enough to see it.