Not to be confused with Joseph Losey’s chilling masterpiece of the same name, Joseph Zito’s The Prowler benefits endlessly from the work of gore makeup guru Tom Savini, who provided the sliced arteries, gaping wounds, and sanguine floods that mark the film’s half-dozen death pieces. Having made his name with the deeply unsettling Maniac and the first installment of the Friday the 13th series, not to mention George A. Romero’s brilliant Martin, Savini was riding a wave of cred when he matched with Zito, a director who was then only known for Abduction, a barely watchable spin on the Patty Hearst kidnapping. The efficient and surprisingly well-shot slasher flick that Savini and Zito produced may not have reached its level of horror fandom—it is, not unfairly, considered a standard-bearer for the slasher genre—if not for the MPAA’s patently ridiculous damning of the film by leaving it unrated.
What gives? One can only speculate that the difference between Prom Night, which was released a year earlier with an R rating, and The Prowler was the general viciousness of the deaths in Zito’s work. Indeed, no fun-lovin’ teens in Prom Night ended up with a fatigues-clad psychopath pushing a blade through the top of their skull and down through the bottom of their chin. Barring instances of such heinous brutality (for the ‘80s, anyway), however, The Prowler and Prom Night share a very similar prime narrative, one that volleys between various comingling at a school dance and the dark fates that await those who stray from this wholesome gathering.
But like Prom Night’s prelude (featuring the mysterious death of a young girl due, partially, to a group of her supposed friends), The Prowler discerns its thematic and stylistic arc early on, 35 years before the current-day slaughter. A radio broadcaster heralds the return of our fighting men and women from stomping out the Nazi forces and ensuring our safety, even as they nurse their own psychological wounds. They deserve a good home-cooked meal, a hot shower, the comfort of their own bed, and, perhaps most importantly, the loving embrace of a loved one. But one nameless veteran is greeted only with a “Dear John” letter, signed by his sweetheart, Rosemary, and takes out his rage by kebabing a pair of lovers with a pitchfork. It isn’t until 1980 that the dance is revived and the absence of the town sheriff allows for a new string of grisly murders.
The slasher genre has visited precious few moments of sincere enlightenment upon the viewing populace: Halloween, the original Black Christmas, and the aforementioned Maniac would be the major works, and I hardly doubt there are more than two dozen in total. These films remain popular due mostly to the films that are made proficiently as far as gore theatrics, tone, and mood are concerned, and in these terms The Prowler is certainly deserving of its modest fan base. What the film lacks in narrative drive, coherence, and performance, it makes up with thoughtful lighting, strong cinematography from Raoul Lomas and an uncredited João Fernandes, and, of course, Savini’s lovingly overblown and impossible splatter effects. These might seem like minor facets in this sort of genre exercise, but they are scarce in the current incarnation of the slasher picture. If the recent updates of Prom Night and Friday the 13th are any indication, the most an audience can expect from these films is ringing ears since every (generally bloodless) death is accompanied by an orchestral shriek. After such monotony, one might even find nostalgia wading in the crimson gush that The Prowler so happily dishes out. --Slant