You know the old addage, "Never judge a book by its cover"? Well, the moral of this story is very similar: it's never judge a slasher movie purely on its impressive makeup effects and kills. Up until 2006, I didn't know all that much about the slasher subgenre as a whole. I certainly knew of the big franchises like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street and was an avid fan of all of them, as I still am, but I was completely unaware of other, not so mainstream movies like Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine, The Burning, and such (although I had heard of Terror Train by that point). That was, until I saw the documentary Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film when it premiered on Showtime that fall. Having seen that pop up on the TV guide when I was channel-surfing, I figured that it might be an interesting thing to check out and I was right. I not only enjoyed learning about the slasher genre's emergence, the lashing it often got from critics, and its decline and eventual rebirth, but the many, many clips that I saw got me interested in checking more of these movies out. Among the films featured was The Prowler, whose death scenes were praised as being particularly gruesome and vicious, with Tom Savini himself even saying that they were some of his best work. As a result, that ended up being pretty high on my list of films that I needed to check out one day, although I wouldn't get around to seeing it, as well as a lot of these films, for some time. For my annual birthday shopping trip in 2009, I was determined to get some of the slasher films that had been featured in that documentary, which I had watched again recently, but while I did manage to get my hands on Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine, and Maniac, The Prowler was nowhere to be found, which disappointed me. However, over the years, I realized that many would have actually considered me lucky not to have found it as I learned that, among slasher aficionados, The Prowler is considered noteworthy only for its impressive gore effects; other than that, the film was a rather dull affair not worth anyone's time. That consensus really surprised me. I wondered how a movie containing some of the gruesome spectacles I had seen could be seen as dull. Well, a few years later, I think around 2011 or 2012, I finally saw The Prowler for myself when I picked up the Blue Underground Blu-Ray at a used movie and book store and I discovered that those people couldn't have been more right.
It really is amazing how unwatchable this movie is when no one's getting killed. I've seen more than my fair share of slasher movies by this point and, with a few exceptions, a good majority of them I feel have something to offer, whether it be iconic boogeymen like Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, or Freddy Krueger, or even Harry Warden, the miner-dressed killer in My Bloody Valentine; nice use of location and atmosphere in films such as My Bloody Valentine, The Burning, Terror Train, or even April Fool's Day; memorable characters you enjoy watching as in the best entries in the big franchises and movies like The Burning and April Fool's Day; or simple even cheese factor, like in Prom Night when Jamie Lee Curtis is disco-dancing with her boyfriend (how could you not love that?) or simply the dated nature of the time period the films were made in. The Prowler, however, fails in all of those categories and then some. Tom Savini's gore effects are great setpieces but there's little else the film has to offer because the story is not interesting in the slightest, the characters are bland as can be, there's nothing noteworthy about the setting, and even the killer, other than a kind of unusual look, has nothing to him. But, all that aside, for me the film's biggest problem is that it's a very boring movie and is arduous to sit through even though it's only 89 minutes long. When that's the case, a horror film, particularly a slasher flick, has most certainly failed.
It's the end of World War II and hundreds of American G.I.'s have returned home to waiting friends and family, however one unlucky soldier learned during the war via letter that his sweetheart, Rosemary, who had promised to wait out the war for him, has moved on with her life. Rosemary, whose name is actually Francis Chatham but also goes by the nickname Rose, however, doesn't get to enjoy her new-found freedom for long when, on June 28, 1945, she and her new boyfriend are brutally murdered by an unknown person in army fatigues during the Avalon Bay graduation dance. Thirty-five years pass before Avalon Bay holds another graduation dance due to the insistence of Maj. Chatham, Rosemary's father, who has since suffered a stroke and is confined to a wheelchair. As preparations for the dance get underway, Sheriff George Fraser, despite learning that the perpetrator of a violent robbery/murder in a nearby town could be heading that way, heads out for his annual fishing trip, leaving Deputy Mark London in charge. The preparations go off without a hitch but when night falls and the dance begins, the same person who murdered Rosemary embarks on another bloodbath, brutally murdering anyone he comes across, with Mark and his girlfriend Pam trying to figure out the killer's identity and what his ties are to the long-dead Rosemary.
It's amazing that Joseph Zito, who had previously only directed a couple of little known films like Abduction and Bloodrage, didn't vanish off the face of the Earth after The Prowler but, in actuality, he managed to go on to make a few beloved B-movies throughout the 80's, most notably some low-budget action movies starring Chuck Norris and Dolph Lundgren. What amazes me more, however, is that Zito would go on to direct Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, one of the best and most entertaining entries in that franchise. I don't know what changed in the three years between that film and The Prowler but it was a significant change because that movie succeeds in everything that this one fails at: characters, atmosphere, and pacing. Maybe Zito figured that since he was going to be making a movie in a very successful franchise that was being distributed by a big studio like Paramount, he'd better bring his A-game and do as a good a job as he possibly could. Now, that may have resulted in him going too far and pushing his cast and crew to the point where some of them came out of it not really liking him but, regardless, he definitely made up for The Prowler with that movie. And that's ironic for me to say because apparently someone affiliated with the Friday the 13th series saw The Prowler and decided that Zito would be a good director for the next film, even saying that he wished that the Friday the 13th movies were like. Zito said he was embarrassed by that statement and I am too, only probably for a very different reason.
A lot of people will tell me that you don't watch a slasher movie for deep characters or anything like that; you watch them for the stalking and the kills. However, I would counter that argument by naming off a number of slasher movies with characters that, if nothing else, are at least likable and memorable in some ways and I enjoy watching them before they get killed. The Prowler gives nothing on that score. None of the characters here are hateful or anything; they're just so bland and one-dimensional that they might as well be cardboard cutouts. The two leads, Pam (Vicky Dawson, who looks a little like Amy Steel from Friday the 13th Part 2 but has none of the charisma) and Mark (Christopher Goutman), are very dull and shallow that I didn't care at all when they were in danger or when they were having some sort of lovers' quarrel or anything. The film tries to give them some depth by having Mark be a young deputy sheriff who might be unqualified to run the town for one night and with Pam being jealous whenever someone else hits on him and feeling herself that he isn't cut out for this job (she comes across as more shrewish than anything else, though) but there's so little to it that they might as well have not even bothered putting it in there. They also try to make Pam seem strong by having her be the one who unmasks and kills the killer at the end while Mark gets knocked out for the entirety of the climax but that doesn't matter at all when she's so bland and, up until that point, had been doing nothing but running and screaming. I guess the one thing I can compliment Pam on is that she's the one who brought it to Mark's attention that a potential killer was roaming around but, at the same time, a bunch of people still got killed so some good that did. And finally, I have to mention how, during the final cheap scare after the killer's been dealt with, Pam screams bloody murder and Mark and the police officer he's talking to outside do nothing but look up at the floor she's on. That kind of sums the whole thing up for me.
With the leads being as bland as they are, you can probably guess that the rest of the cast doesn't fare much better. Lisa (Cindy Weintraub) is made out to be the rebellious, slutty one of the cast with how she gives the invalid Maj. Chatham a nice look at her goodies at one point and with how she purposefully steals Mark away to dance with him when he arrives at the dance to spend time with Pam but, again, it's so shallow in how it's done that you don't care (and you don't even get to see her goodies when she flashes Maj. Chatham so that's another strike). Sherry (Lisa Dunsheath) and Carl (David Sederholm) are the typical horny couple, with Carl in particular being the one who can't wait to have his way with Sherry, although both of them get offed before they can even get it on. Ben (Thom Bray) and Sally (Diane Rode) are another couple who you think are going to get it when they go down into the dance hall's basement to make out but, even though it's made clear that someone is watching them (a pervy member of the faculty, apparently), nothing more is ever said about them. Lisa's date, Paul (Bryan Englund), spends the entire movie drunk off his ass and is eventually locked up in the jail by Mark for being disorderly. Again, you think that's going to lead to something but, like Ben and Sally, nothing more is said about Paul after he passes out in his cell. And poor Miss Allison (Donna Davis), the dance's chaperon, suffers a very grisly death after she goes out to the pool to find Lisa, who's already been dealt with by that point. However, the cast members I feel the most sympathy for are the two veterans: Lawrence Tierney and Farley Granger. Tierney, who had worked with Joseph Zito on his two previous films, has such a very thankless role as the disabled Maj. Chatham, with so little screentime, no lines, and no significant scenes except for a moment when he acts very creepily towards Pam after she first encounters the killer, that it's a wonder why he's even here in the first place. You're led to believe that Rosemary's having been his daughter and his insistence to never have another graduation dance until now will lead to something significant but it never does. Granger has a little more respectability in his brief role at the beginning as Sheriff George Fraser, who's revealed at the end to be the killer, but it's still sad for me to see a guy who once worked with Alfred Hitchcock reduced to appearing in a film like this in a role that could've been played by anybody. He really must've thought he was slumming here and I don't blame him.
And with that, let's talk about the Prowler himself, shall we? For one thing, his look is... interesting, with the army fatigues and his head being completely zipped up in the hood, although it makes me wonder how he's able to see what he's doing. While memorable, though, his look is nowhere near as iconic as Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, or Freddy Krueger, or, for that matter, even lower echelon killers like Harry Warden in My Bloody Valentine and the ski-masked killer in Prom Night. I do like that he really prepared for his killing spree, outfitting himself with a deadly bayonet, a pitchfork (where did he keep that thing when he wasn't using it?), and even a small but powerful rifle that he uses to quickly kill off someone who injures him near the end. I do like that he makes use of a gun because it always bugs me whenever Michael or Jason come across a gun but don't make use of it, stubbornly sticking to their stabbing weapons. If you were chasing someone down, wouldn't you use a gun if the opportunity presented itself? Also, the Prowler's methods of killing people might not be very inventive since they're just typical stabbings, impalements, and throat slashings, but they're still memorable in how brutal and vicious they are, showing that this guy is playing for keeps. But, despite that, I ultimately never found the Prowler to be that frightening or intimidating of a presence. His look, when you first really see it, is startling since you're probably not sure at first how he's concealing his face but, once you get past that, there's nothing all that scary about him since he walks fairly slowly even though there's no need for him to (like a lot of movie killers, he seems to be able teleport all over the place) and there doesn't seem to be all that much rage or anger in him aside from when he actually kills people. That scene at the end where he's searching for Pam in Maj. Chatham's house should have been tense, with him tearing the place apart trying to find her, but it comes across as ho-hum instead. Only when he's injured and unmasked does he seem angrily desperate to now finish what he started but it's too late by that point.
I'd be willing to forgive the movie for its lack of well-developed characters if it were enjoyable to watch aside from the kills but that is painfully not the case. This is one of the most boring slasher movies I've ever seen. There are long, long stretches where nothing's going on as Zito tries to create suspense by having the characters poke around in the dark as they try to find clues to the killer's identity, hoping that you will be all tense from the notion that he could spring on them at any second and attack, but it just doesn't work. I often found myself sitting there waiting and waiting and waiting for something to happen, hoping that somebody would get skewered or get their throat slashed or whatever just to snap me out of this black hole of boredom I was stuck in. And yes, the original Friday the 13th, which I'm not particularly fond of, had some drawn-out sequences too but that film at least had a lot more going for it like some fairly memorable characters and a nice enough atmosphere, which is more than I can say for this movie. One of the worst scenes is when Mark and Pam sneak into Maj. Chatham's house to try to figure if he had anything to do with the man who attacked Pam. I can't put into words how much I didn't care about what they found or what was going to happen. Again, I was just begging for someone to get killed so I would at least have a nice special effect to marvel at. And like I also described up above, what's supposed to be a thrilling climax with the killer trying to find Pam in the major's house is nothing of the sort; plus, by that point, you're so bored by the rest of the movie that you wouldn't even care if it was reasonably well-done. I was hoping that the killer would hurry up and find Pam so they could get it over with already. And then, there's that last cheap scare when Carl, who's been hung up in the shower all night with Sherry, apparently comes back to life for a brief moment and tries to grab Pam before finally expiring. Not only did that make me roll my eyes but, what's more, I thought to myself, "That guy got stabbed all the way through the head, hung in the shower, and they expect me to think that he was still alive to provide this cheap scare? Give me a break." I've read that was actually meant to be a hallucination that Pam had but I was so bored and past caring that it never crossed my mind as a possibility.
One scene that has to be the most excruciating in how long it's drawn out is not even one that involves suspense but rather what is, I think, an attempt at comedy. Once Mark and Pam discover that the prowler is indeed a killer, Mark attempts to reach Sheriff Fraser at the lodge he's supposedly staying at but ends up having to deal with this lazy, fat-ass hotel clerk (Bill Nunnery) who does everything he can to not do his job. Mark asks him if the sheriff is there, he says that he just started his shift an hour ago and that everybody's in bed; Mark persuades him to go to Fraser's room, the guy puts the phone down and does nothing but waste time by munching on some chips and such, slamming a nearby swinging door to make Mark think that he had gone, and then picks up the phone and says that Fraser wasn't in his room; and when Mark tells him to take a message, the guy writes it down on a paper bag and then throws it aside if he hangs up, signifying that he wouldn't give it to Fraser even if he was there. That scene probably didn't go on for less than three minutes but it felt like an eternity. I was thinking to myself, "Come on! Get on with it!" And once it was over, I didn't know what the point of it was. Again, I think you're supposed to find it funny that this guy is so lazy that he won't get up and fulfill a simple request like looking to see if somebody is in their room but it was just several minutes of dead air. As I've said, it's stuff like that makes me wonder if this could possibly be the same guy who would do Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter.
The only part of this movie that I thought was somewhat effective was the sequence where Pam first comes across the Prowler is chased by him through the student dorm, culminating in her desperately trying to make it out a locked door while he slowly closes in for the kill in a very compressed, claustrophobic hallway. I don't know why I found that to be a little tense, though. I guess I just thought that the confines of the dorm building there really worked in giving you a sense that she was trapped and that there wasn't really anywhere she could go to get away from this guy who was trying to kill her. Maybe if the climax had been set there, it would have been a little more thrilling.
Alright, let's get to the aspect of this movie that everyone agrees is legitimately good: Tom Savini's very well-done gore effects. Despite the film's myriad of faults, the kill scenes here are definitely up there with the work Savini had done before on Dawn of the Dead and the original Friday the 13th and, I would say, are some of his finest effects along with those, what he did in Maniac, and what he would later do on Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, Day of the Dead, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. The first kill of Rosemary and her new, rich boyfriend Roy (Timothy Wahrer) in the opening nicely lets you know what you're in for: Roy gets stabbed in the back with a pitchfork while making out with Rosemary and the killer pushes the blades all the way through him until she gets impaled too, with blood gushing out of Roy's back in waves. Once he's finished them off, the killer leaves a rose in Rosemary's hand, as he does again when he kills Sherry later on. Before she gets it, though, Carl is dealt a very painful death when he gets stabbed through the top of his head all the way through his bottom jaw, with the fact that he dies from it slowly really making me cringe (the effect of his eyes going white as he struggles and winces gets under my skin especially). As for Sherry, she gets stabbed in the stomach in the shower and is slowly and painfully impaled. The killer leaves a rose atop her face in the bathtub and later hangs Carl's corpse up in the shower as a macabre decoration. Lisa gets it while swimming around in the swimming pool in her underwear. After getting shoved back into the water when she tries to climb out, Lisa attempts to climb out the side only to be grabbed from behind and get her throat slashed with the bayonet, filling the pool up with blood as the camera lingers on a nasty shot of her neck getting sliced. When Miss Allison comes outside to retrieve Lisa after learning of the prowler, she finds the bloody pool (although the killer took Lisa's body to the nearby cemetery, as you learn later) and tries to run back to the dance hall to warn everyone, only to get caught and stabbed right through the neck with the bayonet. The last couple of kills in the film, which follow the discovery of Rosemary's decades-old corpse in the chimney (nicely nasty effect, I might add) are, surprisingly, the results of powerful gunshots. When Pam is cornered by the killer in Maj. Chatham's house, he's attacked and shot from a behind by a villager named Otto (Bill Hugh Collins) but is only injured and manages to blow Otto's brains out with his own gun. That's when Pam stabs him with his pitchfork and the two of them then wrestle for the gun, which is when the killer reveals himself to be Sheriff Fraser. During the struggle, Pam manages to point the gun barrel up at Fraser's lower jaw and pull the trigger, blowing his head apart in the process. And while it's not a death and is a cheap scare, I still think Carl's white, lifeless eyes as he tries to grab Pam at the end do look unsettling.
I have virtually nothing at all to say about Richard Einhorn's score for this movie. It's one of the most generic, unimaginative, typical horror movie scores ever composed, with no cues that stand out as being particularly memorable, save for one part where the music accentuates the killer wiping the blood off of his bayonet after killing Carl and this really sappy, warm theme that plays during the final scene and the end credits that I'm not sure is memorable in a good way (I know it made me roll my eyes when I heard it). I know the guy probaby had limited resources given how small this movie was but, my God, at least try to make the music a little bit memorable. Ugh, there's another element that this movie doesn't have aside from the kills.
If you've seen Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film or any other horror documentary that showcases clips from The Prowler, then trust me, you've seen everything that this movie has to offer. Nothing else about this movie makes it noteworthy at all and if Tom Savini hadn't worked on it, it would have been forgotten a long ago. The characters are bland and unmemorable, the killer himself has somewhat of an interesting look to him but nothing else, the film's low budget is very evident (why did so many slasher films back then use that soft look that makes the film feel even more cheap?), the story is uninteresting, the score completely forgettable, and, worst of all, the movie is a bore to sit through, with long, empty sequences that make the movie's 89-minute running time feel like three hours. If you're a fan of this movie, then power to you, but to newcomers, I would suggest simply finding a compilation of the kill scenes online somewhere and leaving it at that.