Bayonets and Pitchforks: Golden Age Slasher ‘The Prowler’ Turns 40

The Prowler is one of the many blood drenched dead teenager films released in 1981, the peak of the Slasher Golden Age. Debuting in late fall of that year, The Prowler was already chasing the financial successes of Friday the 13th: Part 2, Happy Birthday to Me, The Funhouse, and plenty more. Even the narratively similar My Bloody Valentine pulled in just enough dough to double its meager budget. Dead kids meant lively box office…usually.

This story revolving around the graduating class of 1980 in a quaint college town besieged by a combat fatigue cloaked killer with a penchant for bayonets and pitchforks barely managed to recoup its reported one million dollar budget. Granted the film just missed out on a nationwide release via distributor Avco Embassy (The Fog, Prom Night) which surely would have bolstered its financial prospects. Heavily butchered by the MPAA stateside, labeled a “Section 3 Video Nasty” in the UK, and released in Germany with so much footage cut that even the killer’s eventual reveal hit the cutting room floor(!), The Prowler slowly built cult appeal through whispers of excised gore that had to be seen to be believed.

Of course, this should come as no surprise to anyone once they realize all the gnarly mutilations, stabbings, throat slits, exploding heads, skull piercings, and pitchfork lampoonings were concocted by the “Sultan of Splatter” himself, Tom Savini. Greatly regarded by most as his strongest work (apparently the man himself would agree), The Prowler was Savini’s follow-up to the equally effects heavy The Burning. While that film featured the iconic “raft sequence” that allowed Savini to flex his muscles by offing five characters in one hot second, every kill orchestrated throughout The Prowler is a work of grand guignol beauty.

The plot, such as it is, is a convoluted mess of “mystery” that would make even the wildest of Giallos blush. We open to newsreel footage of the Queen Mary escorting 15,000 troops home from the war and a Dear John letter from a girl named Rosemary written to her enlisted GI lover. It seems Rose thought the war was going to be more of a quick turnaround type of gig and just can’t be bothered to wait around anymore. Uh-oh! Queue the 1945 Graduating Class celebrating at a dance, some outside hanky panky with Rosemary and her new snobby-rich-somehow avoided the draft beau, and our fully combat attired killer driving a pitchfork straight through the lovers’ embraced torsos. As we jump forward 35 years we learn that the murderer was never found and the town of Avalon Bay hasn’t celebrated a graduation since that very night all those years ago. Naturally, these sexed up coeds are ready to get down and boogy – joints, spiked punch and all! They may as well be ringing the “killer come and get me” dinner bell.

While this is a perfectly acceptable setup for a simple stalk and slash scenario, the script just doesn’t know how to put all the pieces together. We’re constantly being introduced to characters that exist for the sole purpose of providing the audience with a red herring but ultimately just muck up the narrative. It’s hard to be intrigued by the mystery at hand when you’re not even sure who is who and what their relationship is to the past. We’ve got an aging Farley Granger (Rope, Strangers on a Train) popping up as the town Sheriff just in time to head out of town (and most of the film) on a fishing trip. Then there’s RKO stalwart Lawrence Tierney in a speechless role as the wheelchair bound weirdo who lives across from the dorm and constantly creeps out the young women as he stares from his window. At the center of it all is bright eyed good girl Pam and her crush Deputy Mark (both played by soap opera mainstays Vicky Dawson and Christopher Goutman) who spend the majority of the film fumbling around for clues in unpopulated locations just asking to get their eyes gouged out with the prongs of a pitchfork.

Yet, in between all the aimless wandering and fuzzy plot points, you’ve got to admire those killer effects.

What makes the film such a standout in Savini’s career is director Joseph Zito (Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter) and his unwavering eye for the torment of the characters. The deaths on display here are no stab and go quick cuts. Zito lingers on Savini’s magic tricks to an uncomfortable degree. It’s no wonder the MPAA was scribbling a blue streak across their little notepads. The highlight of the film comes early as two of Pam’s friends, Sherry and Carl, hang back at the dorm for some mutual shower time. As Carl giddily tries to undress and join his partner for some rubadub, our killer pulls a jack-in-the-box and springs up out of nowhere just in time to drive a massive bayonet straight through the guy’s cranium. The effect is a jaw dropper, literally. We watch the blade jut out from his chin as blood spews and Carl struggles…and struggles. It goes on for almost too long before cementing this kill as one for the record books as the victim’s eyes fly open revealing nothing but ghostly whites as his eyes roll back in his head. It’s a genuinely haunting and nightmarish image that’s hard to shake. The fact that it’s immediately followed up by another elongated kill as Sherry takes a pitchfork to her bare chest and is driven up against the shower wall just makes the entire sequence hard to stomach but ultimately a marvel of special effects wizardry. Even in modern high def, it’s hard to spot the seams.

Sure, Zito may not have layered in the suspense. There’s truly only one heart rate quickening chase where Pam first comes face to face with the killer. Sadly, it’s capped off with an unintentionally hilarious struggle with the neighbor creep who just pulls on her shawl, presumably to try and help her, but says NOTHING while the poor girl screams and fights to free herself for a solid minute. The scene, and much of the film, is also aided by a strong score from Richard Einhorn (Shock Waves, Eyes of a Stranger). The music oscillates between the building bass of Jaws and the frantic strings of F13. It’s an interesting combo that does help carry the film through some of the duller moments. You know, in between those kills?

Perhaps Zito was still finding his footing as a director, but he knew exactly what he had in Tom Savini and certainly didn’t hold back from exploiting what the effects artist had to offer. Despite its many drawbacks, The Prowler is still a classic of the Slasher Golden Age. While not as highly lauded as some its brethren, there’s a reason gorehounds sought this out for ages prior to any official uncut release. 40 years later and this is still some of the best slasher effects work put to screen.