Joseph Zito's 1981 slasher The Prowler has a reputation as being one of the better offerings from the tired sub-genre. It boasts an impressive period look in its opening scenes (impressive for an 80's horror flick with little more than a million dollar budget), some of the best gore effects by Tom Savini, and one creepy looking killer. However, these minor pluses never materialize into a shocking or thrilling experience. Instead the film is nothing more than your average hack-and-slash film that offers up some visceral death scenes (thanks to Savini's gore effects), but doesn't succeed in actually thrilling the viewer in any way.
The film's opening – an inspired set piece for a slasher film – places us in a small New Jersey town called Avalon Bay in 1945. It's the night of the big dance, and of course that's a recipe for disaster. A World War II veteran returns home to find a letter left by his girlfriend Rosemary. The letter informs him that she's moved on and found someone else. This of course enrages the killer and there you have your premise. The killer dons his battledress and an array of weapons (my favorite is the pitchfork) and sets his sights on the town.
After the killer pitchforks his way through his now ex-girlfriend (in one of the more famous scenes that was heavily cut during its initial VHS run) the town realizes that they can never have a dance again. This idea of a curse being put on a town, and specifically an event that takes place in that town, is eerily reminiscent to another 1981 slasher flick, My Bloody Valentine. The Prowler has better gore effects, but isn't nearly as good at eliciting a sense of dread or terror. Zito and his crew are too distracted by the tropes that so often bog down this particular kind of film, and I have to say that I was pretty disappointed as a horror fan.
Flash forward to 1980 and for the first time in 35 years the town of Avalon Bay is going to put on a dance. The sheriff doesn't like this idea and so he lets his deputy keep watch on the town while he takes a much needed vacation (hmmm). The plot is pretty standard by this point as the deputy and the Final Girl try to make sense of the murders that are happening around town as the killer has returned to wreak all kinds of bloody havoc on kids having fun. Unlike Halloween, The Prowler doesn't do a decent enough job of creating a good pace or atmosphere to distract you from the fact that you're watching a film that is essentially a lot of the characters running from the same set piece to the next.
Really, though, the story is never important in a film like this, and the truth is that the only reason people see these movies and think they're any good is because of the infamous Savini effects. Much like his other heavily cut early-80's slasher, The Burning, Savini creates some memorable slashings and impaling that show his craft in constructing convincing looking prosthetics and gore. Blue Underground has released the DVD fully uncut, so finally Savini's work can be seen the way it was intended to.
The Prowler is a pretty par for the course as far as slasher films go. It doesn't do anything new with the genre, and really it's only considered good by some fans of the genre because it came at the beginning of what became a tired, over-satiated sub-genre. Halloween, Black Christmas, and My Bloody Valentine set the standard for slasher films, and I think Zito never intended to make a slasher film on par with those genre classics. What he does succeed at – with the help of Savini – is making any fan of the genre want to see this below average film because of the infamous gore effects. Watching The Prowler gave me the same feeling as watching films like The Burning and other heavily cut "video nasties"…it just isn't as good as people want to believe it is. Just because the film is a gory delight doesn't make it a good horror film. Eli Roth really likes this film…that should tell you everything you need to know about The Prowler.