Tom Savini is a horror legend. He’s every bit as important to the history of the genre as some of its greatest auteurs. Without Savini, George Romero’s 1970s and ’80s horror work wouldn’t have the same punch. It was Savini’s expertise that allowed Joe Pilato’s torso to be pulled to pieces in Day of the Dead, and Don Keefer to be dragged into a crate and mutilated by a Tasmanian devil in Creepshow. Savini is an artist in the medium of fake blood. And while his work elevated good horror movies, it also made obscure horror flicks, like Maniac, worth watching for the effects alone.
It was titles like The Prowler, the 1981 slasher flick from director Joseph Zito, where Savini was allowed to stretch his legs. Movies like this were never going to find a wide audience upon release, which also meant they faced less scrutiny from the censors. Should Zito and Savini wish to include a shot of a bayonet sawing into a young lady’s neck, that’s fine. Should the two wish to make the audience squirm with a lingering pitchfork death sequence in a shower, that’s also fine. Who was going to stop them?
In the fictional seaside town of Avalon Bay (played by Cape May, New Jersey), a college graduation ball held at the tail end of World War 2 was ruined when two of the attendees, one of them the Rosemary of the alternate title, were murdered by a pitchfork wielding madman wearing the uniform of one of America’s fighting soldiers. The movie implies heavily that the killer is Rosemary’s ex-boyfriend, whom she dumped while he was still fighting overseas. It’s as much motive as Zito provides the audience, and it’s barely referred to again.
The town is so traumatized by the killings that it bans the college from holding the ball. But, after 30-plus years, memories fade and attitudes soften, and the college is set to hold the ball once more. The killer, however, was never caught. He must still live in town, too, because the night of the ball, he puts on the old uniform, grabs his pitchfork, and gets to killing again.
If this plot sounds familiar to the experienced horror film viewer, that’s because it’s about the same as that in My Bloody Valentine, which was released earlier that year. But it’s only the big stuff. Dance, young people, killer. Scene to scene the movies are different enough.
The heroes of this film are co-ed Pam MacDonald (Vicky Dawson), and Sheriff’s Deputy Mark London (Christopher Goutman, who would go on to a successful and extensive career working behind the camera in soap operas). It’s easy to tell these two are the main characters because they’re the only two characters who aren’t hopelessly vapid. One can tell the other featured players are slasher fodder the moment they first appear on screen.
After Zito sets up the story with dance #1 in 1945, then shows dance #2 in 1981, that’s it for plot cohesion. The majority of this film’s 89-minute running time is spent following Pam and Mark around as they investigate, and flee from, the killer. In between these scenes the killer takes his pitchfork to the disposable members of the cast. Why a soldier would be using a pitchfork to kill is never explained, but Zito didn’t seem to care at all about this film making sense. There are even scenes where he sets up characters to meet a grisly end, only for the scene to end with nothing having happened.
Most of the time, however, Zito and Savini give us more blood than we want. The killings in this flick go on past a normal horror movie comfort level. It’s disturbing, but also a little cartoonish, which kept me from being repulsed, à la any of the Saw flicks.
As a story, The Prowler stinks. It has little plot development, story threads that go nowhere, and an appearance by Lawrence Tierney which could have been cut from the film completely. All his presence does is confuse an already jumbled plot. How Zito could have made something so simple into something so nonsensical is an indictment of his abilities as a storyteller. That didn’t stop him from moving on to bigger and better things, but at times this flick feels like an ersatz movie. It just doesn’t make sense. Were it not for Savini’s work, The Prowler would be a total waste of time. But for fans of his work, it’s a must-see. Still, Alien: Resurrection is a better movie than The Prowler.