“A prowler has been seen around the campus and, well … he could be dangerous.”
— Miss Allison (Donna Davis) in The Prowler (1981)
Miss Allison was one of those largely ineffectual authority figures who always seems to turn up in slasher films from the early 80s. It was easy to be dismissive of her and personally, I can’t get over the fact that she would actually show up for the big graduation dance wearing pantyhose with sandals. But still, Miss Allison had a point here. There was a prowler wandering around campus and was he ever dangerous!
Of course, this all could have been avoided if they just hadn’t had a graduation dance to begin with. Eccentric old Maj. Chatham (Lawrence Tierney) understood that. He remembered what had happened at the town of Avalon Bay’s graduation dance of 1945, how Rosemary (Joy Glaccum) and her new date where both killed by a pitchfork-wielding maniac. Chatham had spent the last 35 years protesting any plans to hold another graduation dance.
However, in 1980, one feisty student named Pam (Vicky Dawson) finally convinced the town to allow them to hold a graduation dance. It probably helped the Pam’s boyfriend, Mark (Christopher Goutman) was a deputy. The morning of the dance, reports came in that someone had robbed a nearby store, murdered the store owner, and might be heading towards the town of Avalon Bay.
The sheriff (Farley Granger, who played Guy Haines in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train) reacted to this news by announcing that he was going fishing and leaving Mark in charge. And, before the viewer could say, “Wait a minute — how does that make any sense?,” the sheriff was gone, the dance was on, and a maniac in a combat uniform was killing people with a bayonet and a pitchfork.
Yes, Miss Allison, the prowler was quite dangerous.
Having read that plot description, you might have a suspicion as to who the prowler actually was. But you’re probably thinking to yourself, “No, that is way too obvious a solution!” Well, no — it isn’t. You will not learn the Prowler’s identity until the final few minutes of the film but you will have guessed it early on.
The Prowler is not going to win any points for originality. It’s a slasher film from the early 80s, with everything that implies. For people who know their horror history, it’s a time capsule of that brief period when slashers were still making an effort to be American gialli, before the genre became dominated by loquacious monsters like Freddy Krueger and postmodern snark. As a character, the Prowler says next to nothing and really has no personality beyond a few questionable hobbies. But he certainly does kill a lot of people and seems to truly enjoy it.
And, if you hate these type of films, you’re going to hate The Prowler. But, that being said, The Prowler is actually one of the better examples of the early 80s slasher genre. Much as he would do with both Abduction and Friday the 13th — The Final Chapter, director Joseph Zito keeps the bloody action moving and, though they may be playing stock characters, he gets above average performances from his entire cast. As opposed to a lot of slasher films of the period, you actually feel bad when these people meet their untimely end.
And finally, the Prowler himself is just scary! The combination of the Prowler’s menacing appearance and Tom Savini’s relentless gore effects sets this film apart from other contemporary slashers, like Graduation Day. Even by the standards of slasher psychos, the Prowler is cruel and sadistic. It’s not just that he kills with a bayonet. It’s that he obviously get so much enjoyment from doing it. At its best, The Prowler is pure nightmare fuel.
Finally, on a personal note, I have to admit that it kind of freaked me out that one of the Prowler’s victims was named Lisa. As I’ve said before, slasher films tend to scare me precisely because I know that there’s no way I’d survive one. We always tell ourselves that people in slasher movies die because they do unbelievably stupid things but honestly, I think we all do a lot of stupid things every day. After all, we all behave under the assumption that we’re not on the verge of being attacked by a knife-wielding maniac. Hence, it’s easy to say, “Don’t go in that room!” but why shouldn’t someone go in that room? After all, they’re not watching the movie. They don’t know there’s a killer in that room. Lisa in The Prowler certainly did some stupid things and what freaked me out was that I could easily imagine myself doing the same stupid things.
(True, unlike the film’s Lisa, I wouldn’t go out by myself in the middle of night, strip down to my underwear, and then jump in a pool but I’m planning on conquering my fear of drowning someday soon and who knows what might then happen!)
Seriously, people — be kind to the Lisas in your life.