Watching a number of the slasher films that followed in the post-Halloween and Friday the 13th era, you tend to notice a strictly adhered to template: an opening instigating event set years (and often times decades) in the past*, some sort of community festivity (a dance, trick-or-treating, camping season) occurring on the anniversary of said event ** (preferably for the first time since the occurrence of the instigating event), and a killer in a cool outfit***; mix in a plucky and possibly, but not always, virginal, Final Girl****, and a Carrie inspired final shock*****, and viola, you get generic 1981 slasher film. The Prowler does not reinvent any wheels, it’s no Halloween/Black Christmas level masterpiece, but you know what, it’s a competently made wheel that drives just swell thank you very much.
*In this case, a civilization returning World War II soldier who discovers his true love, Rosemary, did not wait for him and is in the arms of another man. He offs the happy couple in a gazebo with a pitchfork (that should totally be an option for the Clue board game!)
** A Spring Fling type dance that’s being held for the first time since the 1945 murders
***WWII fatigues and helmets, with a sand mask covering his face
****The pretty and naturalistic Pam (Vicky Dawson) who has a crush on the local deputy
*****Well, I’ll let you see for yourself.
The film moves at a briskly paced 88 minutes, but sometimes to the sacrifice of a well-rounded story. I like that it’s a small town and it feels like all the characters are familiar with one another, at least by reputation, but most of these relationships are never really explained to the audience, including the secret identity of the killer who is mentioned, but never actually seen until he’s demasked in the final minutes. And the teenage death fodder here makes the average Friday the 13th victim look well rounded.
That said the proceedings are elevated by the sure handed direction of Joseph Zito, who would go on to helm the inappropriately named Friday the 13th The Final Chapter, one of the best in that series. Definitely, more of a John Carpenter acolyte than that of the more anonymous stylings of, say, original Friday the 13th director Sean Cunnigham, Zito is very good at churning tension from spatial compositions, though he does favor the investigating duo just nearly discovering damning evidence before moving on a bit too much, and not once but twice a randomly located character who we’ve never seen before jumps out and provides a cheap scare. Vicky Dawson is very good as the Final Girl, both fragile and determined like an actual teenage girl; she looks more like a small town beauty than the generic supermodels that would play the role in a modern film.
But the MVP of The Prowler must go to heavily employed in 1981 (see also Eyes of a Stranger and The Burning) make-up and special effects artist Tom Savini. He creates stomach churning pitchfork piercing, throat slashing and head destroying shotgun blasts, that proves for, what the zillionth time, that practical effects are where it is always at. Savini claims this is his best work, and he might be right on a cumulative scale, though I think the raft slaughter in The Burning and the shotgun blast in Maniac take the prize for individual scenes.