Monday, October 29, 2018

Census Bloodbath: Thank you for your service?


Three more days to Halloween, Halloween, Halloween, three more days to Halloween, here's our crossover!  As if he needs any introduction, our friend Brennan Klein of Popcorn Culture, as well as many other places these days, shall be taking on the task of reviewing three wholesome, edifying 1950s sci-fi films of the kind we so often do around here, while I review three slasher films straight from the pit of moral decay called the 1980s.

Directed by Joseph Zito
Written by Neal Barbera and Glenn Leopold
With Vicky Lawson (Pam MacDonald), Christopher Goutman (Deputy Mark London), Lisa Dunsheath (Sherry), David Sederholm (Carl), Cindy Weintraub (Lisa), Donna Davis (Ms. Allison), Lawrence Tierney (Maj. Chatham),and Farley Granger (Sheriff George Fraser)

Spoiler alert: moderate

It's really obvious that there's a potential good version of The Prowler.  It would be obvious even if that good version were not so readily identifiable, this being the same year's My Bloody Valentine, still the most viscerally impressive of any of the pure slashers I've ever seen (and getting to be a source of nostalgia for me, too, given that it was the first film reviewed during the first of our now-five annual crossovers with Brennan, meaning that it's probably not actually a coincidence that it is still, after all this time, my favorite).

The Prowler is certainly no My Bloody Valentine, despite revolving around much the same premise of a brutal crime leaving a scar on a small, tight-knit community, that, just as it seems to have finally decided to heal itself decades later, is struck once again by a killer determined to never, ever let that wound close.  Technically, it even makes more sense in The Prowler; and yet technically making sense has never really been an essential element of any good slasher film.  Anyway, The Prowler throws itself back, way back, all the way back to that weird stretch of time after V-E Day but before the surrender of Japan.  This is related to us by way of stock newsreel footage establishing the period, then a very, very deliberate pan over one of those sad little "Dear John" letters the newsreel talked about, its recipient not yet named (The Prowler being, theoretically, "a mystery"), and which assumes we read extremely slowly, or rather, cannot read at all, since its author, Rosemary Chatham, helpfully reads it aloud for us.  And I can't help but think The Prowler would feel less like it's starting up three times in a row if Rosemary's recital of her 1945-equivalent of a breakup text were set over the stock footage of troops arriving home, which otherwise seems a little wasteful, serving only to deliver the deeply crucial yet rather-well-known fact that we won World War II.

The third time's the charm, and here we find Rosemary in the flesh—and so does her new boyfriend, Roy, and the act of shocking violence to come would likely have played better if they looked and acted, for even a second, like they were genuinely in love, or even had any use for each other beyond Roy's desire to find a home for his pushy erection and Rosemary's shrugging, rather unenthusiastic consent to leave her college graduation dance so she can provide him one.  (Some slasher movies get that a hint of tragedy helps sell the bloodletting; some, unfortunately, do not.)  But before sex can quite happen, the two copulation partners are forever wed, Bava/Vorhees-style (indeed, My Bloody Valentine-style), by a killer in a mask and a helmet and G.I. fatigues, and who leaves a rose to commemorate their corpses, so we know that whoever this murderer is, it's in all likelihood the "John" of that "Dear John" letter.

It's useful to stop here briefly, since The Prowler afterwards jumps forward a quarter century to 1980: for some reason, I had gotten it into my head that what I was dealing with here was a slasher period piece, and this is not at all the case, though there's something about the 1945-set scene, as badly-acted as it is, that works, probably something to do with the cinematography and production design that doesn't so much "capture the era" as it openly apes Spielberg's 1941, but that's still interesting.  It's less interesting once we are actually in 1980, which continues along with this aesthetic, though in The Prowler's case, honestly, the second-most interesting thing about it may be the turn-of-the-decade filmstock that soaks up light like a sponge, even to the point that our Final Girl's blonde hair turns out to be reflective enough to effectively become its own light source, sometimes even bleeding a yellow glare onto adjacent parts of the frame.  The first-most interesting thing we'll get to just as soon as we run through the rest of the plot, of which there is, somehow, almost none.

So: 1980's rolled around, and the local girl's college—which more than half the time feels like a girl's high school, and it's clear that the film has not thought about any distinction this might make, being more interested in the "girl's" part than the "whatever kind of school" part—has at last gotten over its institutional trauma, and revived its tradition of graduation dances, 35 years after the brutal double-murder we saw in the prologue extinguished it.  The three students who matter to our tale—well, only two matter, and only one matters—are Pam (the obvious Final Girl), Sally (the promiscuous pothead one), and Sherry (the promiscuous promiscuous one), roommates and also evidently on the decorating committee, under a certain Ms. Allison; it's here we're also introduced to Pam's boyfriend, local sheriff's deputy Mark.  On the day of the dance, Mark's boss Sheriff Fraser has begged off for a fishing trip, leaving Mark in charge of the whole town.  A simple job on any other weekend, but not this one, for almost the very instant night falls, a "prowler" dressed identically to the 1945 killer begins slashing his way through a slate of disposable human meat, expressing his fury at the woman who scorned him, and the community that has forgotten his pain.

You probably noticed I put "mystery" in scare quotes up there, and it's not entirely clear if The Prowler thinks that the transparency of its gambit is supposed to be a source of suspense, which means that The Prowler is stupid, or that The Prowler thinks that you won't notice, which means that The Prowler simply believes its audience is stupid.

The killer begins with the dorms, and Pam only barely escapes—one of her roommates is not so lucky—and she and Mark begin a mission to track the killer down, leading from Rosemary's wheelchair-bound father's mansion to the graveyard to a phone call to a flamboyantly-dickish desk clerk at a redneck fishing lodge that goes on so obscenely long that I can't believe anyone thought it was good for suspense or for comedy, or for anything other than padding, and then back to the Chatham mansion for the finale, in which the film's lame red herrings are summarily dispensed with and the killer comes face to face with Pam, the only one left to stand against his rage.

And it is so much nothing.  Director Joseph Zito has, possibly, made good movies in other genres (I kind of remember liking Missing In Action), but this, his third feature, is mostly inept in almost every single aspect beyond being a delivery device for a small but worthy amount of truly, staggeringly good gore shocks, which nevertheless feel like insert-modules conceived and designed and implemented in all respects by the maestro behind them, Tom Savini, and which I therefore suspect probably were, since the filmmaking tends to get better in the moments immediately before, during, and immediately after each kill scene.  There are, however, not very many, and only about half are really worth talking about, and two of them take place in the same sequence, revolving around the first dead dyad, Pam's roommate Sherry and her beau, Carl—both of whom arguably showcase more spark and talent than anybody else in movie, incidentally, since mutual randiness is at least a positive trait.  Slain one after the other, Carl eats it by way of a rather goofy but technically well-accomplished knife straight through the skull that somehow fails to render him instantly dead; and then Sherry, in the film's first and second-queasiest brush with sexy, sexy death, meets her maker as the G.I. stares at her briefly through a mosaic shower door (I daresay the coolest little gesture in the film), then plunges his trusty pitchfork into her writhing, naked, wet body while we watch for a pretty long time.  It is, at this point, still possible to weakly defend The Prowler's misogyny, because the nudity is, in some sense, essential to the effect: by removing anything that could possibly hide the mechanisms behind the magic, it underlines just how incredibly lifelike (or incredibly deathlike) Savini's work could be when taken to its very maximum level of craft.  But, then again, there's the only other murder really worth talking about, an Italiante throatslitting in a pool, and given that the camera is just as interested in the actress' panty-clad ass as it is the part of her spewing red corn syrup, then, yeah, maybe I have to concede that this movie might be slightly mean-spirited in its sexualized violence.

Man.  Incels, huh?

And yet being "mean-spirited" is at least something you can wrestle with.  Mostly, The Prowler is just absurdly boring, and even more absurdly sloppy.  On that latter count, it actually doesn't care about that college graduation dance, and despite stopping in routinely throughout the film—to absolutely no effect whatsoever, given the G.I. never fucking makes it there!—eventually just forgets about it altogether, abandoning characters who, we now see, did not need to be in the movie at all.  (It's a pity, too, since the dance is the prettiest, most dreamlike setting in this bloody nightmare: a pink pastel wonderland of balloons and streamers, just this side of plausible.  It has a band so shitty that they don't even come off as shittily awesome, ala House on Sorority Row, and whose song lyrics are egregiously tacky editing cues that comment on the action in other scenes—but it does look nice, and it would've been fascinating to see Savini pull another Burning amidst these environs.)  As for being boring, what the G.I. does do is Michael Myers all over the place, except without John Carpenter's command of pacing and tension, or Dean Cundey's command of shadows, or even Nick Castle's command of being tall and eerily still.  So Pam runs; he lumbers.  Pam gets trapped in places no sensible person would ever get trapped in; he takes his Goddamn sweet time in finding her.

Sometimes this is interspersed with Pam doing things with her boyfriend the deputy, and there's a kernel of something potentially worthwhile in their relationship—he's actually a much more interesting character than she is, stumbling under the duties foisted upon him (and given who's foisting, it's pretty ironic), and chafing under Pam's desire to be a more active crimestopping partner while finding himself (mostly perceiving himself) to be emasculated by her worries that he's not up to the task, which he isn't.  Sadly, the form demands a Final Girl, not a Final Cop, and he winds up even less useful than the usual supporting character in a slasher film, in that he doesn't even die.  Admittedly, The Prowler does have the goods for the denouement of its Final Girl sequence.  (It's a sequence that technically begins at something like the thirty minute mark, explaining partially why The Prowler feels so laboriously stretched-out; but, realistically speaking, the True Final Girl Sequence doesn't start until the second time the two leads start scoobying around the Chatham place.)  In any event, The Prowler's climax gives us a particular kind of gore effect here, one that I doubt I'll ever get sick of.  And, at the extremity of its coda, The Prowler almost regains some footing as a movie capable of producing emotions, despite generating no emotional connection with its characters, even on the basic animal level slashers tend to work at; but even here, it wastes its bid at gravity with a cheesy, dumb, shitty version of Carrie's famous jump scare that, frankly, barely even scans as a jump scare at all.

But the whole thing's a waste: its merits are almost completely technological, and there aren't even that many of those, wholly bound up as they are in the death scenes of a slasher with a pretty unexceptional, maybe even below-average body count.  It certainly has no other points of recommendation.  And this is the marquee title for this year's Census Bloodbath, the good and somewhat-famous one, that people actually like?  Ruh roh, Raggy.

Killer: Sheriff Fraser, NO REALLY
Final Girl: Otto sorry, my semi-sympathetically-portrayed developmentally-disabled red herring friend, it's Pam; but nice try!
Best Kill: Sherry being eviscerated in the shower by a pitchfork, such as were issued to all U.S. infantrymen during WWII... wait, what?
Sign of the Times: Actors playing college kids who don't look like models; it's a compliment, sort of?
Scariest Moment: Pam wandering around her dorm room, oblivious to the signs of violence, including the dead people in it
Weirdest Moment: Maj. Chatham wheels out after Pam's first brush with the G.I., and he grabs at her for no reason, and, because every moment in this whole film is stretched out long past the breaking point, she can't pull a disabled septuagenarian down to the ground and get away instantly
Champion Dialogue: "Book 'em, Pam-o."
Body Count: 8
1. Rosemary and
2. Roy, human kebabed
3. Carl takes a knife through his skull, which makes his pupils disappear
4. Sherry, in the shower
5. Lisa, throat slit in a swimming pool
6. Ms. Allison, stabbed in the throat
7. Otto, shotgunned right in the chest
8. The G.I.'s weapon is turned against him, and his head explodes, most gratifyingly
TL;DR: Psychotically dull as a thriller, and pathetic as a mystery, let alone a character piece, it livens up occasionally when Tom Savini has something to say about the matter.


  1. I'm very much in the same boat. I find the third act of this movie indefensibly boring (sorry to inflict it upon you, but you DID want to see it), and that phone call scene is funny to discuss but hell to sit through.

    That said, I think the opening act kills have a little more sizzle than you're giving them credit for, especially the lead up to the pool sequence, in which two separate parties leave the dance and you're not quite sure which one is gonna get the sharp thing put in them. Granted, the basement couple vanishes as soon as this device is over, but what are you gonna do? Tom Savini!

    1. I did. I'm done fashion or other, I asked for all of these. Fortunately, one of them, at least, is close to my NEW favorite, and if I'm not mistaken I actually like it a lot more than you do.

      As for the bifurcated death scene you reference, I'll cop, I didn't even see what they were going for there--I thought that Lisa would die, THEN Nerd and Pothead would die, as the G.I. infiltrated their dance. But they didn't! And I was disappointed.

      P.S.: does the killer in this have a cool name? I was calling him "the G.I." because I think I saw that somewhere, and he's not, you know, an *actual* "prowler" as we would tend to understand the term. Anyway, I *like* "the G.I."

    2. I'm excited to see which one got your goat, because if it's the one I'm thinking, I may have already reevaluated it since giving my score.

    3. And yeah that G.I. costume is effing great.

    4. Oh, I'm pretty sure it's definitely the one you're thinking.