The Prowler (1981)

Considering how much I read about horror films, especially American, I was surprised at how few mentions I found of Joseph Zito’s The Prowler. In all of the slasher literature I’ve collected over the years, I think this film is the one that’s mentioned the least. So, I figured I ought to give it a watch.


The Prowler has your standard slasher plot. A group of teenagers are hunted down by a masked killer. However, The Prowler deviates somewhat from the norm – understandable, given it was one of the earlier entries into the subgenre. It begins after the end of WWII, where a returning soldier discovers that his girlfriend has left him. Once home, the soldier – who is not identified – then kills the woman and her new boyfriend at a home coming dance, leaving behind a red rose at the crime scene. We then skip to the present day, where the local high school is once again planning a graduation dance, and the killer starts up a whole new rampage.


Joseph Zito said once that The Prowler was his best work and in some senses, it’s hard to argue. Visually, The Prowler is a powerhouse on par with the original Halloween. The editing and sound are both spot-on, and the scenes are beautifully composed. It’s obvious that a great deal of thought went into the shooting of this film. I don’t think I could find a single scene in this film that doesn’t work visually. Everything is carefully constructed and the sleekness of this film defies its small budget. For an 80s slasher, The Prowler looks amazing. It would give a lot of modern day horror films a run for their money on looks alone. Honestly, if I were still in college, I’d use this film as an example of how to do composition right.


For its brief period moments, The Prowler does its job. The costumes are, for the most part, accurate for the time they’re depicting, and dynamic on screen. The titular villain himself looks great, imposing and dark like the very best of the slasher villains in the canon. My only quibble is that some of the military characters had the wrong hairstyle, but that’s a small complaint.


All that being said, The Prowler isn’t without its issues. For a film whose villain is supposedly motivated by WWII and a Dear John Letter, The Prowler really doesn’t have anything to say about either. The story has trouble maintaining a consistent tone. Several scenes meant to raise the tension end up nowhere, and only raise questions that the film never bothers to answer. There are too many red herrings, the acting feels choppy, and the plot tends to wander aimlessly before getting yanked back on track. Furthermore, the actions of the villain – and a few of the other characters – don’t make much sense when examined fully. Even the rose motif that pops up regularly isn’t explained until towards the end, and feels shoehorned in. As do some of the killer’s weapons, honestly. While the pitchfork looks amazing on screen (some of the best silhouette work I’ve ever seen), it doesn’t fit with the villain’s MO to use something that unwieldy, when the film has already established that he has a shotgun.


After watching this film, I’m getting a better sense of why it hasn’t been analyzed as much as other slashers made around the same time. There’s no denying that The Prowler is an amazing technical achievement, but thematically, it doesn’t really have anything to say. Thus, there’s a limited amount of discussion and analysis that can be done with it.


See The Prowler for its looks, but don’t expect to do much deep thinking.


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