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Tuesday, October 22, 2019

The Prey (1984) review

THE PREY 1980/1984

Debbie Thureson (Nancy), Steve Bond (Joel), Lori Lethin (Bobbie), Robert Wald (Skip), Gayle Gannes (Gail), Phillip Wenckus (Greg), Jackson Bostwick (Ranger Mark O'Brien), Jackie Coogan (Lester Tile), Connie Hunter (Mary Sylvester), Ted Hayden (Frank Sylvester), Carel Struycken (The Monster)

Directed by Edwin Scott Brown

***WARNING! If you've not seen the film, you may want to go no further than the Short Version of this review***

The Short Version: This is one of those under-the-radar slashers that attracted little attention but is more effective than history suggests. Influenced by HALLOWEEN and made before FRIDAY THE 13TH and the wave of psycho killers it birthed, THE PREY combines the hillbilly horror of JUST BEFORE DAWN (1980) with the Voorheesian style slasher killers that wouldn't be officially cemented till the following year's FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2. Frequently maligned or disregarded as hardly worthy of notice, it experiments with techniques that most genre fare never bothered attempting. Rough around the edges with a tense finale, and possibly too slow for today's horror crowd; but for the dedicated collector, THE PREY is worth hunting for.

Three couples take a weekend vacation deep in the California wilderness in an area where a devastating fire killed a village of gypsies over thirty years earlier. A child, badly burned in the fire, and born with giganticism, managed to survive, stalking the woods for victims that happen to enter its domain.

Had THE PREY been released shortly after its completion in 1979-early 1980, it likely would've had a much better place in the slasher pantheon. It's essentially MADMAN (1980) but with better acting. Influenced by HALLOWEEN (1978), the only parallel is the use of steadicam; otherwise, it shares more kinship with the 'killer in the woods' slashers popularized by FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) even though some of these were made before or during that film's production; THE PREY being one such precursor. But regardless of where you rank it, Edwin Scott Brown's genre entry utilizes some techniques nobody else had incorporated at that time.

The editing using slow motion, sped-up frame rates, and rapid cuts create a nerve-jangling experience that is heightened during the film's last 20 minutes. Utilizing POV shots for the killer was a genre mainstay that had been in use in earlier proto-slashers like BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) and immortalized in John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN (1978). For THE PREY, the filmmakers go a step further by having a fast beating heart heard on the soundtrack when we see through the killer's eyes. It's these elements that elevate the movie a few notches above the average slice and dicer of the time period.

There's nothing overly special about the script from husband and wife team, Edwin and Summer Brown, but it's efficient and works as a campfire tale; as well as holding its own alongside other similar slashers like the aforementioned MADMAN (1980) and THE BURNING (1981). Both those movies will win most fan favor due to the high gore content versus THE PREY's low blood count.

An early job for John Carl Buechler (who died earlier this year on March 19th), the gore is confined to a decapitation; and a nasty torn out throat. Elsewhere, Buechler's makeup for seven-foot Carel Struycken as the killer is suitably monstrous. You never see him till the final minutes, but it's effective makeup that recalls appliances designed for the 2006 remake of THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977). Speaking of Wes Craven's classic survival horror, that film's composer, Don Peake, did the soundtrack for Brown's movie.

While it may lack the excessive gore of other wilderness-set slashers, THE PREY is certainly superior to the mostly bland THE FINAL TERROR (1983); that title's notoriety being due to early roles for Daryl Hannah and Rachel Ward. Both film's have surprise shock endings, and THE PREY wins out with its revelatory jolt; likely what most remember about the movie.

If you're a fan of hiking or seeing sprawling, mountainous vistas, then THE PREY will hold additional interest for viewers. DP Joao Fernandes (billed as Teru Hayashi) captures some stunning shots of Idyllwild, California where much of the movie was shot. These moments of the cast dwarfed by the encroaching wilderness around them recalls an ambiance captured in JUST BEFORE DAWN (1980). That movie was a bit more successful in turning its environment into a suspense-building tool, aided by its ominous musical score. However, Brown and company are not unsuccessful in creating their own sense of dread. They fill their movie with a subtle woodsian foreboding that accelerates with rapidity during the final reel. Nature itself is as much a character as the six campers and the madman stalking them.

There are a number of shots of various predators consuming their prey or hunting for it. These bits have been an infamous point of detestation for many reviewers. The first instance I recall reading of it was a Chas Balun capsule review in his Gore Score book--bemoaning the prevalence of nature footage. Since then, virtually every review of the movie uses a similar negative sentiment. This is really an exaggeration as the nature shots are not as prominent as reviews would have you believe; taking up just a little over 3 minutes of screen time.

Contextually, they're entirely appropriate. These establishing shots of furry and scaly critters build tension of their own, minimal though it may be. Whether you're seeing a snake devour a rodent; ants engulfing a worm; or a spider paralyzing a moth, the point should be obvious; even more so when these shots are intercut with the campers enjoying their trip not knowing they're being watched by a crazed maniac awaiting the right time to kill each of them.

The acting is good, and better than expected for a movie that has maintained such a lowly reputation for decades. The biggest surprise is Debbie Thureson in her first acting gig. She really turns on the emotion during the frantic finale. Astonishingly, she only has one other credit to her name. She could have been another Jaime Lee Curtis. Jackson Bostwick is also notable for his quirky portrayal of the park ranger, Mark O'Brien. Seemingly a lonely man, we learn about him through scenes where he's by himself; whether tuning a banjo in his home or talking to the animals comfortable in his presence as if they were children.

THE ADDAMS FAMILY's (1964-1966) Uncle Fester (Jackie Coogan), has a small role as a park ranger who gives the backstory on the 1948 North Point fire that killed all but one of the gypsy villagers. He also has an enlightening conversation with ranger O'Brien on whether or not there's any benefits to eating cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches on oatmeal bread.

Also included on Arrow's blu-ray set is the international cut of THE PREY. As nice as it is to have this version included, it's veritably useless. Containing nearly 20 minutes of backstory about the North Point fire that consumed the gypsies while deforming its sole survivor, this extra footage feels extraneous and unnecessary. We already get a much better, shorter summation of the incident in the director-approved theatrical version so its inclusion feels even more like padding. The additional scenes don't even feel like they belong, nor do they even feel like they've been shot by the same crew (which they weren't). This sequence totally takes you out of the movie. The only real interest in sitting through it is out of curiosity; and the irony is that there's three sex scenes crammed into this footage, while the original filmmakers skimped on that slasher movie mainstay despite producing numerous adult pictures prior to and after THE PREY. 

Unjustly disregarded for years as barely a step up from the bottom of the barrel, Edwin Brown's horror film is surprisingly well made considering the director's porno pedigree. If you found the subtle build of evil in the wilderness of Jeff Lieberman's JUST BEFORE DAWN to your liking, you may find THE PREY worth hunting down.

This review is representative of the Arrow Video 2 blu-ray disc set limited to 3,000 units. Specs and Extras: new 2K restoration from the original negative in 1080p 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; audio commentary; two audio interviews; on-camera interviews with the cast; revisiting the original shooting locations; Texas Frightmare 2019 audience track; Q&A session with cast members; TV spot and video trailer; original shooting script on BD-ROM; DISC 2: international and composite cuts; 45 minutes of never-before-seen outtakes; running time for theatrical cut: 01:19:46; running time for international cut: 01:35:37; running time for composite cut: 01:42:34

1 comment:

Film Buff said...

Saw some of it on You tube. Thought the surprise ending was a relief. Glad someone likes it too besides me. Interesting to note that in the trivia the producers of Friday the 13th 3D wanted to make Jason Vorhees sexual assult a victim also but thought that wasn't his style.kind of feels this ideal was used here instead but that's my fan theory.

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