Saturday Nightmares: The Prey (1984)
The Prey isn’t a movie to be recommended lightly. You’ve really got to have spent some time mining the depths of the slasher subgenre in order to gleam any appreciation from this little oddity. It’s not particularly well made - padded to the nines with more wildlife footage than most nature documentaries and bogged down by the most lugubrious pace imaginable – and it fails at creating any substantial tension or suspense.
And yet, for all the valid criticism, there remains an allure to the proceedings that can be amazingly difficult to articulate.
A forest fire claims the lives of several gypsies leaving only a misshapen child to survive in the wilderness. It sounds like the set-up for a really bad punchline and, to an extent, it is. Thirty years later, six campers head to the North Point mountain peak for a weekend of rest and recreation only to discover that the gypsy boy is all grown up and ready for revenge. As a slasher movie, The Prey has some solid moments that come far too sporadically: Blood-soaked axes hack up unsuspecting victims, throats are torn out, and people are hurled off steep cliffs. John Carl Buechler handles the make-up FX amicably, although it looks suspiciously like the best parts were left to perish at the hands of the MPAA.
Anyone who’s seen this is likely to recall a considerable amount of nature footage spliced throughout. Many criticisms have derided the movie for going overboard with ‘stock footage’, but that’s not entirely fair. It appears as though the nature stuff was shot specifically for this (the end crawl credits someone for the footage) and director Edwin Brown uses it thematically within the story. Our resident monster is an intrinsic part of the forest, same as the animals and reptiles frequently shown, and watching owls and snakes stalk their prey gives the events a sense of foreshadowing. Admittedly, it smacks of overabundance – especially at the climax where we should be more focused on the survival of our characters - but it is successful in giving The Prey a palpable atmosphere. Watch it on a hot summer night, and you’ll feel this movie as much as you see it.
Porno director Edwin Brown crossed into mainstream exploitation with this, the only non-XXX film found on his resume. One assumes it was his pedigree that led to the rampant rumor of a ‘hardcore’ version of the film, complete with several full-on pornographic sex scenes, and that was the reason New World Pictures had to remove fifteen minutes from the film before releasing it. There’s no pornography in The Prey’s extended version, however, and the only difference is the inclusion of a twenty minute flashback sequence that ‘explains’ the origin of the tragic forest fire.
Woven into the film during the campfire scene (whereas the theatrical cut had the campers joking around and discussing astronomy), it’s a mini-narrative that establishes a smarmy gypsy’s affair with a local married woman. Some of the townspeople object to the presence of the gypsies and, after the adulteress is caught in a lie, she ‘admits’ to having been raped by the gypsy as a way of saving face with her husband. There’s also a prolonged gypsy dance sequence, a few bouts of gypsy sex and two rednecks swilling beer while planning their arsonist revenge.
The problem with this footage, however, is that it never really ties into the film. It’s just a LOT of needless exposition used to establish the tragedy of the forest fire – something that the audience is already aware of. Furthermore, veteran actor Jackie Coogan shows up near the climax of both versions to fill us in on the creature’s back story while alternatively discussing cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches. It’s unsurprising that New Word would’ve opted to lose this subplot in favor of a leaner film, although the sheer amount of female exploitation on display (no less than three pairs of naked breasts in a twenty minute flashback – well done!) surely must’ve given them pause. It’s hard to say whether or not The Prey works better with or without out it, although this bizarre sequence does give the film some distinguishable character.
But Brown never gets completely comfortable with the demands of ‘mainstream’ filmmaking. The kills lack the proper build up to be suspenseful while cast interactions are peppered with some of the strangest beats ever: awkward character pauses, clunky dialogue and baffling behavior (reference the waterfall scene where these late twentysomethings are getting such a kick out of splashing each other). There are some nice flourishes of humor that help offset some of these drawbacks though: the guys sit around talking about getting into the women’s pants while the ladies clamor for a romantic weekend underneath the stars. Nothing groundbreaking, but there are some amusing bits along the way.
In terms of the slasher himself, Lou – as the extended cut names him, he’s kept off camera for a large chunk of the duration. And it’s a bit of a let down once we finally glimpse him. The extended version builds lots of anticipation by referring to the boy as a hulking giant and both cuts feature a quick sequence of Coogan’s lazy ranger recalling seeing the monstrous child once. So we’re mighty anxious for the resident madman to rear his ugly head. That only problem is that he looks more like the Toxic Avenger in a tattered sweat shirt and less like the imposing specimen we were expecting. Whoops.
When you have a tagline like ”It’s not human, and its got an axe.”, expectations are understandably high. Unfortunately, in the case of The Prey, it is human, and it only uses an axe for two kills. To the majority of audiences, there isn’t much of a film here. But some thirty years after its release, it has maintained a somewhat steady group of devotees. It’s undoubtedly a lesser-tier horror film but, if you can buy into the slow pace and clunky edges, The Prey is an effective little backwoods slasher offering some vicious kills and a memorable, downbeat shock ending.
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