As schools begin to let out for summer and students graduate, it seems fitting to revisit The Prowler (1981). The Prowler is Joseph Zito’s third film and is part of the “slasher movie boom” that occurred after the success of Halloween (1978). For a long time The Prowler was seen as the sleazy cousin of Halloween; a poorly executed and rather tasteless imitation. However, through various home video releases and the accompanying word of mouth, The Prowler has undergone a critical reappraisal and become something of a minor classic within the genre.
From the start The Prowler is unique. Zito opens the film with a mock newsreel cobbled together from existing footage. When The Prowler opens, the audience does a double-take, unsure if the correct film is showing as the production company logo from the forties fills the screen in glorious black and white. Zito, with this newsreel, establishes immediately the context for what will happen next with great economy. This moment also opens up an intertextual discourse between the images of young men returning from the western front and the images of a WWII soldier mutilating the bodies of young men and women in a small American town of the eighties.
Newsreels such as the one that opens The Prowler evoke the most noble aspects of the American ideology. These are pictures of hope, promise, freedom, and possibility that have been fought for in the fields of France and the cities of Germany. There is an innocence to these images of WWII that has been kept pristine by our collective reverence for them as mythic symbols passed down from the Greatest Generation to the Baby Boomers and then the Gen X’ers and Millennials. However, the reality of WWII was quite different and looms as an ominous specter behind such pictures.
It’s this truth about the war against the Axis powers that makes The Prowler so frightening. The noble visage of the American soldier who fought the Nazis has become a killing machine unleashed on small town America. This figure maims and mutilates America’s youth the same way he did the German and Japanese soldiers during the war. It’s a gimmicky conceit but it is highly affecting in its subversion of the national iconography.
The actual plot of The Prowler is secondary to the image complex. The motive behind the killings is generally vague and derivative. Where another film would attempt to flesh out the killer’s motives and back story, The Prowler instead focuses on the innocent victims’ lives. For the images to have meaning in their subversive juxtaposition with the newsreel that opens the film Zito must concentrate on making the characters likable and relatable archetypes. It is in this that John Carpenter’s influence on The Prowler can be most clearly felt. Otherwise, the aesthetic heritage of Zito’s film is much more strongly aligned with the giallo pictures of the seventies. These films were lurid, violent and privileged the image above narrative and characterization.
The fact that The Prowler was made in the early eighties invites the discussion of the national and individual traumas inflicted by the Vietnam War. As John Rambo cathartically wages battle on a small town sheriff’s department, The Prowler offers a similar spectacle albeit one that has been inverted. The soldier in The Prowler is not Stallone the everyman of Rocky (1976), but a mysterious, faceless force of violence that is animated by instinct. At the end of The Prowler when the killer is given a face, it’s Farley Granger of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and Strangers On A Train (1951).
Of course these aesthetic operations are all part of the subtext of The Prowler. By and large audiences come to this underrated slasher film for the kills and the nudity. As a superficial spectacle of carnage, Zito’s film delivers. The Prowler is beautifully directed and Tom Savini’s gory effects are among the maestro of mutilation’s best.