Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Census Bloodbath: Back To Back To Skull

Year: 1981
Director: Joseph Zito
Cast: Vicky Dawson, Christopher Goutman, Lawrence Tierney
Run Time: 1 hour 29 minutes
MPAA Rating: UR

I'm graduating in May. This is the first week of my final semester of college. Actually, this is my final semester of any school ever. In just five short months, I'll have to start pretending to be an adult as I face the vast unknowable expanse that is my future. Sometimes real life is more terrifying than the movies. At any rate, I've decided to celebrate the end of my educational odyssey by bringing back a personal favorite feature that has proven to be an educational odyssey in and of itself. It's time to return to Back to Skull, where we will be celebrating a new college-themed slasher every day this week!

First up on the chopping block is The Prowler, which isn't quite as eminently college-sounding as last year's entries like Cornell Sorority Babes in Explosion at the Bra Factory, but nevertheless revolves around a local college's denizens on the eve of their graduation as they prepare to begin their lives.

Or not.

The Prowler has a reputation for being of relatively high quality for the slasher genre, and its opening doesn't do much to refute that claim. We see some black and white news footage of the Queen Mary bringing GI's home from World War II, a lovely looking letter with a voiceover about how a girl named Rosemary (Joy Glaccum) just can't keep waiting any longer for her soldier beau, and her subsequent murder at the graduation dance by a man in army fatigues as she attempts to get it on with smug prick "My Dad Is Richer Than Your Dad" Roy (Timothy Wahrer). This prologue, set in 1945, is competently shot, sets the era in a satisfying and historically accurate manner, and features costumes that actually attempt to mimic the period instead of just hide the blown-out hair and perms underneath frilly hats.

The plot then skips to graduation day at that same nameless New Jersey college in 1980. Pam MacDonald (Vicky Dawson) has a problem. Her boyfriend, Deputy Mark London (Christopher Goutman) - who looks like Sandy Frink from Romy and Michele after his face transplant surgery - has to work the night of the dance because the Sheriff (Farley Granger) is spending the night out of town on his annual fishing trip. Oh, also a murderer dressed in WWII fatigues is murdering her friends, but she's a little slow on the uptake on that one.

Who can blame her? It's hard enough to keep track of all your friends' throats without dealing with boy drama.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's meet our Meat before they're slaughtered, shall we? Pam's friends who shall soon be graduating from this mortal coil include Sherry (Lisa Dunsheath), her BFF in the world and an unfortunate sufferer of Mare Winningham In Miracle Mile Hair Disease; Carl (David Sederholm), Sherry's boyfriend, a man so horny that he's willing to take off his 18,000-piece tuxedo just for a little shower play before the dance; and Lisa (Cindy Weintraub), the kind of 80's slasher girl who will flash the paraplegic man across the street for funsies.

As the night wears on, dates are snatched, drinks are drunk, and epidermises are punctured. This forms first half of the film, in which it functions as a typically generic slasher flick. There's music that sounds like a kettle boiling, an allergic-to-doors victim who runs up the stairs, couples who sneak away from a building on lockdown to bang, and so on. At least it's easy enough to keep their names apart.

It is this portion of the film from which The Prowler derives its magic. Director Joe Zito and gore maestro Tom Savini (who would later collaborate on Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter) work in tandem to create some of the tensest, most finely crafted slasher work to date. Zito handles his lighting with great care, using cast shadows and dark corners to great effect.

Although maybe we could have used a little more shadow over here to highlight those Frinky cheekbones in a non-offputting way.

Likewise, he utilizes swift cross-cutting to marvelous ends, at one point switching between two separate scenes of people wandering off into the darkness, actually manufacturing tension from one of the most hoary tropes of the genre. We all know from experience that whoever wanders off from the party will inevitably come a cropper in an amusing way. But by showing us two similar scenes simultaneously, it raises doubts as to where the killer actually is. When he finally strikes, it surprises the audience in a meaningful way through subverting the trope and their expectations. 

There are several moments like this that actually inspire emotions in the same family as fear, which is startlingly uncommon for the parsimonious slasher subgenre. Combined with Savini's excellent gore (he believes it to be the best work in his career and I'm not inclined to disagree with him), in which blood oozes like a broken dam, The Prowler is actually quite affecting.

In fact, the gore is so powerfully realistic and brutal (Savini keeps the first kill light to get the audience complacent, then hits them with a set of marvelous, oozing, grinding prosthetics with multiple moving parts that challenge everything you've ever seen in the practical effects game*) that it almost feels a little too raw. The kills are challengingly misogynistic when women are on the receiving end, which occurs more often than not. Especially in moments like Lisa being kicked in the face and a topless Sherry being speared in the shower, the brutality is truly overwhelming.

In a way, this is a good thing. Horror films are actually supposed to be, you know, horrifying. But the kills cross the line too far into reality for the lighter thrill ride tone of the slasher genre to truly function properly.

*Carl's death is especially detailed, involving his eyes rolling back into his head and the knife penetrating his skull pulsing beneath the skin. It's an exquisite piece of work that practically belongs in an art gallery. 

At least the Prowler brings flowers to honor his victim's deaths. It's kind of sweet, really. You don't see Jason Voorhees holding no wakes.

Unfortunately all of this hesitantly good, legitimately tense buildup is chucked to the ground by the middle of the second act, in which the film becomes a desultory mystery about Rosemary's father Major Chatham (Lawrence Tierney) and an assembly line of wan potential suspects. The identity of the killer is both predictable and nonsensical, revealed with nonchalant regard and entirely divorced from the clues we have been forced to watch Pam and Mark dutifully collect over the previous half hour.

During this time, we have watched Mark call his boss at his lakeside cabin, only to be tricked by a lazy office worker who keeps him on the line while he plays solitaire, just to mess with him. This is in real time, mind you, and the audience gets the special privilege of sitting through two full minutes of this claptrap. A character literally taps his pencil in boredom and I wish he'd at least have the decency to shove it into his own skull and save us the trouble of having to wait for the Prowler to show up again.

This dull section is marked by a sore lack of death, especially considering that many loose ends (including a couple that blatantly disregards slasher conduct by sneaking into the basement to bang) are never properly tied up. There's only two deaths in the final third of the film, and they are both perfunctory gunshot wounds. Apparently the filmmakers expended all their effort in the early going and were too bored to include scenes in the third act that aren't "Mark and Pam wander through a dark house blowing dust off of things."

Spending time with Pam is not the movie's strong suit, especially since Dawson's performance inevitably trails more toward "sleepy" than "scared," although I suppose running will do that to you. At least this gives us a chance to reflect on the film that came before and just how wonderful the Prowler's getup is, removing his face with green cloth to dehumanize him in a cleverly organic way, much in the vein of Michael Myers and other masked killers.

Evil lies in the faceless unknown. It also lies in the case of plastic army men in your toy chest, but don't tell Joe Zito.

The Prowler is one of the most decidedly uneven slasher movies that I've seen thus far, and Census Bloodbath might as well be called The Uneven Film National Championshp, so that should tell you something. But the first 45 minutes are some of the best slashcraft I've seen in a good long while, so as far as these things go, you could do a mite worse than this Savini-fueled bloody nightmare.

Killer: The Prowler (Peter Giuliano) [Sheriff George Fraser (Farley Granger)]
Final Girl: Pam MacDonald (Vicky Dawson)
Best Kill: Carl is stabbed through the top of the head and the knife emerges clean through his chin.
Sign of the Times: The band at the party can sing topical New Wave songs about wanting to see girls bleed and nobody bats an eyelash.
Scariest Moment: Pam has to run toward the Prowler in order to escape down a side hallway.
Weirdest Moment: That Final Shot [Carl's corpse reanimates itself in the shower and grabs Pam for no discernible reason.]
Champion Dialogue: "I don't want to swim. You're all I want."
Body Count: 8
  1. Roy and
  2. Rosemary are pitchforked together while they canoodle.
  3. Carl is stabbed through the skull.
  4. Sherry is pitchforked in the abdomen.
  5. Lisa's throat is sliced.
  6. Miss Allison is stabbed in the throat.
  7. Otto is shot with a shotgun.
  8. The Prowler has his head blown off with a shotgun. 
TL;DR: The Prowler is stunted by an outrageously dull third act, but features Tom Savini at the top of his game and sidles up to achieving actual tension.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1688

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