The Prey (1983)
Studio: Arrow Video
Release date: October 1st, 2019
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
They say timing is everything. I like to think that husband and wife duo Edwin and Summer Brown really thought they had hit on something in 1979 when they abandoned the world of softcore porn and headed off into the mountains near Palm Springs to produce a horror movie about kids being hacked up by an unseen killer in the woods. And had it been released sometime during 1980, they may have been proven right; unfortunately, however, The Prey sat unreleased until the tail end of ’83 and didn’t hit most cities (and cable airwaves) until the next year, when the slasher movement was beginning to wane a bit. In the time it took for most folks to see it, Jason Voorhees went from a last-second surprise jolt to a full-full blown horror icon who got a ceremonious send-off. And by the time The Prey hit VHS in 1988? Forget about it: even Freddy Krueger—who came along and gave the genre a supernatural shot in the arm—would soon be on his way out. Suffice it to say, The Prey never had a chance and was forever doomed to be an also-ran in a very crowded field.
But I’m also not so sure there’s an alternate universe where The Prey hit at the beginning of the slasher glut and found an audience, either. I mean, there’s a reason no one was exactly eager to release this for a few years. Likewise, it’s not like it’s amassed a huge following outside of the most devout of slasher circles during the last 35 years; if anything, it’s mostly endured as one of the more high-profile slashers yet to see a DVD or Blu-ray release, at least until Arrow Video finally did the honors recently, giving us all the go-ahead to set aside our VHS tape or our, ahem, “unofficial” releases.
While it’s nice to finally have The Prey on a format that isn’t hazy, murky VHS quality, the uptick in presentation can only do so much for a film that can be charitably described as lethargic. Somehow, even its 80-minute runtime feels stretched extraordinarily thin, as it the film boasts a logline that essentially boils down to “deranged mountain man terrorizes hikers.” An extended prologue that barely figures into the rest of the film finds a couple of elderly hikers on the wrong end of the psycho’s axe before the “action” moves onto the main group, a trio of “teenage” couples looking to have a nice, relaxing retreat into the woods.
Considering most slashers don’t offer much more than this thin premise, you might assume that The Prey finds a way to do okay for itself. With two victims hacked up before the credits roll, plus six more potential victims at its disposal (not to mention a pair of park rangers that eventually figure into the plot), there’s definitely potential here for an unhinged splatter-fest, if nothing else. Well, The Prey is a good reminder that assumptions can lead you far astray. Perhaps not as astray as The Prey itself, however, which wanders aimlessly into the woods and meanders until it figures out where it needs to go during the very last couple of minutes.
Up until that point, though? You’d best strap in for an inordinate number of wildlife shots, banjo plucking, and characters extolling the virtues of cucumber sandwiches. Prepare to be vaguely reminded of Friday the 13th as Don Peake's score evokes Harry Manfredini. Get ready to zone out as these six kids screw around (before actually screwing), then become somewhat excited when one of them wanders off and hears a strange noise in what must be a prelude to her being offed in gruesome fashion. Slump in disappointment when she finds her way back to group to be roundly mocked for her insistence that something is out there. Likewise, the beginning of a campfire tale is some cause to stir to attention, at least until you realize this dude is just literally retelling “The Monkey’s Paw.” Somehow, everyone else around the fire is hanging on his every word. You can tell these motherfuckers slept through English class.
If it hasn’t become obvious enough, just know that The Prey doesn’t really have an original bone in its body. Sure, the woods-based slasher genre hadn’t exactly flourished when it went into production, but it’s not like the Browns stumbled onto some new, invigorating formula. Change of location aside, The Prey would have felt like routine slash-and-stalk junk even in 1980 following the likes of Halloween and its sparse predecessors. It’s not even particularly great at this since it scatters out its carnage much too generously. Most of it occurs during the prologue and during the last few minutes, leaving viewers with nothing to do for long stretches besides soak in the woodsy ambiance and watch the dim-witted rangers slowly piece together the notion that something isn’t quite right out in the woods. Maybe it’s related to the forest fire that ravaged the area 30 years earlier, claiming an entire family save for one extra crispy survivor that supposedly still haunts the woods. Surely, the script wouldn’t stop an already unhurried story dead in its tracks to clumsily introduce some mid-movie exposition for no reason, right?
The good news is that The Prey is at least competent enough to follow up on and deliver on that. It even rightfully keeps its killer’s face off-screen until the final scene, where it finally gives its audience something to gawk at in the form of some gnarly burn make-up (courtesy of John Carl Buechler in one of his first efforts). Now, it doesn’t go the extra mile and provide a name for this charbroiled fiend, and it is most certainly a half-assed Cropsy riff, but you’re so starved for anything approaching action by the end of The Prey that this qualifies as something interesting.
It’s too bad that this is the case because The Prey actually has a little bit going for it, at least in theory. While the woods remain a popular slasher locale, there’s something especially desolate about this setting that’s pitch-perfect for this genre. Granted, some of that comes from the feeling that there’s so much dead air (and nature shots—I cannot emphasize enough how much wildlife you will see during these 80s minutes), but there’s a real Hills Have Eyes vibe to it. The Browns only truly tap into that kind of potential once, though, and it literally comes with the diabolical closing shot, which takes The Prey from the stuff of goofball slashers to some legitimately disturbing territory just before the credits roll. Imagine a student who slacks off for an entire semester, only to pull off a pretty good project at the last minute to skate by and pass. That’s The Prey.
The Prey would also be one of students who flashes such potential every now and then. What little gore it sports is pretty nasty, including one climactic gag involving a broken neck that would be incredibly disturbing if you couldn’t see the actor still breathing during the aftermath. Also, the Browns managed to wrangle a pretty interesting cast that boasts the likes of Lori Lethen, Steve Bond, and Carl Strycken as the monstrous axe murderer. Making his final film appearance is Jackie Coogan, whose career arc took him from playing alongside Charlie Chaplin to this, where he plays the old park ranger who slowly puts two and two together.
Despite how lackluster The Prey’s execution is, I’ve always felt something great lurks in its potential. No version of this story is ever going to feel downright fresh at this point, yet I can’t help but think what another pass at this could look like in the right hands. Of course, the world needs another 80s slasher redux about as much as The Prey needs more shots of random wildlife, but I feel like this is the exact type of movie that should be redone: after getting very little right the first time around, it’d be cool to see it done more properly. Let it be known that if in the very unlikely event that someone announces a remake of The Prey, they have my blessing.
Then again, I suppose that it was almost as equally unlikely that The Prey would ever receive a staggering two-disc special edition, too. Arrow could have easily just released this bare-bones with little fanfare, but we know that’s not at all their style. Even by their high standards, though, they’ve gone above and beyond for The Prey by giving it an immaculate 2K restoration. With the exception of the few people who saw this during its limited theatrical run, nobody’s ever seen The Prey quite like this: it’s a night and day difference from the old VHS release. Not to descend into hyperbolic cliché, but it’s fair to say you’ve never really seen The Prey until you see this disc because, well, you can actually see the movie without that murky VHS haze.
Also, there’s not one but two alternate cuts that most folks on this side of the Atlantic have literally never seen. When it was time to release The Prey on video overseas, executive producer Joseph Steinman insisted on adding some gratuitous sex (ironic considering the Browns’ background in adult films) and a more elaborate background story for the killer, realized here by sepia-stained flashback sequences involving a family’s encounter with gypsies. Because the international cut (which is “100% director unapproved, per the disc’s menu screen) never had a complete picture element, the transfer was reconstructed from a video master as a reference, but it honestly looks fine. What’s more, Arrow has also included a composite fan cut that merges both versions of the film into a 102-minute saga that’s definitely only meant for the most fervent devotees of The Prey.
You think I’m joking, but this disc presents ample evidence that this people do exist. Look no further than the footage from a recent Texas Frightmare Weekend panel that recreates the experience of watching the film with the audience and the accompanying Q&A with the cast. Arrow also commissioned five separate interviews (totaling about 75 minutes) with various cast members, including Lethin, Struycken, Debbie Thureson, Gayle Gannes, and Jackson Bostwick. Thureson also appears alongside Ewan Cant in “In Search of The Prey,” a 14-minute trek down memory lane back to some of the film’s shooting locations. Cant also moderates a pair of audio interviews with Edwin Brown and Summer Brown that might as well serve as commentaries for the film; he also features yet again alongside Amanda Reyes for a proper feature-length track that accompanies the film.
Finally, some trailers, 45 minutes of silent outtakes, and an impressive insert booklet complete one of 2019’s most unexpected packages. When Arrow asked on Twitter which titles we’d like to see this year and I suggested The Prey, I never believed that it would actually happen, much less in the form of such an elaborate release boasting longer alternate cuts that I didn't even know existed. Some would say that's some real monkey's paw shit. Not the characters from The Prey, though, since they never heard the story until their dopey friend butchers it around the campfire. And also because all of them are dead. If you think that's a spoiler, look no further than the title, which tells you all you need to know about how disposable they are.
comments powered by Disqus Ratings: