To speak nostalgically of ‘movie magic’ usually conjures up thoughts of the wizardry associated with pioneering special effects geniuses like Willis O’Brien or Ray Harryhausen. But during the slasher boom of 1978 to 1983, advances in practical make-up FX made it possible for artists to slice, dice, burn, bleed, puncture and purée the human form in the most convincing manner possible.
Make-up maestro Tom Savini was the undeniable superstar of the splatter era, becoming a household name among households with FANGORIA subscriptions, and although this tale of a killer stalking a graduation dance doesn't have the same iconic status as Dawn of the Dead (1978) or Friday the 13th (1980), with The Prowler (1981) Savini delivered arguably the most ghoulishly convincing FX of his career.
While Savini is revered among slasher buffs for depicting the slaughtering ways of Mrs. Voorhees and her mad mongoloid offspring Jason, The Prowler is where he really got brutal. First off, in The Prowler the killer uses a pitchfork - and nothing tells the audience that a slasher villain is serious about killing like giving them a pitchfork. When a killer uses a pitchfork, it’s understood that they’re hardcore. You don’t see it used a lot in The Prowler but when that pitchfork is put into play – as in the film’s centerpiece shower murder in which the Prowler attacks actress Lisa Dunsheath – it’s the stuff of slasher legend.
The prospect of pitchforking a nude woman might’ve made lesser men pause (or to work under pseudonyms) but director Joe Zito and Savini embrace the opportunity. No doubt there were easy techniques behind this effect (as there was with many of Savini's effects, which often took their cues from stage magic) but Savini and Zito do an expert job of selling the illusion (after Dunsheath is impaled, we hear the tips of the pitchfork scraping against the tile of the shower wall), making this an unforgettably ghastly scene. While not every slasher victim of the early ‘80s had the luxury of being able to simply gasp at the sight of their off-screen assailant (like Friday the 13th’s Laurie Bartram) before the filmmakers discreetly cut away to the next scene, this isn’t even as elegant as Robbi Morgan having her throat slashed or Jeannine Taylor receiving an axe to the head. No, even in a slasher film when a naked woman is impaled by a pitchfork and jacked up off her feet against a shower wall, an invisible line of etiquette has been breached.
Even more manners are decimated by the film’s second-most legendary effect, a climatic shotgun blast to the head. Savini was something of an expert head exploder in his FX heyday, first depicting a shotgun blast to the head in Dawn of the Dead (as a zealous S.W.A.T. member shoots a zombie point blank), then doing the same in 1980's Maniac (Savini blew his own head apart here, portraying a guy out for a night at the disco who runs afoul of a shotgun wielding Joe Spinell), and in The Prowler an instance of cranial carnage serves as the film’s final coup de grace. Some might cry that The Prowler’s exploding head is just a case of Savini repeating his past tricks but when something’s good, it’s good.
Savini’s work in The Prowler is so good, in fact, that he even makes the film’s two throat slashings memorable – no small feat given that by 1981, these were already the most commonplace of slasher movie kills. Seeing a character get their throat slashed in a slasher film was about as remarkable as seeing a character in an old-time Western get shot in the gut and keel over but Savini challenges discerning gorehounds to shop and compare, delivering premium throat-slashings with outrageous super soaker action.
Unfortunately, the pacing of The Prowler could’ve been improved, with too much time separating the already sparse number of kills (a half-hour between kills in a slasher movie is too long) and it was also a bad decision on the part of Zito and screenwriters Neal Barbera and Glenn Leopold to pair the film’s heroine, aspiring journalist Pam MacDonald (the fetching Vicky Dawson) with her deputy boyfriend (Christopher Goutman) for almost all of her scenes so there’s very little of her in solo jeopardy – with a scene of Pam hiding under a bed as the enraged killer trashes the room searching for her (almost identical to a scene from the same year's Friday the 13th Part 2, even down to the appearance of a rat scurrying next to the heroine’s face) being an effective exception. Also, while most slasher films with a whodunit angle at least tried to give the audience a range of plausible suspects who could be the killer, the identity of the Prowler is by far the most lamely transparent of all slasher movie mysteries.
Still, Savini is so 100% on his game here that those flaws ultimately don’t matter. Despite their reputations, very few old-school slasher films are especially graphic. The Prowler, however, is a grisly exception to that. Savini may be most celebrated for his contributions to the zombie classics Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead (1985) – films with FX far more elaborate than seen in Savini’s slasher films, which had to strive for a greater sense of plausibility (and usually strive for an R-rating as well) – but The Prowler features signature work from the Sultan of Splatter.
It's often been said by critics that if you’ve seen one slasher film, you’ve seen them all. But if there’s a mantra to the slasher genre, it’s that it’s not the weapon you use to kill a character (a shish—ka-bob, a hot poker, a pitchfork), it’s how you stick it in. And with its uncomfortably convincing realism, Savini’s work in The Prowler still has the right snuff.