With today's new installment in our slash-flashback series, we'll leave behind the summer camp slaughters of The Burning and Madman, which mainly take their cues from the Friday the 13th series, and instead visit the time-tested formula laid out by John Carpenter's Halloween: that is, the old “X years later” theme, wherein our killer, driven by obsession, revenge or supernatural forces, returns after a couple of decades to the scene of his original crime to take out his frustrations on fresh new prey (sure, that's also the motivation for Jason's mom in the original F13, but let's not nitpick). Revenge is the key to Joseph Zito's 1981 flick The Prowler, which would be a fairly mundane slasher entry if not for the excellent photography and some seriously inventive and horrific makeup effects by the great Tom Savini.
Originally titled Rosemary's Killer, the film opens – as most films of this formula do – with a flashback. In this case, we go all the way back to 1945, with a beautifully shot sequence in which a returning soldier takes revenge on the young woman who sent him a “Dear John” letter while he was stationed overseas. The scene establishes the killer's disguise – combat fatigues and a helmet – as well as his preferred weapon – a pitchfork – as he skewers Rosemary and her lover. We then flash forward 35 years (one of the longest-deferred killing sprees in slasher history) to a college graduation dance, the first one to be held since the double-murder in '45. Naturally, this proves to be a gross miscalculation... literally gross, as the killer dispatches partygoers in particularly gory ways, including a brutal pitchfork impalement of a showering coed and an amazing bayonet-through-the-head kill.
Savini's work here is top-notch, and some of his effects are so good you may find yourself rewinding and freeze-framing scenes to see how the hell he executed them. The climactic exploding-head scene may have been overshadowed by another 1981 film – David Cronenberg's Scanners – but it still ranks among the best effects in that category. (Zito would team up with Savini again three years later on Friday the 13th Part IV, which also features some of Savini's best work.) Also noteworthy is the film's excellent location photography, lighting and editing, as well as supporting roles from Farley Granger (Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train and Rope) and Lawrence Tierney (Reservoir Dogs), all of which elevate a rather formulaic plot which closely mirrors that of My Bloody Valentine.
The Prowler remains one of '80s horror's most underrated highlights, and has found a new following on home video. The DVD & Blu-ray from Blue Underground feature the uncut version, with all the graphic kills restored.