By Rod Lott.
One of the first lines uttered in 1983’s The Prey is “Good chow,” a simple statement that could double for this obscure slasher film: far from gourmet, assuredly not healthy, but hitting the spot for the time being.
In 1948, portions of the Rocky Mountains’ Keen Wild Forest were decimated by a raging fire. Three decades later, thanks to nature’s innate ability to bounce back, visitors to the national park wouldn’t be able to tell, save for one detail: the hideously burned, 7-foot monstrosity who roams about the grounds, killing campers.
In The Prey’s present day of 1980, three young couples learn this the hard way, whether by tree trap, rock climbing mishap or a good-ol’-fashioned throat ripping. To be fair, not even the banjo-plucking park ranger Mark O’Brien (Jackson Bostwick, Captain Marvel in the Saturday morning Shazam! series’ first season) knows about it — until after the murders begin, and his superior (former child star Jackie Coogan, in his final role) spills the beans about the homicidal maniac.
That towering bugaboo is played by Carel Struycken, who, as the giant of Twin Peaks and the Lurch of the Addams Family comedies, has made a career of such things. He may stand out — hell, how could he not? — but the same cannot be said for our camping protagonists (Massacre at Central High’s Steve Bond and Bloody Birthday’s Lori Lethin among them); all six are poker-chip interchangeable with no personalities of their own.
Many could and would say the same of the legion of nature-based slashers appearing in Friday the 13th’s game-changing wake. (Can you tell The Forest from Don’t Go in the Forest?) Ironically, although released three years after Jason Voorhees’ mother lost her head, The Prey predates them all, having been shot in 1979. Thus, what looks like your garden-variety imitation helped plant the seeds, even if no one was around to see them sprout.
Viewers will be able to finger The Prey as a first-wave slasher, given how rough around the edges it is. Written and directed by pornographer Edwin Scott Brown (All About Annette), its seams show as well, thanks to what feels like an entire reel of stock footage of animals. Often not matching the time of the day of the scene, these clips serve two purposes for Brown. The obvious one is out of necessity: padding, to push the feature to the 80-minute mark. The other is out of ambition: symbolism, to hammer home the already subtlety-free point that Mother Earth and her children can be a real, cold bitch. If Struycken decapitating a camper doesn’t say it all, perhaps a colony of ants going Hometown Buffet on a worm will do the trick.
With an aim to impress well beyond his reach, Brown overdoses on the symbolism. One character gets his neck ventilated while holding a lit match; as his life is snuffed out, so is the match. Brown’s cutting to close-ups ensures no audience member misses the analogy. Profound! Horror aficionados will wish Brown and his co-scribe, spouse Summer Brown, had put as much effort into the plot; it’s worth noting improvisation was heavily in play.
Unsurprisingly, the story behind the movie contains exponentially more twists than the story in the movie, and Arrow Video’s new Blu-ray set — The Prey’s first digital release — delivers. The second disc showcases the fabled “international cut,” disowned by Brown, in which producers added approximately 20 minutes of gypsies. Not of the Browns’ devising, these shoehorned scenes — taking the place of a fumbled campfire recitation of “The Monkey’s Paw” — are presented as a flashback to ’48, when gypsies frolicked and fornicated in the forest, eventually setting it aflame in an accident act of arson. To put it bluntly, the sequence is not just glaringly out of place and gratuitous, but awful. (These days, if The Prey proved profitable, that flashback would be fast-tracked into an entire prequel.)
Among more extras than you would expect for such a film, even from Arrow, are interviews with several members of the cast; Debbie Thureson earns the longest segment at half an hour — odd, since this remains her only movie credit. Mr. Brown is represented by an audio interview, while Mrs. Brown contributes a commentary track, as do Arrow acquisitionist Ewan Cant and Made for TV Mayhem podcast host Amanda Reyes (whose 2017 book, Are You in the House Alone?: A TV Movie Compendium 1964-1999, is highly recommended). Cant also turns up in Idyllwild, California, to revisit the locations with Thureson.
For all its clumsiness, The Prey is worth a watch as an early example of the slasher movie. Although Brown pads it with more stuffing than a sleeping bag, he doesn’t forget to pack a couple of the subgenre’s most important supplies: a rather wicked ending and a string of kills. If you’re up for a Grand Guignol in the great outdoors, might as well take a hike.
Rod Lott runs the genre film website FlickAttack.com. A former professional journalist, he has written for Psychotronic Video, Something Weird Video and numerous books.