The Prey (1983)

OCTOBER 8, 2019


The problem with my ongoing quest to see every slasher film produced in the 1980s is that I've seen all the ones that are good, I think - because otherwise I would have been compelled enough to see them by now, right? But at least those old ones that slipped through the cracks can usually offer something interesting, unlike a modern slasher shot for roughly the same money, on someone's iPhone, with After Effects blood FX. Such is the case with The Prey, which was shot in 1979 but not released until 1983, and has two versions available on Arrow's special edition Blu-ray - I remember reading somewhere along the line that it was a pretty dull entry in the "campers in the woods get killed by a mountain mutant" slasher sub-sub-genre, but I didn't know how wacky its production was, and learning about that was probably more entertaining than the film.

In fact I learned some of the backstory inadvertently, as soon as I popped the disc in. Since I got "check discs", which are essentially DVD-Rs with no labeling of use to anyone, and it's a two disc set, I grabbed one of the discs marked "The Prey" with a bunch of meaningless numbers after it, only to be greeted with a message saying that this was the international cut that the director didn't approve of, which seemed odd to me until I realized I had probably put the second disc in and should get the other. But I was already intrigued, so while the other one was loading up I looked online and saw that the "international cut" ran about 17 minutes longer and added a lengthy flashback that explained the killer's origins, while also removing "most of the film's nature footage". This of course meant nothing to me yet since I hadn't seen the film, so I filed the info away and didn't think much of it...

...until about four minutes into the film, after I had seen what seemed like the 47th shot of a wildlife critter (sometimes stock footage, sometimes seemingly shot for the production). It was then that I realized that maybe this so-called international cut might be the superior one, but I had to know what my slasher enthusiast ancestors dealt with in theaters or cable back then, and put myself in their shoes. The wildlife footage never ceased or even slowed as the film progressed - you're never more than about 30 seconds from another shot of an owl, or a vulture, or a bug, or just some flowers or trees. It's clearly padding since the film still doesn't even hit the 80 minute mark (credits run a bit slow too), but the secondary excuse is to try to draw a parallel between the predator/prey relationship between animals in the woods and the killer with his victims. It kind of works, but its minimal impact would be the same if there was just a handful of such shots bookending the film instead of several minutes' worth of the runtime.

Director Edwin Brown doesn't just rely on animals to get the movie up to feature length - we're also treated to things like the ranger character tuning his guitar, or his boss trying a sandwich, plus any number of (seemingly improvised, poorly) scenes where our heroes chitchat. There's nothing wrong with the blather in itself - the problem is that these practically muttered bits of dialogue are the focus of the scene, as opposed to something we are overhearing to show how oblivious the characters are to the dangerous killer watching them as they yammer on. The killer's presence is always announced with a heartbeat motif and POV shots, so we know when he's there or when we're just suffering through amateur actors trying their best to recreate the sort of "So you DO think about things like that, Laurie!" dialogue Brown half-remembered from Halloween a year before he shot this fluff.

As for the kills, Brown makes the rookie mistake of stringing most of them together in a brief span (maybe four minutes?) near the end of the film, instead of spacing them out, but I guess I can forgive that since Halloween was the only game in town at the time and they weren't exactly spread evenly. The difference is that Myers' presence and trick playing kept that film engaging and suspenseful - the laundry room sequence in Halloween is just as scary as any kill, after all - but this movie lacks that sort of thing, so it's just dull. At least the kills are kind of fun; there's an axe murder, a guy rappelling down a cliffside only to have his progress sped up by the killer cutting his rope, and - my favorite - one of the girls running, only to trigger a trap that loops her upside down and slams her into a tree, smashing her skull. It's clumsily staged, but since the one who got killed is more recognizable than the other, AND she neglected to have sex with her boyfriend earlier when the others were fooling around, so I thought she might be the final girl, making it a surprise that she died at all, let alone got the most memorable death.

Despite not loving the film by any means, I was still curious about the longer cut, so I watched it a couple hours later and was surprised to discover that it's actually a better version, and almost wish I had watched it first after all. Yes, it's longer, but they cut all of the animals out, which makes the film seem less aimless; it's still too slow but in a way that feels more like a failed attempt at building suspense as opposed to simply padding the film out however possible. The reason it ends up longer despite removing all of the padding is because it presents a 20 minute flashback sequence that explains who the killer was and how he ended up being burned - but the real reason for the sequence is because the UK distributor wanted more sex in the film. So they cast this sequence with adult film actors, and while the sex scenes aren't exactly hardcore, they're certainly more graphic than one might expect from a traditional slasher of the era. Ironically, Brown had come from an adult film background and was hoping to show he could do other things with this one, only for an uncredited filmmaker to go ahead and practically turn it into one behind his back.

It's also ironic that the director's preferred version is the weaker of the two, in my opinion. But if you love his cut (or both of them) you will be ecstatic to know how jam-packed Arrow's Blu is. Interviews with most of the surviving cast, two commentary tracks (plus an audio interview with Brown that is presented as a commentary), a THIRD cut that basically adds the gypsy/sex sequence to the version that has all of the animal footage, a Q&A from a convention screening, a visit of the shooting locations... even if I flat out loved the movie I don't know if I'd be able to get through it all in a timely manner. I've said it before, and I'll say it again here: every film deserves a special edition like this, so that the people who love it can get as much behind the scenes info as they desire. I may not be able to count myself among this movie's fanbase (it does exist; the convention-based bonus features prove it), but I'm happy for them that they don't have to go without, especially for a film that never even made it to DVD here in the US. Good on you, Arrow.

What say you?


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