Monday, March 5, 2018

"The Worst Mother Fire in History" - The Prey (1984)

Let us now return to the wilderness for 1984's minimalist Colorado-set slasher classic The Prey, a film which, shockingly, is not well respected by many cineastes.

For example, on IMDB, reviewer fiecrier writes, "It is pretty boring, and filled with all kinds of pointless ridiculous stuff." Backlash007 writes, "Under normal circumstances, I can find something I like about the most reviled horror film. Not this time. The Prey is a horrible bore." Reviewer Kazoo-2 writes, blasphemously as well as incorrectly, "Even by the lowered standards of '80s slasher movies, this one stinks."

I must correct these uninformed misconceptions, so please read on for an unbiased view of The Prey.

A horrendous fire burns down the forest around a place called the Northpoint, Colorado. Later, in 1980, a middle-aged couple is stalked by someone or something represented by the camera’s point of view and the sound of a quickening heartbeat. The man smokes a pipe and sharpens his axe while the woman walks to the lake to wash dishes. The filmmakers cleverly intercut shots of the man swinging his axe to chop firewood with the back of the woman’s head (though the swings of the axe are in the opposite screen direction of the woman’s head, lessening the impact of the editing somewhat).

Both are killed with an axe. However, it is not clear if it is the man’s axe, or another axe the killer might have brought along.

After this thrilling prologue, the film introduces nature footage of bees, spiders, frogs, raccoons, and hawks, and then, eventually, a group of young adults in a van. (Perhaps the filmmakers are equating the small animals and the young adults as all helpless in the wilderness, or perhaps they are setting the stage with several minutes of nature footage. Either way, the presentation is highly effective, as well as educational.)

When the young adults park their van at a rest stop, they are met by a bearded forest ranger, Mark. “What a hunk,” says one of the girls.

In a departure from the norms of the slasher film, the ranger does not warn the girls away from their camping trip. He does tell them to watch out for bears. “Bears?” asks the girl named Bobbi with alarm. The film cuts to footage of a small bear wandering in the trees, and then we see, for no apparent reason, a woodpecker and a rattlesnake. (Perhaps, we now think, the film is displaying the suspects: Which of these creatures will be the slasher? Or perhaps not.)

The campers hike through high grass to the Northpoint. This takes about four minutes of screen time. Like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, it is scored only with bird sounds, heightening the feeling of isolation.

At one point during the hikers’ trek, we see another part of the forest where a person with unusual hands and sharp fingernails creating some kind of trap with a rope.

Once the campsite is set up, the campers sit around the campfire in the traditional all-on-one-side formation that is so useful for storytelling.

Their improvised small talk around the fire—about such wide-ranging topics as water pressure and Greek mythology—is intercut with more animal footage. We see a centipede, a raccoon, a tarantula, another snake, an owl, some termites, and yet another snake, this one eating a lizard. Like the trek through the woods, the improvised campfire scene takes about six minutes of screen time.

After dinner, one of the boys tells a highly original story about a mummified monkey’s paw that grants wishes. The story includes the suspenseful sentence, “Somehow a weirdness came over them.”

In another departure from the norms of a slasher film, we watch as two of the male campers and one of the female campers avail themselves of the open woods to relieve themselves. This also provides the opportunity for a false jump scare, as one of the boys jumps out of the trees in front of his girlfriend, scaring her to the extent that she falls to the ground, unconscious.

This is followed by a two-minute scene set somewhere else in the forest—it is unclear whether it is indoors or outdoors, though there is a table and a lamp in addition to some foliage—in which Ranger Mark picks a tune on a banjo.

The slashing begins at the 38-minute mark, as the unseen killer grabs Gail and suffocates her in a sleeping bag. Eerily, there is no score in this murder scene, only the sound of faraway crickets.

This is followed immediately by the slashing of Gail’s boyfriend Greg, this time with sharp fingernails bloodily ripping the boy’s throat.

Having presented such a terrifying scene, the filmmakers’ only recourse is to cut to something slightly less terrifying, in this case a morning scene in which the bearded forest ranger tells a cute nature story to a deer he is feeding. (Perhaps the deer is his pet.)

Of course, such bucolic conditions cannot last. The filmmakers next show us bureaucracy in action, as a police officer in a small town contacts the ranger station in the Northpoint, though our bearded friend is elsewhere. The call is answered by another ranger, an older man who walks with a cane, played by the legendary Jackie Coogan. Mr. Coogan listens to a detailed missing persons case, along with a description of the couple killed in the opening of the film, both of whom taught at the local high school. Rarely has the screen seen such an upward ratcheting of suspense.

Back at the campsite, the remaining four friends discover their companions are missing, but after a quick search and discussion, they decide Gail and Greg packed up and left. The others decide to continue hiking. Compassionately, they leave a note for their missing friends.

They also look up to see birds—perhaps vultures—circling overhead.

In the ranger station, the bearded ranger Mark shares a cucumber, cream cheese, and oatmeal bread sandwich with his coworker, who takes the opportunity to tell the tale of the Northpoint fire of 20 years ago. “It was the worst mother fire in history,” says Jackie Coogan. (It is not clear if a word was cut out of the sentence after "mother," but it does not sound as if anything has been cut.) “And they had a bunch of gypsies that lived up there in a cave. Mostly poachers, you know. Well, when we got in there and started finding bodies, found a gypsy just burnt to a crisp.”

Mark listens to the story, though his listening would not be described as intent.

Mr. Coogan continues, “I saw something back there. I just got a glimpse of it, it disappeared in the brush. The only way I could describe it is...there was a young boy and he was burnt like nothing you’ve ever seen in your life.”

Mark decides to hike into the Northpoint, though he ignores his coworker’s advice to bring a .30-06 rifle, choosing instead a tranquilizer gun.

Despite the disappearance of their friends, the remaining young adults take some time to frolic in a mountain stream. One of the boys even plays an odd eyeball gag on his friends.

While the boys hike a few miles to go mountain climbing, the girls stay by the stream to sunbathe.

The voluminous nature footage shown earlier is paid off with great effectiveness when Ranger Mark discovers vultures ripping the flesh off the murdered body of Gail. (The various shots of Mark looking back and forth at Gail and the vultures, however, imply that Mark believes incorrectly the vultures are the murderers.)

In the thrilling rock-climbing scene, we watch as the killer—presumably the burnt child from the ranger’s story—murders both boys. The killer is now very large and strong, perhaps a side effect of being burned nearly to death as a small child.

The girls discover their boyfriends’ bodies. In fact, showing great climbing skills, one of the girls finds a fallen body at the bottom of the mountain, while at the same time the other girl finds a murdered body at the top of the mountain.

The final eight minutes of the film include a rousing chase through the forest as the misshapen killer pursues the surviving girls, at times even in slow motion with a wailing siren on the soundtrack.

In a clever payoff to the setup at the beginning, one of the girls runs into a tree-based trap and is thrown into a tree with a sickening crunching sound. (The effect is only slightly lessened by the fact that the girl’s head is bloody even before she hits the tree.)

Unexpectedly, Ranger Mark shows up to help the last survivor by shooting the killer, played by famed tall person Carel Struycken, with his trusty tranquilizer gun.

The tranquilizer has little effect on the hulking killer, so Mark is forced to use judo and a stick to beat up the defenseless man. For his troubles, however, Mark is strangled rather brutally by the killer’s deformed hands.

The twist at the end is quite original. The film cuts forward in time, to winter and then to spring (again paying off the motif of nature footage). The film also cuts, somewhat surprisingly, to the familiar cave in Bronson Canyon near Los Angeles, quite a distance from the Colorado setting of the earlier part of the film.

I will not spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that the time that has passed since the killer’s confrontation with the final girl must be almost exactly nine months.

Unfortunately, more famous for its tagline "It's Not Human...And It's Got an Axe" than the content of the film, The Prey is a huge success as a minimalist slasher film. The director, Edwin Scott Brown, used all the formidable skills at his disposal to fit approximately ten minutes of story and incident into its eighty-minute running time. This allows the filmmakers to develop their unique artistic vision, resulting in one of the few 1980s films in which forest rangers tune banjos and tell jokes to deer, debate the qualities of cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches on oatmeal bread, and seriously suspect vultures of capital murder offenses. It also allows the filmmakers to make use of about thirty minutes of beautifully shot nature footage, though of course such footage is hardly unique to The Prey, being featured in a majority of 1980s wilderness slasher films.

In addition to its artistic minimalism, The Prey features Jackie Coogan's final performance, as he died of heart failure in 1984, the same year this film was released. Though Mr. Coogan appears for a short time in The Prey, his forest ranger character Lester Tile makes quite an impression as he is finally convinced to sample the famous cucumber and cream cheese sandwich on oatmeal bread, and is converted into a champion of the culinary treat. Of course, Mr. Coogan's appearance in this film is serendipitous for Addams Family fans, as the former Uncle Fester appears in the film with the future Lurch, Carel Struycken, though the two actors do not share any screen time.

The Prey also features work by makeup artist John Carl Buechler in one of his earlier jobs, right at the beginning of his prolific work for Charles Band's Empire Pictures. While some might quibble with some aspects of the makeup, such as the massive rubbery hands, I believe the makeup effects are quite good, and they go a long way toward justifying the tagline "It's Not Human...And It's Got An Axe." In fact, "it" is human, though its hands appear monstrous or demonic.

In any case, a tagline of "It's Human...And It's Got an Axe" would probably not have been as catchy as the one that was used, so it all worked out in the end.