Monday, June 10, 2019

“That Was the Name on the Mailbox” - Deadly Prey (1987)

Let us continue to explore the deep, deep well of quality that is the filmography of the late David A. Prior. Beyond Sledge Hammer (1983) and Aerobi-Cide (1987), we move to his action classic Deadly Prey (1987),  fine showcase for Mr. Prior’s brother Ted that also features Cameron Mitchell and Troy Donahue in pivotal roles.

Some critics are immune to Deadly Prey's considerable charms. For example, reviewer plantostickthat writes, "EVERYTHING about this movie is poor. EVERYTHING." Reviewer sunznc writes that the audience is "subjected to bad sound, bad editing, horrible dialog and a tedious, relentless 88 minutes of men chasing other men and pretending to be blown up by low budget grenades and gun fire. But the acting isn't just bad, it's PAINFUL! " And reviewer richard__ writes, "It was far and away the worst film I have ever come across. Deserves to be the #1 all-time worst ;-) No acting, no plot, very little speaking." (I would ask richard__ when "speaking" became a measure of the quality of a film. Never, that is when.)

Despite the opinions of these "critics," Deadly Prey is an acknowledged classic of the action genre, and it begs to be studied in great deal. Please read on...

The film opens as a shoeless man with torn pants runs through the forest, pursued by paramilitary forces with automatic weapons. Although nobody is nearby, the not-so-deadly prey says, “Son of a bitch! They’re going to kill me!”

The mercenaries fire their weapons at the man, and even hit him directly with an exploding grenade, but he runs off with a light leg injury, dodging bullets. Eventually, however, his luck runs out, and one of the soldiers shoots him.

At the paramilitary group’s headquarters, four new recruits are brought in front of the familiarly named Colonel Hogan, who takes a shine to Jack Cooper, one of the new men.

Colonel Hogan gives a pep talk: “Now, this ain’t the Army! It ain’t the Navy, and it ain’t the Marine Corps! You’d better get that straight, ‘cause I’m one hell of a lot meaner than any of them!” When he is done, he tells his second in command, a woman in a crop top, to “Get these men in uniform.”

Like most paramilitary organizations, Colonel Hogan’s outfit trains by kidnapping citizens from suburban Los Angeles and playing what some like to call the most dangerous game (a title, I was surprised to learn, that does not describe lawn darts). They drive their Jeep with a cracked windshield through a housing development until they find waterbed enthusiast Mike Danton, a lazy body-builder played by Ted Prior who is taking out the trash at the wrong moment.

“This guy looks like he’d be a lot of fun,” says one of the mercenaries. They pretend to be lost and knock Mr. Prior out with a billy club, then load him into their inconspicuous black van to drive him to Colonel Hogan’s outfit.

Back at the military tents, Colonel Hogan is visited by businessman Michaelson, who funds the mercenary operation. Michaelson wants the training to go faster. “I’ll give you month, at the end of which time, I want this operation ready for action. You got that?”

“No way. It can’t be done. I need more time.”

“You’re running out of time. I want this bunch of misfit mercenaries ready for action in one month, not one day more, or I’ll pull the plug on this whole operation, and you too.”

The colonel does not like being threatened with his plug being pulled.

Michaelson supplies what must be a zen koan as advice: “You’re supposed to be the best at what you do. Do it better.”

The training picks up, as the inexplicably shirtless Mr. Prior is told to run from the mercenaries in front of a tank. Mr. Prior is not afraid; he mumbles “You’re gonna die” as he runs away.

While the colonel and his second in command swig New York Seltzer in their tent, Mr. Prior is off and running through the wilds of Los Angeles County. A resourceful action hero, Mr. Prior incapacitated one of the mercenaries by knocking him on the head with a Flintstonesque club and taking his knife and automatic rifle.

Mr. Prior continues stalking through the forest, murdering the mercenaries one by one with his knife. He allows the last victim to live for a few minutes so the man can tell him where they are and what they are doing. Mr. Prior recognizes Colonel Hogan’s name. He murders the last man.

Back at the command tent, Colonel Hogan orders one of his men killed because Mr. Prior took his weapons. The colonel’s muscular right hand man snaps the recruit’s neck, forcing the audience to question this mercenary outfit’s HR policies.

Despite the fact that he has collected dozens of automatic rifles from the men he has murdered, Mr. Prior feels it is necessary to carve a spear to kill another mercenary and then hide in a cavernous space made by heavy growth. He continues picking off the mercenaries at a dizzying rate.

Meanwhile, back at Mr. Prior’s house, his wife (cannily, the actress plays the role as if the woman were five years old) has called her father for help. Fortunately for the audience, her father is played by the redoubtable Cameron Mitchell.

Mr. Mitchell asks his daughter what happened. She replies in great detail: “Okay, Mike went out to take out the trash this morning and I heard a lot of noise. And so when I went to the window to see what happened, I saw this man hit him over the...head with a pipe...or something. And then they dragged him into the van and it took off.”

He asks her about the van, and if she saw the license plate.

“I saw part of it,” she says.

“Well, any part.”





“Seven. Two-four-seven. You sure?”

“No. It was four-two-seven.”



“Jaimy, are you positive? Four-two-seven.”

“Daddy, is that enough to bring Michael back?”

As a retired police officer, he tells her he will get his colleagues to run the numbers to find the abductors.

Back in the woods, Colonel Hogan realizes there is something familiar about the way his men have been murdered. “Danton? Mike Danton? It’s got to be.”

His musclebound right hand man, Thornton, replies, “Yeah, that was the name on the mailbox. You know him?”

“Know him? I trained him.”

Mr. Prior continues to kill the apparently infinite supply of mercenaries through the clever use of traps. He hides in a shallow pond to kill one man, then hides under a pile of leaves to kill another, perhaps taking his cue from Wile E. Coyote, or a random group of six-year-olds on fall break.

The film then moves into an educational segment, as Mr. Prior shows how to restore a dislocated arm with the help of a head-sized rock.

For unexplained reasons, as the sun sets, Colonel Hogan decides to camp in the woods with his remaining men instead of returning to his relatively safe command tent, which is surrounded by artillery and tanks and appears to be only a few hundred yards from the forest campsite.

Simultaneously, Mr. Prior lives off the land by ritually eating a worm, and then pouncing on a poor defenseless mouse, which he roasts on a spit.

The filmmakers use nighttime to provide some background about the relationship between Colonel Hogan and Mr. Prior’s character. The colonel’s female friend says, “He went through our men like they were just toy soldiers.”

The colonel replies, a little confusingly, “Compared to him, they’re not even that good, not yet.” (Perhaps the colonel believes his men are not dead but taking naps, and they will be more skillful soldiers in the morning.) Then he explains that he tried to get the army to let him create the perfect killers, like Mr. Prior. “My methods worked. He’s living proof that my methods worked.”

Surprisingly, Mr. Prior appears when the colonel’s friend goes off to get him another beer. Mr. Prior holds the colonel at knifepoint, saying, “You’re playing a game that you can’t win.” He adds, “You made me the best. Well, I still am. I still am.” Then Mr. Prior disappears into the night.

The colonel screams, “Danton!”

The film cuts to the next morning, as Mr. Prior is awakened from his peaceful slumber in the middle of a dirt path by two incongruous hillbillies from Tennessee, or a similar locale. “Get up and go before I get a mind to fill your behind full of birdshot,” says one hillbilly as the other chuckles.

Mr. Prior continues the Wile E. Coyote tactics by rolling rocks down a hill onto a gaggle of mercenaries, injuring two of them (mercenaries, not rocks).

Seconds later, Thornton confronts Mr. Prior and beats him up quite effectively, holding a pistol to his temple. Colonel Hogan intervenes before Thornton can kill Mr. Prior: “I want that man alive!” They take Mr. Prior back to the command tent and, like any good military operation, tie him to a wooden chair. Hogan offers Mr. Prior a place in his organization, but Mr. Prior refuses repeatedly.

The film then offers one of cinema’s indelible images: Cameron Mitchell climbing out of a mini-SUV and pumping a shotgun.

Mr. Mitchell sneaks down to the field where the colonel’s army sits, though Mr. Mitchell apparently loses his shotgun offscreen at some point. Discovered by one of the incompetent mercenaries, Mr. Mitchell punches the man, knocking him out, and continues skulking among the Jeeps and tanks. He overhears Colonel Hogan being chewed out by Troy Donahue; Mr. Mitchell learns that Mr. Prior has been kidnapped and that Hogan is building a mercenary army.

Meanwhile, Mr. Prior escapes by breaking the ropes that bind him. He punches the woman, then stuffs a live grenade down a mercenary’s pants, and drops another one into a tank. He also blows up a helicopter by shooting it.

Frustrated by the murders of his men, Colonel Hogan orders one of his men to return to Mr. Prior’s house. “Take care of it,” he says, grinning. Weirdly, Hogan’s plan is to kidnap Mr. Prior’s wife and rape her with a strange grin on his face.

Meanwhile, Cameron Mitchell confronts Troy Donahue. “Who am I?” Mr. Mitchell says. “A little man who spent 27 years of his life as a cop, trying to put big shots like you away. Twenty-seven years in the filth and the dirt of the street, and there ain’t no music down there. You watch the people in the streets killing, raping each other, pumping dope through their veins, while big men like you sit in the fancy penthouses. And yet the poor slobs rot in hell.” He adds, “Today, the nobodies who made you rich are gonna win. Die, you son of a bitch!” He shoots Mr. Donahue.

Unfortunately, the mercenaries find Mr. Mitchell and bring him back to Hogan’s tent, where Hogan pulls a gun and shoots Mr. Mitchell, after his daughter says those chilling words: "Daddy, he raped me."

In the final act, Hogan proposes an exchange: Mr. Prior for his wife. Mr. Prior has other ideas, that is to say, one other idea. At his home, he shoots the colonel’s girlfriend, killing her, and then  pulls from his arsenal locker in the garage a machete, grenade launcher, dynamite, throwing knives, and a pair of boots—proving he is indeed Wile E. Coyote. Except for the boots.

Mr. Prior returns to the forest and sets traps for his enemies. This appears to take several hours, and ends in an awkward moment when one of the colonel’s men, Cooper, confronts Mr. Prior at gunpoint. Cooper, however, is an ally who joins Mr. Prior’s cause.

Killing only a handful of mercenaries (one unconscious one is dispatched via a grenade under his head), Mr. Prior and Cooper extract Mr. Prior’s wife from the camp and hide her in some foliage. They return to kill the rest of the colonel’s men, who are actually doing a good job of killing themselves through Mr. Prior’s ingenious system of traps.

In the climax, only Colonel Hogan and Thorton are left alive. Thorton finds Mr. Prior’s wife, and the colonel stands in a clearing threatening to blow her head off, all the while screaming “Danton!” several dozen times.

Defying the rules of most action movies, Cooper saves Mr. Prior’s wife, though he is soon killed by Thorton. Sadly, Thorton kills his wife at point blank range.

Of course, Mr. Prior goes crazy, attacking Thorton with a machete, cutting off his arm, and then beating him unconscious with the arm.

For no apparent reason, Mr. Prior then scalps Thorton.

Mr. Prior confronts the wounded Colonel Hogan. “Your shirt, take it off.”


“Take off your shirt before I cut you out from under it!”

Mr. Prior tells the colonel to run, and then the film freezes as Mr. Prior screams and raises his arms above his head.

Although inspired by First Blood (1982) and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Deadly Prey is a refreshingly suburban take on Richard Connell's 1924 story "The Most Dangerous Game." It is also a precursor to Saving Private Ryan (1988), with its constant and intense sequences of murder and bloodshed, though for the most part it lacks the sappiness of Spielberg's film. Deadly Prey also benefits from the presences of Cameron Mitchell and Troy Donahue (who played a similar role in 1989's The Chilling), though their appearances are notably and unfortunately quite short.

The film is also served well by its ambiguous ending. Why did Mr. Prior force the colonel to remove his shirt? Is it intended to link both the villain and the hero in the audience's collective mind as two sides of the same shirtless coin? Or does Mr. Prior simply intend to sexualize and/or brutalize the colonel as vengeance for the colonel's rape and murder of Mr. Prior's wife? Also, when Mr. Prior delivers one of his final lines--"Take off your shirt before I cut you out from under it!"--what exactly does he mean? How can one cut someone out from under a shirt? What are the actor Mr. Prior and his brother the director Mr. Prior trying to say? We can only propose half-formed guesses, as the film answers all of these questions mutely, with its final image of the former Mr. Prior raising his hands in what might be victory.

Stay tuned, as we will continue to look at the filmography of the talented David A. Prior in due time.