The Prey (1983)
"It's not human and it's got an axe"
Three couples on a camping trip in the woods of southern California fall victim to a large, deformed man who has been living in the woods for years after his travellers’ camp was burnt to the ground when he was seven.
Shot in late 1979 but not released until the autumn of 1983, The Prey was already well past its best before date by the time it saw the light of the day in the cinema, and by the time it hit home video in 1988, it was well and truly behind the curve. When the film was finally purchased for distribution by New World Pictures, fifteen minutes of footage was edited for the release, not because the film was deemed too gory but simply because the company felt that audiences lost interest in films that ran longer than eighty minutes (I wish you could hear me sigh as I type this!). However, a different international version was also released which featured the longer running time and a lengthy flashback as well as eliminating a lot of the stock nature footage that was used. The version I watched ran at ninety-seven minutes so I’m guessing it’s the international version, although there was a ton of stock footage in it. I don’t know and probably don’t really care because neither version would have made much difference to the outcome.
Not only did The Prey have all of this going on, but it unfortunately shared 1983 with The Final Terror, an extremely similar backwoods slasher I watched back-to-back with this one and which is virtually indistinguishable at times. The Prey has developed quite a cult following over the years, though it’s difficult to see why: not cheesy or silly enough to be enjoyable, not serious enough to be dramatic and not gory enough to satisfy bloodthirsty audiences. Though the 1983 release makes it appear to be some plagiaristic copycat of Friday the 13th or The Burning, the fact it was made before either of them gives it some elements of originality and can be watched with that retrospective viewpoint. But even then, at least those were entertaining and eventful. The Prey is a case study in boredom, with thinly sketched characters and a flimsy narrative not doing enough to engage the audience.
What’s worse is that the eighty-minute run time feels overly ambitious, given the amount of filler on offer. Plenty of random wildlife footage has been inserted into the film – shots of spiders crawling over logs, raccoons sipping from the river and such like – which add nothing apart from pad out a few seconds of time. As I said in my introduction, if this was the international version and had supposedly edited out a lot of the stock footage, then I’d hate to see the original version. Then there’s the overlong campfire flashback sequence in which one of the characters recounts the story of the gypsies, the fire and the rumours of some hideously burnt man surviving in the woods. This flashback clocks in at over twenty minutes in length and is slap bang in the middle of the film, completely taking the audience out of the present and getting lost in the past. It’s not like much had happened up until that point in the film and I get the need to build up some exposition, but you really wish the narrative would have given the audience a little more to get excited about first. Twenty minutes for a flashback is far too long, giving you the illusion that you’ve walked into another film.
As it turns out, The Prey’s only remotely entertaining stretch of the film comes after a whole fifty-five minutes as the script realises it still has too many characters surviving and promptly kills off most of them. The kills come thick and fast and there’s some decent gore on show, with a throat ripping being the highlight, although there’s a neat suffocation-by-sleeping-bag death. It’s not genre-busting material but it’s something to kick the film into life. The killer, looking like some sort of a cross between Jason Voorhees as a kid and Tony, one of the alien rebels from Total Recall, doesn’t have a lot to do apart from breathe heavily off-screen and is only on-screen for a few minutes in the finale. The amazingly blunt tagline “It’s not human, and it’s got an axe!” might be up there with one of the best of the genre’s outings, even if it’s highly misleading on both counts – he is human and although he does have an axe, he only uses it twice. Effects man John Carl Buechler provides the practical make-up for the monster and would go on to carve out a good career in dozens of horror films.
The Prey’s cast features some The Addams Family connections – Jackie Coogan, in the role of the sheriff and his last film appearance, was most famous for playing Uncle Fester in the original black-and-white TV series whilst Carel Struycken, as the monster, portrayed Lurch in the 1990s big budget films. The acting across the board is pretty dire though I guess when the director and writer both came from porn backgrounds, I’d expect they were unaccustomed to getting their actors to show any real range or depth.
To top it all off, there’s a rather unpleasant, bleak ending which, had it not been for how below average the rest of the film was, might not have worked anywhere half as good as it does. It’s not exactly a reason to sit through the preceding nonsense but it will linger in the mind more than most other horrors of the era.
The Prey is lifeless mediocrity, the personification of a routine 80s slasher with most of the thrills, spills and chills sucked out. Yet somehow it still manages to rise above a large percentage of its genre competition, with a short burst of energy and adrenaline that wishes the makers of the film had applied to the rest of the film.
Director(s): Edwin Brown
Writer(s): Summer Brown (screenplay), Edwin Brown (screenplay)
Actor(s): Debbie Thureson, Steve Bond, Lori Lethin, Robert Wald, Gayle Gannes, Phillip Wenckus
Duration: 80 mins