“It’s not human… and it’s got an axe.”
Seriously, people — how can any movie, slasher or otherwise, meet the expectations delivered by a supreme tagline like that? Well, you can rest assured that THE PREY doesn’t even come close; not only is its villain human (albeit hulking, animalistic and severely deformed), but he barely touches an axe during the film’s running time.
So, why have I chosen this bizarre lo-fi backwoods oddity for this week’s Slashback column? Because… uh… okay, I’m not exactly sure. It’s dark, clumsily edited and slow-moving (until the slam-bang gory climax, that is), contains completely inane attempts at humor, and its brief running time is heavily padded with stock footage of forest animals doing foresty animal things. But I’m gonna go out on a limb here (no pun intended) and say that these quirks are not a bug, but a feature. Well, maybe. Let’s just say THE PREY is more entertaining than it has any right to be.
The first horror production from well-established porn producers Edwin and Summer Brown, THE PREY was actually shot in the late ‘70s, well ahead of FRIDAY THE 13TH and therefore can’t be considered a quickie cash-in on the backwoods slasher craze that would soon include THE BURNING, MADMAN and other campground-killer fare. For reasons not entirely clear, the film languished in limbo without a distributor for several years before finally hitting home video in 1984, where its now-famous tagline adorned the strange, minimalist box art for the fairly popular Thorn EMI VHS/Beta release.
I’m thinking the enticement of that artwork and the breathless description of the film was sufficient bait for horror-hungry video renters to snap up THE PREY (hell, it worked on me), but I suspect there was a lot of head-scratching and subsequent stabbing of the fast-forward button before the tape reached its conclusion, as the film fails to deliver on the salaciousness of its clever hype. Instead, what we get is the leisurely tale of a group of twenty-something campers with bad haircuts on a woodland getaway (it’s never mentioned what part of the country they’re visiting, but it’s actually the mountains of Idyllwild, CA), who do all the usual things slasher-movie campers do: hike, swim, tell scary campfire tales and occasionally engage in a little sleeping-bag nookie before they start to suspect they’re being watched by a silent, unseen interloper.
As a brief pre-credits flashback suggests, our villain’s origins may be connected to a forest fire which took place in 1948 — after which we’re whiplashed into the present day to watch a dull middle-aged couple enjoy their fireside meal for what seems like forever before a dark figure dispatches them with a huge axe — the only time, by the way, this much-hyped weapon is used in the entire film. When the man-beast begins stalking our younger, more agile heroes, their only salvation lies with a handsome but extremely eccentric park ranger (Jackson Botswick, star of TV’s SHAZAM!) with a fondness for cucumber sandwiches, banjo and really bad jokes (one of which he tests out on a totally uninterested deer). Surreal dialogue between the ranger and his portly partner (played by Jackie Coogan, a.k.a. Uncle Fester from the original ADDAMS FAMILY) are what presumably pass for comic relief here, but it’s really just another example of the filmmakers running out the clock.
When we finally get down to the stalk-and-kill action, things pick up considerably, with some fairly grisly deaths (look for early FX by John Carl Buechler) at the hands of the hideous killer — who turns out to be a horribly disfigured, cave-dwelling mutant (Carel Struycken, who would famously appear on TWIN PEAKS and as Lurch in the ADDAMS FAMILY remake), presumably the last survivor of the 1948 forest fire. By the film’s bizarro final act, one of two nominal Final Girls meets an extremely brutal death, and the other… well, she survives long enough to provide the film’s baffling epilogue.
Along the admittedly slow journey to that climax, we get almost 30 minutes’ worth of the aforementioned nature footage — which, admittedly, is pretty cool to look at — as well as some fairly likable characters (like super-cute Lori Lethin, later of BLOODY BIRTHDAY and RETURN TO HORROR HIGH), and even more certifiably insane moments, including unexplained underwater shenanigans by one of the campers (did he actually paint eyes on his eyelids? If so, why the actual fuck did he do that?) and a laugh-out-loud sequence wherein Bostwick attempts to emote shock and despair in a hilarious pseudo-artsy montage.
Throughout the ‘80s, rumors began to circulate in fanzines and small horror press (remember kids, this was pre-internet) that a much longer cut of THE PREY existed somewhere, containing a sexually explicit flashback scene in which a forest-dwelling village of gypsies is burned to the ground by angry townspeople in revenge for a suspected rape. This scene was even claimed to have featured ’70s porn legend John Leslie!
Well, as you might have noticed, the internet happened since then… and lo and behold, here’s that 25-minute scene in all its glory, courtesy of a Japanese LaserDisc release:
The Thorn EMI version — struck from a print distributed in 1984 by New World Pictures — only contains a brief glimpse of the forest fire itself (basically stock footage with some screams overdubbed), and the incident is now only briefly referenced in dialogue. It’s assumed, of course, that the brute who menaces our protagonists is the last survivor of this massacre, and his horrific appearance is due to severe burns. Ideally, someone will find a fully uncut print suitable for a long-overdue DVD and/or Blu-ray release… but I’m not exactly holding my breath for that one.