The Prowler (1981) Retrospective

During World War II, a woman named Rosemary writes a letter to her boyfriend, breaking up with him. On June 28, 1945, Rosemary is attending a graduation dance with her new boyfriend Roy, who suggests they go out to lovers lane. While there, they are attacked by a mysterious prowler in an army combat uniform, who impales them both with a pitchfork and leaves behind a rose.

On June 28, 1980, Pam MacDonald is organizing the first graduation ball in 35 years with her friends Lisa, Sherry and Sherry’s love interest Carl. That afternoon, while visiting her boyfriend and the town’s deputy Mark London, she overhears a report of a prowler. That night, after Pam leaves for the party, Sherry receives a surprise visit from Carl. While undressing, he is attacked and killed with a bayonet. The killer then impales Sherry with a pitchfork.


At the dance, Pam becomes jealous when Mark is pulled into a dance with Lisa and leaves when he accidentally spills his drink onto her dress. She returns to the dorm to change and is chased by the same prowler but escapes. Reuniting with Mark, he investigates but finds nothing. They go together to investigate the Major’s home. Pam realizes that his daughter was Rosemary and that her killer has never been found. Convinced the prowler from earlier is the one responsible, Mark and Pam head back to the dance and warn the chaperone, Allison, about the possible danger.


Meanwhile, Lisa goes out to a nearby pool to cool off and encounters the killer, who slits her throat. Paul, Lisa’s boyfriend, is arrested by Mark for public intoxication. Allison goes to find Lisa but is stabbed and killed also. Mark tries to call the cabin that the sheriff went to but is ignored by the site worker.

Mark and Pam go to investigate the cemetery and discover an opened grave with Lisa’s body in it. Mark tells her the reported prowler had been caught hours earlier and Pam suspects this to be the same killer who murdered Rosemary and her boyfriend in 1945. They go to investigate Major Chatham’s house again. Mark is attacked as the prowler chases Pam through the house. A man appears and shoots the prowler. The killer recovers and shoots the man dead before again attacking Pam. During the scuffle, the prowler is revealed to be Sheriff Fraser. He turns the gun on himself and blows his head clean off, killing himself.


The next day, Mark returns Pam to her dorm and she goes up alone. Discovering Sherry and Carl’s bodies in the shower, she screams as Carl seems to come to life. She realizes Carl is dead and that him grabbing at her was a hallucination.


In the fall of 1980, located in the historic little northeastern town of Cape May, New Jersey (historic is an understatement, as the town is more of a landmark), a new kind of film brutality, known at The Prowler was being conjured up (or for our foreign readers: Rosemary’s Killer). This film tested the boundaries in terms of gore and fear, but still displayed all the fun of a slasher film. The Prowler succeeded where many slashers failed – it married fun entertainment and fear into an amalgam of horror.

Cape May, New Jersey
Cape May, New Jersey

With a $1 million budget and a script in-hand that was penned by Glenn Leopold and Neal Barbera (son of Barbera from Hanna-Barbera, who in turn actually wrote episodes of The Smurfs and other Hanna-Barbera cartoons before writing The Prowler). Director Joseph Zito attacked the script with a very liberal approach to filmmaking, which helped give the film a more natural feel, from the acting to the execution of the scares laced throughout the 90 minutes of bloody terror. The Prowler was shot in a little over 30 days, and being an effects-heavy film, whole days were dedicated to the set-up and execution of Tom Savini’s ruthless kills. Savini was given more freedom to perfect his craft, and that he did. Seeing the intense kills within The Prowler, you see that time and perfection was taken to enhance the fear and realism (a scene where Cindy Weintraub gets a boot to the head took 18 takes before Zito got the shot he wanted). Zito never story boarded The Prowler, it was his strong communication that eased the chaos most commonly associated with film productions.

Casting for this film was unusual by today’s standards. Most of the actors in The Prowler, except for Lawrence Tierney and Farley Grainger, were either soap opera actors or new to the industry – a move to help enhance the character realism that made this film special to moviegoers. This production also marks the first collaboration between Joe Zito and Tom Savini, leading to a number of further projects the duo later worked on together – films including Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, Red Scorpion (with Dolph Lundgren; He-Man) and Invasion U.S.A. with martial arts icon Chuck Norris.

The storyline of the film plays out in typical slasher fashion, but with a bit more sympathetic history behind the madness of the killer. Upon receiving a “Dear John” letter from his beloved Rosemary, while fighting the good fight during World War II, our killer learns that Rosemary doesn’t want to wait any longer and is leaving him for another suitor. Enraged by this, the “Prowler,” armed in his fatigues, searches out Rosemary Chatham and her new beloved to enact his revenge. The perfect night approaches with the school graduation dance (The Graduation was actually one of the Prowler’s shooting titles at one point). Rosemary and her date arrive to the social event and soon leave for a quiet gazebo rendezvous. The Prowler sees this and makes his move. He cuts the lights and advances to the couple, who are clouded in the night, and makes a human shish cabob out of the two (thanks to his trusty pitch-fork). After that night, the town graduation dance ceases as a result of the gruesome murders. …

The first illusion “the pitchforked lovers” involves two lovers necking in a gazebo on a lake. We first establish the weapons the Prowler uses: a pitchfork planted into the ground and a bayonet which cuts an electrical light cord, putting the two victims in darkness. The lovers continue to embrace as a pitchfork rises in the air and then plummets down into the back of the boy. We then cut to the girl screaming, and we see the Prowler’s foot push the pitchfork further into the back of the boy. The Prowler pushes the pitchfork even further down, and we see it come out the back of the girl; the pitchfork has gone through the boy, into the girl, and out her back, the tips of the pitchfork protruding out the back of the girl between the boy’s fingers as he hugs her tightly. We used a close-up of a real pitchfork actually stabbing a foam-rubber dummy which was originally one of the bodies from the movie COMA.


We put the tuxedo jacket the boy was wearing on this foam rubber dummy, and the close-up was of the pitchfork stabbing it. It was shown being jammed in more and more into the dummy. After one of the cutaways-either the girl screaming, or the guy’s face reacting to the pitchfork—We substituted a cut-off pitchfork that was specially prepared with blood tubing going to all the blades through special grooves, made by a machine shop nearby. One large tube ran along the handle, emptying into a chamber that had four or five tubes running out of it. (The chamber first filled with blood, then pumped blood through each of the four or five other tubes leading to the blades of the pitchfork). The pitchfork was held against the back of the actor this time, so his hands could reach back as if he was reaching for the pitchfork showing that this was not a dummy with a pitchfork in it, but a real person. (Blood was squirting out of the blades themselves, but it looked like the blood was squirting from his back.)

For the illusion in which we see the back of the pitchfork blades coming out the girl’s back, I took a glad bag and taped it flat against the back of the dummy. Doing so made the blood fill up the bag (V4″ thick at its thickest point). I took the blades of the cut-off pitchfork and welded them to a little piece of metal about 2” wide by 1 ft. long and 1/8″ thick. Then I put the boy’s costume on, the shirt and tuxedo jacket, so that my hands became the boyfriend’s hands for the shot. I put the points of the pitchfork against the chest of the dummy (who was now wearing the girl’s dress) and, using my chest, I pushed the back of the bar, sending the pitchfork blades through the dummy and out its back. I did this several times so that the blades would pass through the styrofoam body easily, creating holes on the back. Over the holes I taped the glad bag blood-pack. The costume was then placed over the blood-pack and the dummy, the blades already positioned half-way through the body. On “action” I hugged the dummy; my chest pushed the bar, pushing the blades through the foam body and the blood-pack and in-between my fingers. The back of the dress saturated with blood as the blades pierced through and stuck out about 2′.

The bayonet through the head. A young, well built “stud” sort of guy visits his girl’s room when she’s in the shower and she asks him to join her. He goes out to the bedroom, starts to take off his clothes, sits down on the bed, and our Prowler grabs him from behind and sticks the full length of a bayonet into the top of his head, sending the point out the bottom of his chin. The camera pulls back, and we see the victim’s eyes roll back and the bayonet stuck in the top of his head-the point sticking out of his chin—all in the same shot.

For the bayonet going through the top of this guy’s head, I first constructed a false head using foam latex for the outer skin and a thin plaster (again) understructure. After making a thin foam mask of this character’s head by the pressed clay, 3-mold (negative front and back, positive core) technique, I put the mask back into the negative molds and sloshed around a thin plaster coating to the inside of the mask. I then removed the negative molds and had a head with foam latex skin and plaster underskull. I removed the foam mask and cut a hole into the plaster top where the bayonet would go and another hole in the lower jaw area where the point of the bayonet would pierce through. I then filled the head with blood filled condoms and put the mask back on. When I stabbed through the top of the head and out the chin, the blood oozed through the foam. On one take, the bayonet came through the chin with this condom hanging off it! So, we see the real guy sitting on the bed, and the maniac comes from behind him and covers his mouth.

Tom Savini Grand Illusions

Then we cut to a shot behind the dummy head attached to “Boris II,” who’s wearing the same costume. Dressed as the killer, with the fatigue jacket and gloves, I grab the false head and simply plunge the bayonet into the top of it. We cut to the front, my gloved hand over the face of the false head, as the real actor’s hand reaches up into the frame and grabs at my hand; the impression being that it was actually his head. When the camera pulled back, we used the real actor with special white sclera lenses in his eyeballs to make it look like his head rolled back, and a cut-away bayonet-about 5″ long—which a stand-in held on top of the actor’s head. For the chin effect, I made a mold of the tip of the bayonet, reproduced it in foam, and fastened that to a piece of fabric that was glued underneath his chin. So, the cut-away bayonet was held on the top of the actor’s head, and the rubber point was sticking out of his chin. Blood tubing emptied out against the rubber tip of the false bayonet point, adding the finishing touches to the effect. The killer then heads toward the bathroom, pitchfork in hand. We see the girl’s point-of-view as the killer lunges at her with the pitchfork.

We placed a large piece of wood on the chest of the cameraman, and with me wearing the steel helmet and facemask, fatigue jacket and gloves of the killer, I stabbed the pitchfork at the camera, hitting the piece of wood-the victim’s point-of-view. For the front shots of the pitchfork going into the girl’s stomach, I had two more pitchforks with the blades cut off at various lengths. The first one had only two or three inches of the tips cut off and it was prepared with blood tubing to force blood to the tips of the blades. When placed against the girl’s stomach, it would look like the blood was coming out of her. We cut back to the killer forcing the pitchfork in a little more, and when we come back again to the front shot of the girl, we used the second pitchfork, which had five or six more inches of the blades cut off, making it look like the blades had gone in even further. The same blood tubing arrangement was used, again making it look like blood was coming out of her. It was really coming from the tips of the blades.

And now another amazingly different cutthroat effect. A young girl is swimming around in a pool. As she gets out, the killer springs out of the water, grabbing her from behind. He brings the bayonet up and starts to cut her throat; we see the knife go deep and blood flow out. We cut to an underwater shot of her sinking into the water, illuminated by the pool lights, and we see air bubbles and blood coming out of the cut.

For the initial shot of her throat being cut, we used two bayonets: one the full-sized, dull bayonet we see placed against her throat, and (for the close-up) a bayonet with a groove cut out of it to conform around her neck, making the blade look like it was deep in her neck. Blood tubing was also attached to the underside of this bayonet so that as the killer moved it around, the blood was pumped out, creating a familiar illusion. We then put a throat appliance on her with the latex bladder technique from THE BURNING. As she sank into the water, I pumped blood out of the cut in the foam latex appliance, which sent a cloud of blood and air bubbles out of her neck. Later on, she’s discovered in a coffin; she has the same throat appliance on, with dried blood and dirt, etc. to add to the effect.

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The double-barreled surprise.” At the end of the film, the killer (unmasked, revealing Farley Granger) struggles with our young heroine for a double-barrelled sawed-off shotgun. He’s trying to kill her, she’s trying to kill him, and the killer’s the weaker of the two because there’s also a pitchfork jammed in his back. For this I made a mold of the pitchfork, including about a foot of the handle, poured expanding urethane into the mold, and made an entire series of styrofoam pitchforks. I then glued one to a plate which was permanently fastened to a duplicate of the killer’s costume. We see the girl head toward him, and with a downward movement she plunges the pitchfork in his back. We cut to a stand-in wearing the special jacket with the pitchfork sticking out of it, his body pressing against the back of the jacket holds the bar in place which held the lightweight pitchfork (Painted to look like the original). He’s understandably weak; there’s a pitchfork sticking out of his back-what a man and he’s overpowered by the girl in the struggle. She places the shotgun just under his chin, pulls the trigger, and we see his head explode into a million pieces. This was actually the same sort of false head and plaster underskull mechanism filled with prophylactics we’d used before. I made a dummy with it and fired both barrels of a 12 gauge shotgun at the false head with magnum pellets. Seconds later, it was raining blood, false ears, glass eyes and so forth.

Upon its completion, the film’s backers shopped The Prowler around to a few sources, one of which was distribution juggernaut: Avco Embassy. Avco Embassy was responsible for the distribution of such horror gems as The Howling, Fear No Evil and Phantasm. Throughout negotiations the film’s owners wanted to recoup their original investment and after Avco made a low-ball offer for distribution, the producers decided to end talks with Avco and seek out other new possible leads – a move that might have just been the cause for the minimal opening and run of this highly underrated slasher. Upon finding that most distributors did not want to give them the full dollar amount they were looking for, they decided that they could do it for themselves. In doing so, The Prowler was only able to obtain a very limited theatrical run, but overseas there was a different story, as The Prowler (or as it was known across the pond, Rosemary’s Killer) was picked up for distribution by Carolco. You might recognize that name from films like Rambo and Total Recall. The title was screened across Europe and even in areas like Turkey, Pakistan and Japan. For a slasher film, that was very good, but it still had some stiff competition from other heavyweights the same year (the most noteworthy being My Bloody Valentine, which itself had a masked killer set-off by the return of a long-banned town dance).


Not to mention its other problems… as with most slashers from the States at that time, The Prowler was also met with censorship and controversy. While the theatrical cut of the film was filled with the soupy gore we love here in the US, the overseas prints were trimmed slightly from country to country. In some parts of the world the film was trimmed very heavily – with as much as 10-plus minutes removed. The brutality of this title was seen across the board, even Joe Zito had a situation at a 42nd Street theatre where, after he explained to a security guard who he was, the guard came back with, “I have seen your movie, you killed those people.” Now, in any horror director’s mind, that has to be a complement … that the gore and kills were so well done that you have somehow convinced people that what they saw was actually someone being killed! Definitely the icing on the cake.

In the early ’80s, most filmmakers had a hope that if the big screen did not pan out that the new and upcoming home video market would reinvigorate their product. The Prowler was released by VCII, a leg of VCX, a very well known adult film company from California who is still around to this day. The Prowler was released in Big Box form, as well as in a Small Box, utilizing the infamous pool execution that was used countless times overseas. Later on, in the States, The Prowler was released again thanks to budget king Star Classics with an oddball image on the cover that didn’t really sell the film too well, and as a result, didn’t allow the film to reach very many rental shops.

In the foreign market, the VHS release of Rosemary’s Killer faced the same challenges as it did with its theatrical release. A lot of European countries trimmed chunks of it out, and surprisingly, it didn’t end up on the now-infamous Video Nasties list in the UK. It had far more reasons to be on the list than films such as Don’t Go in the House, where no blood is seen throughout the entire movie. But with that, it made the title more intriguing to some newcomers. The Prowler’s rental market life came to an unfortunate close in the late 1980s. The film actually went out of print and became very difficult to find. Some stores eventually discounted the title and moved it off their shelves entirely to make room for newer movies, adding to The Prowler’s rarity. Still to this day, even with an official DVD release, The Prowler’s VHS tapes can go in the collectors market for decent amount of money – in any condition, foreign or domestic.

As we had seen in the US theatrical posters, The Prowler looked almost tame when compared side-by-side with similar titles, but the art was matched with some of the best taglines ever assigned to a slasher film. Examples of these lines include, “The human exterminator” and “It will freeze your blood.” While overseas, many of the posters held the gruesome images of the pool demise (example) or, as seen in Japan, we were treated to one of the most ferocious images in the film (as well as in the slasher age of the ’80s) – that of the bayonet-through-the-head kill. The image was also seen on the Mexican lobby card set as a border image. If that shot was plastered on the US one-sheet back in 1981, it might have caught on better than the black and white poster we all now remember.


The Richard Einhorn Score
The film’s music by Richard Einhorn (Shock Waves, Don’t Go In The House) introduces the composer’s departure from the primitive, monophonic synth scoring of his earlier work, and implements a blend of orchestral cues and mature electronic soundscapes.

Directed/Produced Joseph Zito

Neal Barbera
Glenn Leopold

Vicky Dawson as Pam MacDonald
Christopher Goutman as Deputy Mark London
Lawrence Tierney as Major Chatham
Farley Granger as Sheriff George Fraser
Cindy Weintraub as Lisa
Lisa Dunsheath as Sherry
David Sederholm as Carl

Music Richard Einhorn

Tom Savini Grand Illusions
Horror Hound#22

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