Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Halloween-a-thon 2013: The Prey (1984)

As I wrote in my compendium, Horror Films of the 1980s (McFarland; 2007) I've always enjoyed the "mountain man" variation on the 1980s Slasher Paradigm as seen in such films as Just Before Dawn (1983), The Final Terror (1985) and even Wrong Turn (2003).

You know the type of genre movie I'm talking about
: all the same Friday the 13th stock characters (bitch, jock, stoner, Final Girl, drunken Cassandra warning against trespass...) and all the same stock situations (the car won't start, vice-precedes-slice-and-dice, the false scare, the cat jump, etc.).

One significant difference, however is that the villain is a hulking sometimes-disfigured "mountain man" rather than a masked, faceless killer.

These "mountain man" slasher variations are often set in extremely isolated, picturesque settings -- meaning no rescue is possible -- and tread heavily into the transgressive realm of the savage cinema (which includes the territory of rape and revenge, among other things...).

A modest but noteworthy entry in this mountain man/slasher sweepstakes is Edwin Scott Brown's The Prey, a super-low budget film of the Reagan Era (though reportedly it was shot near the end of the 1970s..). It is not an elegant film and it is not a spectacular one...and yet -- in many important ways -- it accomplishes the primary mission of any good slasher: it terrifies

That terror is augmented by some good location shooting; shooting which tends to augment the leitmotif that the offending lead teens are not welcome in the domain of the wild forest. There, they must reckon with all sorts of predators...including the the wild mountain man. The mountain man is part of nature himself; nature's avenger, even.

In The Prey, six young and irresponsible adults from the city, Nancy (Debbie Thureson), Joel (Steve Bond), Bobbie (Lori Lethin), Skip (Robert Wald), Gail (Gayle Gannes) and Greg (Philip Wenckus) hike into the thick woods at North Point, oblivious to the fact that a nice married couple was recently axe-murdered there while camping.

Before long, the young adults are the prey of a monstrous assailant, a deformed gypsy (Carel Struycken). A heroic forest ranger (Jackson Bostwick) attempts to rescue the hikers, but the giant wild man is a savage foe...and looking for...a mate.

After an axe-decapitation (our first act coup-de-grace...) at the outset, The Prey settles down into...stock footage of nature. The audience gets long views of centipedes, frogs, spiders, and more wild-life. There are long shots of impressive mountain ranges, babbling brooks, a spider's web, and a majestic hawk overhead, searching for prey.

Then -- in direct opposition to the images of nature featured in this montage -- the camera catches sight of an unwanted invader: a modern van pulling into woods. 

All too soon, the van ejects bellowing, loud-mouthed, obnoxious teenagers; kids who clearly don't give a damn about the "natural" world around them. In fact, the film's protagonists treat the land as if they own it, committing transgression after transgression (a la Long Weekend). One teenager turns up the volume on her radio in the woods -- literally replacing the call of the wild with rock-and-roll, and, well, you just know Mother Nature is pissed.

Many reviewers have concluded that the stock nature footage included The Prey is mainly just padding, a way to lengthen a film too short for feature release. Indeed this may be so, but in this particular instance, the nature footage also serves a point (even if unintended).  It serves as an explicit reminder that the teens have tread into a domain where they are no longer in control, and furthermore that nature is a force to be reckoned with. The teens experience "push back" not just from the scarred mountain man, but from the combined forces of the nature itself, which seem to judge them as invaders.

This approach fits into one of my primary theories about slasher films in general: we enjoy them because -- for the most part -- we all live in safe, artificial communities protected by layers of law enforcement and bureaucracy. 

We have no real predators, and we are perched at the top of the food chain. I believe some part of us --perhaps a prehistoric part of us -- desires a challenge; a test of our survival skill set. We suspect, perhaps subconsciously, that such a challenge might even emerge from the wild (that's where they came from in the past, after all...). That's why Jason lives in the woods near Camp Blood and his approach is almost universally heralded by a crackling thunderstorm. He is, simply put, a Force of Nature.

In other words, as civilized men and women we had to invent Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger as horror movie predators because our contemporary lives are so safe and, well, predictable. The slasher films -- as ritualistic and repetitive as a (bloody) sporting event -- provide us the opportunity to imagine ourselves matched up against these predators.

Anyway, getting back to The Prey: there's a point in the film in which Mark (the forest ranger) discovers a corpse. This gruesome find is inter-cut with -- again -- stock footage of vultures high up on a tree limb. The connection between the two shots is explicit: the dead body is no longer a "person" but has joined the food chain of the pitiless forest and shall be treated as such. Again, the "padding" serves a kind of unique purpose. It actually adds to the artistic value of the film.

The Prey's focus on natural images reminds the viewer at all times that the mountain man -- a nemesis who is comfortable in these surroundings -- has the home team advantage in any face-to-face battle. Nature is his ally, because he lives in apparent harmony with it. 

For instance, at the teens' campsite earlier in the film, nature seems to come to life and encroach on the young interlopers. Snakes slither towards camp, owls land nearby, and nature focuses on the unaware, the oblivious, just as the mountain man also approaches. Ultimately, it is an attack from several fronts, but all fronts have one commander: Mother Nature.

Perhaps the film could have done with fewer shots of "nature" and still made this point, but in this case, the inclusion of stock footage actually grants The Prey a kind of artistic box to work within. The focus on the living forest also serves, after a fashion, as counterpoint to the Friday the 13th films, which, as they progressed, became increasingly lazy and couldn't be bothered to provide such crucial horror elements as atmosphere or mood, let alone character development. By contrasts, it's clear in The Prey that this is not Jason's "silent," unoccupied Hollywood forest, but rather a living, breathing eco-system teeming with life and vying agendas. That's an important distinction in a movie that is very much a man vs. nature story.

The character named Nancy serves as the film's Final Girl, the plucky lass who seems more insightful and aware than her offending friends. But what ultimately makes The Prey a rather daring variation on the slasher formula is the film's sting in the tail/tale following the final chase. 

Nancy suffers a terrible fate; one that is explained only with sound effects. I won't say any more about this coda, only that I had never seen (or heard...) this ending in a slasher film before, and that is depicted efficiently: a baby's cries linger over further images of the immortal forest.

Yes, it's sort of sick, but also rather ingenious.

At times, The Prey reminded me strongly of Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes (though it is nowhere near that good). It's one of those modest, mostly forgotten low-budget 1980s horror films (like 1980's The Children) that is probably better than the film's reputation suggests. 

Yes, there's too much "wild kingdom" footage in The Prey, but somehow that seems entirely appropriate, given how the film uses the idea of the mountain men and Mother Nature.

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