Given the prominently-featured big monster hands on some of the newly-commissioned art for the Arrow Blu-ray, as well as the film’s breathless tagline, “It’s not human, and it’s got an axe!” I can probably be forgiven for hoping that The Prey was a slasher movie about bigfoot, even if the Blu-ray’s other new art makes that pretty unlikely.
Then, once the film was underway and we were treated to stock footage of a raging forest fire in what we were told was 1948 and then a cold opening in which our slasher’s killing spree appeared to be triggered by his seeing a campfire, could I be blamed for crossing my fingers, at least a little, that I would be getting an actual film version of Smokey Bear as a slasher?
Sadly, our antagonist is neither of these things. He is, instead, a giant “gypsy,” possibly named Leo, who was badly burned in said fire as a child and has been stalking the woods around Northpoint ever since. Brought to life thanks to makeup effects by the late John Carl Buechler, our slasher is more Frankenstein’s monster than bigfoot, and the closest we get to Smokey the Slasher is a shot of some Smokey stationary with the reminder that, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.”
Heck, we don’t even really see the slasher himself until the very end of the movie, in spite of some early shots of his gross monster hands, and there isn’t really much slashing to speak of until the final reel and the film’s “blistering, fever pitch finale,” as Ewan Cant has it in his enthusiast summation that accompanies the Blu-ray release. And talk about misleading taglines! Not only is our antagonist, indeed, probably human, but he doesn’t even have an axe beyond that opening scene!
Instead, The Prey spends the majority of its runtime on three distinct tracks: following the fairly tame misadventures of our obligatory band of horny young hikers, the parallel path of a park ranger played by none other than Captain Marvel himself Jackson Bostwick from the 1970s Shazam! TV series, and a lot of nature photography.
That nature photography is one of the things that helps distinguish The Prey from other run-of-the-mill slashers of the era. For one thing, there’s a lot of it, including shots of all kinds of animals, from frogs to vultures and from tarantulas to bears. For another thing, it’s almost all pretty good. The wildlife shots are credited to animal wrangler Gary Gero, and for the most part they could have been lifted straight out of a nature documentary.
They aren’t just there for flavor, either. As it becomes clear that these kids are being stalked by an unseen presence in the woods, their exchanges are intercut with shots of a spider catching a bug, an owl swooping down on a snake, a snake eating a mouse, and a swarm of ants picking apart a centipede. Maybe not subtle, but effective nonetheless.
One of the strangest aspects of The Prey – though perhaps not that strange, in the annals of low-budget horror filmmaking – is its patchwork release history. Much of the booklet that accompanies the new Arrow Video Blu-ray is dedicated to piecing together when certain shots of the movie were filmed, and to discussing the various different versions that were released.
If you look up the movie on IMDb and Letterboxd, you’ll find it listed under two different release years (1983 and 1984, respectively), never mind that most of the film was shot in 1979 with a 1980 copyright.
Put out by Essex, a company that had, up ‘til then, focused mostly on 35mm sex films, The Prey was distributed by New World Pictures, who gave it a brief theatrical release before dumping it somewhat unceremoniously onto home video. Somewhere in there someone got the bright idea of “beefing up” the film with a lengthy flashback sequence ostensibly describing the killer’s origins – even though the killer himself is hardly featured in the flashback’s unnecessarily large cast of characters – that clocks in at nearly half-an-hour.
It would be one thing if this additional half-hour was just haphazardly dropped into the film – which it is, awkwardly replacing an admittedly somewhat pointless campfire retelling of “The Monkey’s Paw,” one of several long and head-scratching cul-de-sacs in this fairly brief film – but they also went back in and cut out several sequences for this “international” release, most of them that aforementioned nature photography.
Given the rest of the filmography by Essex and director Edwin Brown (and his producer and screenwriting partner Summer Brown), which includes such titles as A Thousand and One Erotic Nights, Naughty Girls Need Love Too, and Sexual Outlaws, the “gypsy” flashback feels like what it probably is—an excuse to add in lots more nudity. Though the flashback scenes were shot long after principal photography had ended, and there’s no reason to assume that Brown had anything to do with them. Indeed, the Blu-ray takes great pains to point out that these scenes are not “director-approved.”
For fans of The Prey, this Arrow Video Blu must be something of a godsend. Not only does it include the original U.S. theatrical cut (clocking in at around 80 minutes) and the 97-minute “international” cut, complete with the weird and extended “gypsy” flashback storyline, it also has a composite “fan” cut that combines footage from both versions together into an extended experience containing all known elements from this obscure slice of the ‘80s slasher boom, not to mention outtakes, audio commentaries, and all the other loaded extras we’ve come to expect from an Arrow release.
For those who aren’t already fans, there’s probably little enough here that will convert you, unless you just really love melty John Carl Buechler monster effects, ill-fated teens camping in the woods, nature photography, racist backstories, distressing exploitation endings, frantic scores and inexplicable digressions like Jackson Bostwick playing the banjo and pulling faces while telling a go-nowhere story to a deer.
Assuming you do love all those things and you haven’t seen The Prey, well, have I got a movie for you!