Let’s talk about the two versions of THE PREY (1984)

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The Prey (1984) isn’t a movie I would recommend easily. You really need to have spent some time mining the depths of the slasher subgenre in order to gleam appreciation for this oddity. It’s not unlike any of the “lost” slashers that have made their way to collector’s markets lately (right, The Slayer?) in that only the most devoted need apply. The Prey isn’t particularly well made. It’s padded to the nines with enough wildlife footage to sustain an entire evening’s worth of nature documentaries and it’s frequently bogged down by the most lugubrious pace imaginable. Worse than that, it largely fails at creating lasting tension or suspense. And having said all that, I genuinely love it.

A forest fire claims the lives of several gypsies, leaving only a misshapen child to survive in the wilderness. Sounds like the set-up for a really bad punchline, right? Thirty years later, six campers head to the North Point mountain peak for a weekend of rest and recreation only to discover that the gypsy boy is all grown up and ready for revenge.

As it sounds, The Prey is standard stuff. And yet, for all the criticism you can level at this thing, there’s an allure to the proceedings that are amazingly difficult to articulate. As a slasher movie, The Prey has some solid moments that come far too sporadically: Blood-soaked axes hack up unsuspecting victims, throats are torn out, and people are hurled off steep cliffs. The late, great John Carl Buechler handles the make-up FX amicably, even though it appears like the juiciest parts have perished at the hands of a determined MPAA.

You can barely find a review of The Prey online that doesn’t gripe about “stock footage.” That’s not entirely fair, though, because it appears this stuff was shot specifically for the movie. The end crawl credits someone for the footage and director Edwin Brown uses it thematically within the story. Our resident monster is an intrinsic part of the forest, same as the animals and reptiles frequently shown, and watching owls and snakes stalk their prey gives these events a strong sense of foreshadowing. Admittedly, this smacks of overindulgence – especially at the climax where we should be more focused on the survival of our characters. This footage is successful in giving The Prey a palpable atmosphere, however. Watch this one on a hot summer night with crickets outside your window and you’ll feel this movie as much as you see it.

Porno director Edwin Brown (Every Woman Has a Fantasy) crossed into mainstream exploitation with this, the only non-XXX film on his resume. One assumes it was his pedigree that gave rise to a rampant online rumor about a hardcore version of The Prey. While the rumor has since been squashed, it certainly was a prominent thing on various  message boards and chatrooms dating back to the earliest days of the Internet. The evidence was always hearsay and never once did I encounter anyone who’d actually seen this fabled edit.

According to the rumors, there was a version of The Prey complete with several full-on pornographic sex scenes, and that American distributor New World Pictures cut these fifteen minutes from the picture before releasing it. What really happened is that a longer international version of the film was released in several markets around the world, while New World Pictures got the running time down to a brisk 80 minutes here in the states. This “fabled” international cut does, in fact, run fifteen minutes longer, but there’s no pornography in this extended version. The major difference is the inclusion of a twenty minute flashback sequence that explains the origin of the tragic forest fire.

It’s just kind of dropped into the film during the campfire scene. Given his pedigree, we know that Brown is a “show, don’t tell” kind of guy, so it makes sense that he’d be down to chronicle this tragedy as a short film. But it’s so incredibly jarring to step away from our leads for twenty straight minutes when none of what we’re seeing on screen really matters within the context of the story.

We Yanks got additional footage of forest critters, campers discussing astronomy, and an over-the-top reading of The Monkey’s Paw while our slasher mates across the pond were treated to a flashback sequence built around a married woman and her affair with some gypsy guy from a nearby camp. She’s eventually caught and, in an attempt to save face with her husband, claims her gypsy lover raped her, which prompts a vengeful mob of angry townsfolk to set the camp ablaze. There’s also a prolonged gypsy dance sequence, a few bouts of gypsy sex, and two angry rednecks swilling beer while plotting their arsonist revenge.

The problem with this footage, however, is that it never ties into the film. It’s just a LOT of needless exposition used to establish the tragedy of the forest fire – something the audience is fully aware of. Furthermore, veteran actor Jackie Coogan shows up near the climax of both versions to fill us in on the creature’s backstory while alternatively discussing  cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches.

On one hand, it’s unsurprising that New Word would’ve opted to lose this subplot in favor of a leaner film, although the sheer amount of female exploitation on display (no less than three pairs of naked breasts in a twenty minute flashback) surely must’ve given them pause, given the drive-in market’s penchant for exploitation. It’s hard to say whether or not The Prey works better with or without out this sequence (okay, it works better without). But it’s a bizarre bit that does give the film some distinguishable character. By the time I’d tracked it down, I was more than thrilled to see it, and I’m even happier to hear that Arrow Video will be releasing both cuts to Blu-ray sometime this year. I may still harbor a preference for the American cut, though it’s fantastic that people will have the choice.

Director Brown never gets completely comfortable with the demands of ‘mainstream’ filmmaking. The kills throughout The Prey lack the proper build up to be suspenseful, while cast interactions are peppered with some of the strangest beats ever: awkward character pauses, clunky dialogue and baffling behavior (reference the waterfall scene where these late twentysomethings are getting such a kick out of splashing each other).

There are some nice flourishes of humor to help offset these drawbacks, though: the guys sit around talking about getting into the women’s pants, and this bit is crosscut with the woman clamoring for a romantic weekend underneath the stars. Okay, so it’s really broad comedy and nothing remotely groundbreaking, but there are a few amusing bits like this along the way.

The slasher himself (hilariously named “Lou” in the extended cut) is kept off camera for a large chunk of the run time. And it’s a bit of a let down once we finally glimpse him. The extended version builds lots of anticipation for this moment, constantly referring to the boy as a hulking giant while both cuts feature a quick sequence of Coogan’s lazy ranger recalling a traumatic moment long ago where he glimpsed this monstrous child. So The Prey builds and builds and we’re mighty anxious for our resident madman to rear his ugly head. And once he does… well, he looks sort of like the Toxic Avenger in a tattered sweatshirt (remember, this was filmed in 1978, so the comparison stands). Our villain is played by Twin Peaks‘ Fireman himself, Carel Struycken, and he looks almost nothing like the imposing specimen we were expecting. Whoops.

When you have a tagline like ”It’s not human, and its got an axe.”, expectations are understandably high. Unfortunately, in the case of The Prey, it is human, and it only uses an axe for two kills. To the majority of audiences, there isn’t much of a film here. But some thirty-five years after its release, The Prey has maintained a somewhat steady group of devotees. It’s a lesser-tier horror film, but if you can buy into the slow pace and clunky edges, it’s an effective little backwoods slasher that offers some vicious kills and a memorable, downbeat shock ending.

The good people at Arrow Video are legitimate heroes for plucking this one from obscurity.

*large chunks of this article were originally published on Dread Central in 2010 as part of my then-recurring Saturday Nightmares column. 

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