AKA ROSEMARY’S KILLER, THE GRADUATION, PITCHFORK MASSACRE
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY [Region ‘A’ and ‘D’ only] AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 89 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
During World War II, Rosemary Chatham writes a letter to her boyfriend, breaking up with him because he’s been away too long. On June 28, 1945, Rosemary and her new boyfriend Roy are murdered during a graduation ball in Avalon Bay by someone in an army combat uniform, leaving behind a rose. June 28, 1980: Pam MacDonald is organising the first Avalon Bay graduation ball in 35 years with her friends Lisa, Sherry and Sherry’s boyfriend Carl. That afternoon, she overhears a report of a prowler who robbed a shop and killed a teen, a prowler who may be on the way to Avalon Bay.…
If you read my recent reviews of the Friday The 13th series then you may recall that in my review for the fourth [and probably the best] of those films I mentioned that I would review the director of that film Joseph Zito’s previous slasher which is what got Zito the job of the Jason flick – and so here it is. I recall watching it a great many years ago on the long lost Bravo channel and considering it to be a good, though not quite very good, example of this much despised subgenre, a cut or two [sorry] above the average level of the glut of similar films that poured out in the very early 1980’s, but not quite a classic of its kind, and borrowing a fair bit from My Bloody Valentine and Prom Night. Upon re-watching it I had pretty much the same impression. I consider it to be a better film than Prom Night but to be probably not as good as My Bloody Valentine. It has some impressive suspense sequences and some memorable kill scenes, Tom Savini considering his work in this film to be his best. It also has acting that’s usually better than average for this sort of thing. However, the thin plot is obviously stretched out, the supposed ‘mystery’ as to who’s doing all this killing is nothing but, while the script doesn’t even bother to give some kind of explanation as to why this person is committing these acts – I mean come on, they could have provided us with something, something that maybe connects to the opening scene that’s instead rendered rather pointless!
Initially, Zito had wanted to shoot Glenn Leopold and Neal Barbera’s screenplay in Avalon, California, where it’s set, but then late in the day he decided to film in Cape May, New Jersey instead, which he felt had a “ghost town quality.” The cemetery scenes were shot at an actual cemetery on Halloween night of 1980, the open grave used in the film being an actual open grave that was awaiting a funeral. The six week shooting schedule was built around the filming of the murders, Savini himself playing the Prowler during the kills so he could perform the effects while assistant director Peter Giuliano stalked around and chased the victims. Initially, Avco Embassy Pictures, who’d previously released Prom Night, expressed interest in distributing The Prowler, but producer David Streit declined their offer and decided to self-distribute it himself, a decision that hurt the film’s box office. Around a minute of gore was excised from most versions, the British cinema edit being almost identical to the US one, but fortunately the cut footage was preserved [unlike most of the censored violence from the Friday The 13th films] and most DVDs and certainly the Blu-rays are uncut. Most versions outside the US were retitled Rosemary’s Killer or The Graduation, though a possibly illegal release in some American states in 1984 was titled Pitchfork Massacre. As well as cutting every shot of blood, the German release also replaced most of the score with sound effects!
Black and white newsreel footage of soldiers returning home from the war opens the film, with even Rosemary’s Dear John letter shown in monochrome, before we switch to the graduation ball and some decent period feel and look that isn’t really ruined by the terrible acting of Timothy Rahrer as Rosemary’s new fella Roy. He wants to go outside to make out with her, though Rosemary feels uneasy when the lights around the gazebo and on the bridge leading to it go out – or should I say are turned off by somebody in a military uniform, somebody who approaches them and runs a pitchfork through the pair of them [kills by this implement being quite common around this time, The Slayer, The Bogey Man and Friday The 13th Part 3 being just three other examples I can think of off the top of my head]. The full version of this film being a tad stronger than your average 80’s slasher flick, we get to see the pitchfork pressed in several times before we cut to 1980 and the town getting ready for another graduation ball, the first in 30 years. We soon hear that somebody has robbed, murdered and could be heading for Avalon Bay, but Sheriff George Fraser is still intent on going off on his holiday and is happy to leave his deputy Mark London in charge, whose girlfriend Pam McDonald is the chief organiser of the do – and yes, that’s Farley Granger slumming it as the Sheriff, though he probably only had to turn up for one day considering that he almost disappears from the film a few minutes later. And yes, the pervy, wheelchair-bound [or is he?] old guy who’s actually Rosemary’s father is Lawrence Tierney, and he never even gets to say anything.
The girls getting ready for the party is intercut with the Prowler putting on his army gear, and soon he’s in one of the dormitories. Sherry is in the shower when she recieves a surprise visit from her boyfriend Carl, giving us a bit of a false scare – until the Prowler slays them both, the viewer being treated to a pitchfork going into the stomach of a naked girl and a knife going into a man’s skull and coming out of his neck. The scene immediately afterwards is good nervous stuff as Pam comes in to get some things and fails to notice either the bloody bodies in the shower nor the Prowler hiding out of sight. Mark tries to keep the atrocities a secret and with Pam sets out to find the culprit who they think could be Major Chatham – but then again it can’t be him because Pam has just fled from the killer and ran past the Major who grabbed some of her dress. In fact it’s ludicrously obvious who it is and, not remembering the identity of the culprit from my first watch of the film, I initially thought that we were being fed a red herring and that the screenplay was being clever – but the latter would of course be too much to ask. At least the climactic killer vs. final girl sequence has one really nail-biting bit set in a room full of objects covered in white sheets where Pam is hiding under a bed. Zito is so good at this kind of thing that it’s such a shame he made mainly low-rent action movies after his Jason Voorhees flick.
The Prowler climaxes with one of the best exploding heads you’ll ever see and, while the body count isn’t that high, this film certainly delivers in its deaths by pitchfork [several times], bayonet and knife which linger slightly longer than the norm but remain uncomfortably realistic. In fact I would almost say that they threaten to cross the line so that they’re almost a little too gruesome for the film they’re in: I don’t know if everyone reading this will agree, but I think that part of the fun of these movies is that pain and sadism is rarely dwelt on, the kills usually just being gags that deliver short sharp shocks. Some artistry is evident in the filming of some of these scenes in this movie, especially the throat slashing of a teen in a swimming pool. The blood that leaks out of her wound as her body sinks to the bottom of the pool is very convincing, but the lighting of the scene, the red coming from an underwater light taking over the right half of the picture, is quite stylish, looking like something Mario Bava or Dario Argento would have done. The cinematography from Raoul Lomas and an uncredited Joao Fernandes is often impressive, with some fine compositions and use of darkness in places, yet the film still possesses much of that grungy low budget feel which I think actually enhances, rather than detracts from, films like this – which is one reason why the later wave of slashers initiated by Scream didn’t tend to do it as much for me as these earlier efforts.
There’s a bit too much footage of Mark and Pam sneaking around the Major’s house- the first time it’s nicely suspenseful if a little too long, the second time it just seems like padding and Richard Einhorn’s score, which rarely shuts up, appears to be doing most of the work, it even providing most of the impact of a lazily filmed final jump scare of the Carrie-kind which would be almost nothing without it. Psycho’s screeching strings appear several times and of course there’s that shower murder [though they seem to be a dime a dozen in these films], while Halloween no doubt inspired the killer digging up the grave of the victim he killed some many years earlier. In fact very little of The Prowler has much in the way of originality. Overall though it does show evidence of some care in its making. It’s just seriously let down by its weak screenplay which doesn’t even give leading lady Vicky Dawson much of a character to play even though she does her best – in fact none of the teenage characters have much to distinguish them and at times I had trouble telling them apart. Slasher fans still need to see this though as it most definitely has its strong points, though others probably needn’t apply.