Prey (The) (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (29th September 2019).
The Film

The Prey (Edwin S Brown, 1983)

Synopsis: A group of young friends – Gail (Gayle Gannes) and Greg (Philip Wenckus), Bobbie (Lori Lethin) and Skip (Robert Wald), and Nancy (Debbie Thureson) and Joel (Steve Bond) – are hiking the Keen Wild national forest in the Rocky Mountains. On their way, they encounter a park ranger, Mark O’Brien (Jackson Bostwick), who upon discovering that the group are heading to Northpoint, tells them that the area is incredible isolated (‘If you want to be alone, that’s a good spot’).

However, as the group of friends continue their hike, it is clear they are not alone: they are being followed. During the evening, Skip tells the others the legend of Northpoint: three decades earlier, a group of gypsies were killed by a fire that was set deliberately by some locals. There was one survivor: a horribly mutilated child who ‘became a killer’. The next day, Greg and Gail become separated from their friends and fall prey to the maniac who has been stalking the group. Believing Greg and Gail simply to have wandered off, the remaining quartet leave a note for the couple and continue deeper into the forest. However, they soon find themselves stalked by the mysterious assassin.

Meanwhile, Mark and his colleague Lester Tile (Jackie Coogan, in his final film role) are made aware of the disappearance of a middle-aged couple in the Northpoint area. Lester, who was present when the gypsy camp was burnt, tells Mark of a mysterious creature that he once saw in the Northpoint area. Carrying his tranq gun, Mark sets off to investigate and, hopefully, rescue the group of hikers.

Critique: Completed in 1980 but only released (by New World Pictures) in 1983, The Prey was the brainchild of its director, Edwin S Brown, and his wife and producer, Summer Brown. Both Edwin and Summer Brown had previously worked behind the scenes on hardcore sex pictures: Edwin Brown had directed the hardcore The Venus Trap in 1974 and For the Love of Pleasure in 1979, and following The Prey he would go on to make both hardcore and softcore sex films; in addition, Brown had written the script for Paul Aratow’s China Girl (also 1974), which Summer Brown also produced. Prior to The Prey, the pair had also produced one other horror picture: Gregory Goodell’s Human Experiments (1980), which despite being remarkably unremarkable made its way onto the video nasties list as a ‘Section 2’ (ie, non-prosecuted) title. The Prey follows the narrative formula of the sex films with which Brown was associated: the meandering, mostly flaccid narrative is punctuated by moments of spurting mayhem.

Taking place almost entirely in woodland, the production of The Prey clearly had one eye on the burgeoning popularity of slasher/bodycount/stalk-and-slash pictures following the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (Sean S Cunningham, 1980). In terms of recognisable subtypes of the slasher movie, The Prey sits alongside other backwoods slashers such as Rituals (Peter Carter, 1977), Jeff Lieberman’s Just Before Dawn (1981), Don’t Go in the Woods (James Bryan, 1981), The Forest (Don Jones, 1982) and The Final Terror (Andrew Davis, 1983). Though in terms of its production, The Prey predates most of its backwoods slasher contemporaries, some of which also struggled to find distribution. (The Final Terror, for example, was shelved for two years before being released.)

The Prey opens with footage of a forest fire, a main title declaring this to be taking place in ‘Northpoint, Keen Wild, 1948’. On the soundtrack, the visual devastation is underscored by the sounds of screaming and children crying. As the narrative progresses, there are momentary flashbacks to this enigmatic scene (usually intercut with point-of-view shots from the killer’s perspective, suggesting these to be moments of analepsis) and it is gradually revealed through the dialogue that this footage depicts the devastation caused by the burning of a gypsy camp by vengeful locals. In the international cut and composite version, both included on disc two, the buildup to this event is shown through an extended flashback in which one of the gypsies is shown to be involved in a sexual relationship with a local women, who when her husband Jack discovers her affair, claims to have been raped; this event is the catalyst for Jack and his friend’s burning of the gypsy camp. (This extended flashback, filmed by The Prey’s distributors some years after the main feature was completed, features a cast predominantly assembled of actors associated with pornographic films – including John Leslie, Eric Edwards and Arcadia Lake.)

From here, The Prey takes us to the diegetic present, in a sequence that depicts a middle-aged couple – later revealed to be Frank and Mary Sylvester (Ted Hayden and Connie Hunter) – camping Northpoint. Roving point-of-view shots, which after Halloween had become de rigueur in slasher films as a depiction of the activities of the killer (and which also, by their nature, concealed the appearance and identity of the antagonist), are used to establish that the Sylvesters are not alone. These POV shots are punctuated by flashbacks to the forest fire depicted in the film’s opening moments; and when Mary leaves her husband alone, wandering off by herself, we know that disaster is about to strike. Mary returns to the camp, only to discover that Frank has been decapitated with an axe, his bloody neck wound depicted in fetishistic closeup.

When the sextet of friends who form the film’s core group of characters appear, it is clear that they are cookie-cutter character types recognisable from numerous other slasher pictures of the era: the loud-mouthed Skip commands the group; and Greg, the son of a wealthy family, is the subject of much of the group’s mockery. Greg’s girlfriend, the blonde Gail, is defined by her vanity: as the group hike through the forest, Gail stops to preen her hair in a pocket mirror. ‘Just look at me’, she groans. ‘We’re not going to the prom’, one of the young men reminds her. Nevertheless, the vain Gail is the film’s most defined, memorable female character; sadly, following the deaths of Greg and Gail, the film’s most sympathetic characters, Nancy and Bobbie, are given very little to do, other than comment on how hunky Mark, the park ranger, is.

The Prey was photographed almost entirely at Idyllwild in the San Jacinto mountains, and the final edit of the picture frequently cuts away from the main action to inserts depicting animals in nature – from raccoons to macro shots of insects. Some of this footage is clearly padding, designed to bulk out the narrative, presumably to feature length. (The theatrical cut, on disc one, is just shy of 80 minutes long.) On the other hand, when the filmmakers cut from a scene in which the killer draws in on his victims to footage of ants overrunning a worm, or an owl swooping on a small rodent, there seems to be a fairly clear symbolic purpose to the nature footage; it’s not too much of a stretch to compare The Prey’s use of this technique with Terrence Malick’s poetic cutaways to nature footage in The Thin Red Line (1999), for example.

Video

Cuts: Arrow Video’s Blu-ray release of The Prey contains three cuts of the film. The main presentation is the US theatrical cut, on disc one, which runs for 79:46 mins. Disc two also includes the ‘international cut’, a re-edit assembled by the film’s home video distributor which excises approximately 5 minutes of the nature footage and inserts in its place a 10 minute long flashback, beginning in sepia and eventually segueing into colour, to the events leading up to the burning of the gypsy camp. (This footage was shot a number of years after The Prey was completed by an entirely different crew crew.) The international cut runs for 95:37 mins. Disc two also contains a composite cut, running 102:34 mins, which combines the complete theatrical cut with the unique footage shot for the international cut. In all honesty, the flashback added to the international cut bogs down the film’s narrative, despite the obvious intention of spicing the film up (by the inclusion of more sex and nudity), and by combining both the nature footage (which is so obviously used to pad the narrative to feature length) from the theatrical cut and the gypsy camp flashback from the international cut, the composite version outstays its welcome by a long shot. Nevertheless, the inclusion of the alternate cuts of the film is to be commended and a comparison of them would be rewarding for the patient viewer – offering an exercise in how a narrative and its pacing can be affected by the inclusion of an extended flashback that, essentially, stops the diegesis dead for 10 minutes.

Photography: The credited director of photography is Teru Hayashi, but this is actually a pseudonym of Joao Fernandes, the Brazilian cinematographer who made his name photographing pornographic features such as Deep Throat (Gerard Damiano, 1972) and The Devil in Miss Jones (Damiano, 1973). Fernandes had also worked, as director of photography, on Human Experiments, and he would go on to lens other horror films during the 1980s – including Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (Joseph Zito, 1984) and Children of the Corn (Fritz Kiersch, 1984). He also photographed a number of action films, including several starring Chuck Norris (Zito’s Missing in Action, 1984, and Invasion USA, 1985) and others (Joe Zito’s Red Scorpion, 1988). Fernandes did not shoot the wildlife footage, however: some of this was photographed for the production by Gary Gero, and some of it was stock footage.

All three cuts of The Prey are presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. The theatrical cuts fills slightly under 25Gb of space on disc one, and the international and composite cuts on disc two each have a slightly larger file size. Arrow’s core presentation of the theatrical cut of The Prey is based on a new 2k restoration from the original 35mm negative. Some minor damage is present here and there, including some noticeable white lines and scratches in the (presumably stock) footage of the forest fire. The international and extended cuts use the same source, with the unique footage to the international cut coming from a video master source. The level of detail is excellent throughout, fine detail being present in closeups. Colours are rich, vibrant and consistent, skintones being naturalistic throughout. Contrast levels are very good, with defined midtones and some subtle gradation into the toe, though black levels sometimes seem a little elevated and could perhaps be deeper. The encode to disc is pleasing, retaining the structure of 35mm film. In all, it’s a mostly excellent, filmlike presentation.



Some full-sized screengrabs are included at the bottom of this review. Please click to enlarge them.

Audio

Audio is presented via a DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track. This is rich and deep, with good range, and dialogue is audible throughout. Optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are included. These are easy to read, accurate in transcribing the dialogue and free from errors.

Extras

The discs include:
DISC ONE:
- The Film (Theatrical Cut) (79:46)

- Audio commentary with Ewan Cant and Amanda Reyes
. Cant, who is extremely enthusiastic about The Prey, talks about the film with critic Amanda Reyes, the author of Are You in the House Alone?. They talk about their mutual love of the film and respond to some of the criticism that have been levelled against the picture: for example, Reyes suggests that the nature footage interspersed throughout the film’s narrative ‘adds a surreal tone to the film’. It’s an enthusiastic commentary track that makes a compelling case for the film.

- ‘Gypsies, Camps and Screams’ (27:01)
. Debbie Thureson, who plays Nancy in the film, talks about her work on The Prey. Thureson reflects on her fascination with the horror genre, stemming from her childhood. She talks about how she came to be involved in acting and discusses the experience of shooting The Prey in Idlewild.

- ‘Babe in the Woods’ (13:45)
. Lori Lethin (Bobbie) speaks about how she got her part in the film. Lethin says that much of the non-essential dialogue was improvised. Discussing her character’s death scene, she asserts, ‘If you’re gonna go, you might as well go big, right?’
-
- ‘Gayle on Gail’ (11:49)
. Gayle Gannes Rosenthal, who plays Gail, talks about her work on Human Experiments and her relationship with Edwin and Summer Brown, stating that they were very ‘warm’ and she and the Browns ‘became friends, true friends’. She describes The Prey as ‘playful and unrealistic, but that’s what people wanted to see’.

- ‘The Wide-Mouthed Frog and Other Stories’ (18:20)
. Jackson Bostwick discusses his acting career, including his role as Captain Marvel in Shazam! (1974-5). Bostwick recollects how he got the role of Mark in The Prey, stating that the telling of the story of the wide-mouthed frog was part of his audition for the part. Bostwick offers some quietly funny anecdotes about the shooting of some of his scenes in the picture. He also talks about his response to seeing the longer cut of the film on VHS.

- ‘Call of the Wild’ (7:13)
. In this interview, Carel Struycken discusses his role in the film as the killer. Struycken talks about the effects and the challenges of creating a full-head cast. His experiences on the film were limited, and Struycken reveals that he still hasn’t watched the full picture.

- ‘In Search of The Prey’ (13:58)
. The film’s shooting locations are revisited by Debbie Thureson and Arrow’s Ewan Cant.

- Texas Frightmare Experience
. Selecting this option enables the viewer to watch the film with an ‘audience track’ – an audio recording of the audience’s reactions during the 2019 screening of the restored version of the film at the Texas Frightmare Weekend. The viewer may also watch a recording of the onstage Q&A (17:05) that followed the screening. This Q&A featured actors Lori Lethin, Jackson Bostwick and Carel Strucken fielding questions from the audience.

- Trailers: TV Spot (0:35)
; VHS Trailer (1:24).

- Audio Interviews
: Director Edwin Scott Brown; Producer Summer Brown. These two, separate, audience interviews with the Browns are presented as an optional accompaniment to the main feature – essentially functioning in a similar way to an audio commentary. In the interviews, Edwin Brown and Summer Brown reflect on their first experiences in filmmaking, working in sex pictures, and discuss their work on Human Experiments before talking about The Prey.

DISC TWO:

- The Film (International Cut) (95:37) (see Video).

- The Film (Composite Cut) (102:34) (see Video).

- Outtakes (45:48). These raw and unfinished outtakes, spanning the shooting of a great deal of the film, are presented silent, without any accompaniment on the audio track whatsoever.

Overall

‘One thing that bothers me, it’s that Northpoint’, Lester Tile tells Mark part-way through The Prey, ‘It’s a real spooky place’. Sadly, the same can’t be said of The Prey, which struggles to create atmosphere through cutaways to nature footage that are, in most instances, quite obvious padding. The narrative limps along, with the odd moment of mayhem to punctuate it: at one point, during an extended detour from the main narrative, park ranger Mark tells a docile fawn the story of the wide-mouthed frog – which for many British viewers will be indelibly associated with the late comedian Dave Allen.

That said, although it’s not near the top-tier of slasher films and as a ‘backwoods’ slasher lacks the atmosphere of, say, Rituals or Just Before Dawn, The Prey has an indefinable, perhaps ironic, charm that many of the lower-tier regional slasher pictures of the era possess: fans of the likes of Don’t Go in the Woods will find plenty to enjoy here. Arrow’s presentation of the main feature is very, very good, and they have arguably gone above and beyond the call of duty in accompanying the theatrical cut of the film with the international cut and a composite edit. The disc is packed with an absolutely superb array of contextual material too, and for those interested in the logistics of production of regional slasher films of the 1970s and 1980s, the extra material on this release is worth the price of admission alone.

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