Not that long ago the video store was a mundane and sometimes obnoxious part of life; driving over to some lonesome strip mall with your friends or family to comb through the all-too-often disorganized shelves of your local shop, argue over a selection, and then be stuck with it, for good or ill. Yet, it was also sublime. And for those who lived during the true video boom, video stores also equate to another bygone commodity: VHS. When JVC’s Video Home System won the early-80’s format war, the motion picture market changed forever. The genre and B-movies that had previously filled drive-ins across the country now often went straight to VHS. Then DVD took the world by storm in the late-90’s. It was a brave new world, and sadly, many films never made the leap, trapped now on a dead format. These often aren’t “good” films, but goddammit, they were what made video stores great. For we here at CHUD are the kind of people who tended to skip over the main stream titles, our eyes settling on some bizarre, tantalizing cover for a film we’d never even heard of, entranced. These films are what VHS was all about. Some people are still keeping the VHS flame burning. People like me, whose Facebook page Collecting VHS is a showcase for the lost charms of VHS box artwork. With this column it is my intention to highlight these “lost” films and the only rule I have for myself is that they cannot be available on DVD.
Title: The Prey
Genre: Backwoods slasher
Tagline: It’s not human, and it’s got an axe!
Released by: Thorn EMI Video
Director: Edwin Scott Brown
Plot: Three young couples go hiking in the Colorado Rockies where they are hunted and killed by a disfigured creature that lives in the forest.
Thoughts: I have a real soft spot for the slasher films of the late seventies and eighties. Those movies have a gritty low budget quality that will never lose their charm on me and I’ll take the worst of the lot over any of the latest postmodern cut-em-ups any day of the week.
Especially some of the slashers that were released in the wake of the success of 1980’s Friday the 13th. A new subgenre emerged then known as the backwoods slasher. It would involve a group of young, horny teenagers going into the woods to camp or hike, only to be stalked and butchered by a deformed maniac of some sort. Some of the best of these were The Burning, Just Before Dawn, Madman and Humongous.
But have you ever heard of something called, The Prey? It was made pre-Friday the 13th in ’78, but was not released theatrically until ’84 by New World Pictures and then finally dropped on home video in ’88 by Thorn EMI. I found a used rental copy of it at a Korean video store that was going out of business a few years back along with another rare one from the same genre, The Final Terror. I had never watched the movie before, but I was familiar with the cover so I popped it in one late night for a look.
It starts with images of a blazing forest fire amid sounds of adults and children screaming in agony with a title card that tells us we are at The North Point, Keen Wild in 1948. Cut to a full moon night in 1980 at the same location where we see a nice middle-aged couple enjoying a campfire dinner together. The wife goes off for a walk by the lake while the husband hangs back and chops some more wood for the fire. An obligatory POV shot of the killer accompanied by a rapid heartbeat sound effect establishes we have a couple of deaths coming up. First, the hubbie gets his head chopped off with the very axe he was using. Then wifey runs back to the camp to catch the same blade in her skull. We’re off!
Guess what? A van filled with three horny young couples arrives on the scene who are planning on doing a hike up to the remote North Point and camp out in the woods. They come across a friendly park ranger who warns them of bears, but he’s preoccupied with the report of the missing middle-aged couple. Anyways, the kids hike all day and eventually set up camp for the night, where the obligatory scary campfire story is told, only for some inexplicable reason it has absolutely nothing to do with the previous tragic events and centers around a magic monkey’s paw (?). Meanwhile we can tell from the POV and heartbeat SFX that the monster is watching them all.
Later, the most obnoxious couple brilliantly splits off from the group so they can have sex in the woods, where they are both killed. The next morning the rest of the group are concerned and start to look for their missing friends, but eventually they give up and continue with the hike. Meanwhile we’re introduced to the head park ranger (played by The Addams Family’s Uncle Fester himself, Jackie Coogan) who tells the other park ranger we met earlier about a terrible fire a long time ago up in the North Point where a group of gypsies were burned to death, except for one horribly disfigured young boy. Then he sends the younger ranger up the mountain to find the missing couple and check for bears.
Meanwhile, the remaining two couples arrive at Suicide Peak where the boys go rock climbing while the girls stay behind and sunbathe. One of the young men scales the side of a high cliff, while the other one feeds him line. The monster drops by and effortlessly kills them both. Then it chases the girls through the woods where the lesser attractive of the two steps in a rope trap that smashes her head against a tree, killing her instantly. Then the park ranger shows up and darts the monster with a tranquilizer, but it is unfazed and rips our hero’s throat out. The monster then advances on the final survivor girl menacingly and the film cuts to images of fallen winter snow followed by budding flowers in the spring, suggesting a passage of time. The camera holds on a cave opening in the side of the mountain and we hear the sound of a baby crying. Monster just wanted to get some.
Okay, so we got ourselves a slasher movie here that’s not the best of the bunch, but sometimes slashers are like eating bad pizza when you’re drunk. No matter how awful it is, it still somehow hits the spot. The characters are so weakly drawn and amateurishly acted you can’t wait for the killing to begin. The pacing moves painfully slow at times, but there is a lot of beautiful scenic photography to look at and there’s an unpretentious quality to the movie as a whole that I find charming. It’s a simple by-the-numbers slasher, but with a real WTF?! ending that makes it all worthwhile. Finally, someone made a slasher movie where the maniac is actually hornier than the teenage victims!