The Prey’s The Thing: THE PROWLER (Sandhurst Films 1981)

While flipping through the channels late one Saturday night, I came across a title called THE PROWLER. It was not a remake of the 1951 film noir directed by Joseph Losey and starring Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes, but a slasher shocker with a couple of noir icons in the cast, namely Lawrence Tierney and Farley Granger. Intrigued by this, I decided what the hell, let’s give it a watch! And though Tierney and Granger are in it, their screen time is limited, and I discovered the real star of this film is makeup/special effects wizard Tom Savini.

The plot is your basic “psycho-killer on the loose terrorizing coeds” retread, but the backstory was enough to hook me. We begin with newsreel footage of the troops returning home from WWII in 1945, and a graduation dance at a California college. Pretty young Rosemary Chapman, who wrote her soldier boy a Dear John letter, is with her new beau out in a secluded area, when suddenly a masked, pitchfork-wielding soldier sneaks up and brutally murders them both, leaving one red rose in Rosemary’s hand. (Side note: the MC at the dance is played by Carleton Carpenter, who had a brief career as an MGM star in the early fifties, and scored a #1 hit record dueting with Debbie Reynolds on “Aba Daba Honeymoon”). Flash forward to 1980, and the college coeds are about to stage their first graduation dance in thirty-five years. Senior Pam McDonald is dating Deputy Sheriff Mark London, who’s put in charge of things while his boss Sheriff Frazer (Granger) leaves for a fishing trip. Old Major Chapman (Tierney), who likes to watch the coeds undress from his home across from the dorm, disapproves of staging another dance at the scene of his daughter’s death. Oh, and there’s a robber/killer in the neighborhood, and enough suspicious characters in town to fill a police lineup, like simple-minded delivery man-boy Otto!

After some exposition introducing us to the future victims (intercut with our masked killer preparing for carnage), we get down to the gore! A young lad gets ready to join his ladylove in the shower, when suddenly The Prowler attacks, stabbing him through the head with his bayonet, then impaling said showering girl under the running water with his pitchfork, leading to a fairly neat transition scene of coeds cutting cake at the big dance (complete with a generically lame 80’s rock band). Pam and Mark have a tiff, and when he accidentally spills punch on her dress (spiked, of course!), she heads back to the dorm to change. Big mistake, Pam, for the killer is still in the house, and though she manages to escape, he stalks her, when suddenly she’s grabbed by the wheelchair-bound Major. Breaking free of the geezer’s clutches, she runs headlong into Mark, uttering the obvious words, “Someone was chasing me”. No shit, Pam!

Our heroes decide to investigate the Major’s house, and though he’s nowhere in sight, we get more exposition about the 1945 psycho-soldier who was never found, including a red rose pressed in a photo album. The next victim is attacked in a pool, her throat slashed by that bayonet, followed quickly by a slaughtered chaperone who gets it through the neck. While a couple of horny kids (one of whom is Thom Bray, soon to gain fame as nerdy Boz on TV’s RIPTIDE) sneak down to the basement for some private canoodling, Pam and Mark do some more investigating at the local cemetery, discovering Rosemary’s grave unearthed and the pool victim’s body in place of the deceased. Returning to the Major’s house, the lights are cut off and Mark is knocked unconscious. The lights go back on, and Pam finds Rosemary’s decaying body stuffed up the chimney, then she’s once again stalked by the masked psycho-soldier through the house. Hightailing it up to Rosemary’s old, sheet-covered room, our girl hides in the first place any self-respecting killer would look, under the bed! But apparently, the psycho-soldier (or the screenwriters) hadn’t seen enough of these films, because he trashes the room looking everywhere EXCEPT UNDER THE BED!

Pam bolts to another room, and somehow manages to trap the killer’s pitchfork in the door, snapping the tines off (what, now she’s Wonder Woman?). He bursts through the door and is about to claim another victim when suddenly (things happen suddenly in these films, have you noticed?) he’s blown away by… simple-minded Otto (and what’s he doing there, anyway?). But it’s not that easy to kill a psycho-killer in this kind of movie, and after wasting Otto, The Prowler tussles with Pam, unmasking as (SPOILER ALERT) Sheriff Frazer! Pam reaches for the gun and Blows His Head Clean Off in a gruesome special effect by Savini that scared the beejezus out of me (well after all, it was late at night!). There’s one final scene involving Pam that’s fairly startling and we’re done.

You can throw logic out the window while watching THE PROWLER, as it’s full of unanswered questions: Why is Sheriff Frazer on a killing spree? Was he the original soldier that killed Rosemary? What happened to Major Chapman? Did he just vanish into thin air? Why didn’t the killer waste Mark instead of knocking him out? Why didn’t he look under the damn bed? Where the hell did Otto come from? And what of those two horny teens in the basement? Did they get killed, or did the nerdy Thom Bray finally get lucky? Director Joseph Zito and screenwriters Neal Barbera (son of TV cartoon king Joe Barbera) and Glenn Leopold (who wrote for Hanna-Barbera) leave a lot of strings hanging, and though it’s slow-moving in places, especially during those exposition scenes, the film still manages to generate some suspense and plenty of frights courtesy of the great Tom Savini. Zito would go on to direct some big hits for Chuck Norris (MISSING IN ACTION, INVASION USA), the Dolph Lundgren starrer RED SCORPION, and Jason Voorhees himself in FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER (which as we all know wasn’t the final chapter after all).

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Besides the all-too-brief appearances by Granger (THEY LIVE BY NIGHT , Hitchcock’s ROPE and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN), Tierney (who doesn’t even rate a speaking part; he just sits in his wheelchair looking menacing) and those previously mentioned, the cast is for the most part unknown. Vicky Dawson (Pam) came from the world of Soap Operas, and once costarred in the short-lived Saturday morning series HOT HERO SANDWICH, which was evidentially geared toward pre-teens discovering the wonderful world of puberty! Christopher Goutman (Mark) also came from the soaps, as both an actor and later a director. The rest of the players aren’t anybody I’ve (or probably you, unless you’re one of them or their relative) ever heard of, but that’s okay. Slasher films like THE PROWLER weren’t meant to be star vehicles, they’re instead all about the gore, and as I said earlier the real star of THE PROWLER is Tom Savini and his genius in making this outrageous stuff look believable enough to scare the pants off you. He certainly succeeded with this little gore-fest, especially if you’re watching late at night… alone in the dark!

 

Number One With A Bullet: Lawrence Tierney in DILLINGER (Monogram 1945)

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Poverty Row Monogram Studios found themselves with a huge hit on their hands when they released DILLINGER, making a star out of an obscure actor named Lawrence Tierney in the process. This King Brothers production brought the gangster movie back in big way, with Tierney’s ferocious performance turning him into a film noir icon. DILLINGER burst the Kings out of the B-movie bracket, and gave the little studio its first major Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.

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The saga of bank robber John Dillinger should be familiar to most of you through its myriad film portrayals, so let’s skip the story and go straight to Tierney. Though the film bills him as “Introducing Lawrence Tierney”, the RKO contract player had been in films a couple years playing bit parts in movies like GHOST SHIP and BACK TO BATAAN when his home studio loaned him out to the Kings. The New York-born actor took the part and ran away with it, making Dillinger an animalistic, ruthless psychopath who lets no one and nothing stand in his way. Tierney’s bone-chillingly scary throughout, whether slicing up a waiter who once slighted him with a broken beer mug, or picking up an axe when he spies one of his mob trying to take it on the lam. Most of the violence takes place offscreen, but Tierney’s brutish presence leaves the viewer no doubt he’s going to go through with it. After he’s captured once, Tierney utters the immortal line, “No tank town jail can hold me, I’ll be out before the month”, and you believe him. Cold, cruel, and calculating, Lawrence Tierney’s John Dillinger sits high in the pantheon of great movie villains.

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Tierney’s surrounded by a great supporting cast, rare for a Monogram picture. Anne Jeffreys also came over from RKO to play Helen, Dillinger’s moll and the infamous ‘Lady in Red’ (in fact, the whole movie has that RKO noir feel to it). Miss Jeffreys, usually associated with lighter fare, here is as hard-boiled a dame as there is, and was a good pairing with Tierney. I’m happy to report the future star of TV’s TOPPER is still alve and well at age 93, one of the last of the old-time greats still around with us (oh, how I’d love to interview her!). Dillinger’s gang of crooks consists of rock-solid veterans, chief among them Edmond Lowe as Specs, Dillinger’s cell mate and crime mentor who gets a bullet in the gut when his betrayal is discovered. Eduardo Ciannelli takes the role of Marco, acne-scarred Marc Lawrence is Doc, and everybody’s favorite slimeball Elisha Cook Jr.  rounds out the crew as Kirk. Other Familiar Faces are Victor Kilian, Ralph Lewis, Lou Lubin , George McKay, Dewey Robinson, Ludwig Stossel, Ernest Whitman, and Constance Worth.

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This being a Monogram movie, budget cuts are expected. The robbery scene, where the gang uses smoke bombs to heist an armored car, was lifted from Fritz Lang’s 1937 YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (again, that RKO connection). Footage from Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse cartoon GALLOPIN’ ROMANCE also appears when Dillinger and Helen make their ill-fated visit to the Biograph Theater, as does audio from MGM’s MANHATTAN MELODRAMA, the actual film Dillinger went to see before his demise. Director Max Nosseck was one of the many German refugees plying their trade in Hollywood, and he keeps things economical, aided immensely by Cinematographer Jackson Rose. Nosseck would again direct Tierney in a pair of tough films, THE HOODLUM and KILL OR BE KILLED.

Philip Yordan’s uncompromising screenplay was Oscar nominated, but lost out to an obscure Swiss film I’ve never even heard of titled MARIE-LOUISE. Yordan felt he should have won, and I don’t blame him. His compact, concrete-hard script is raw and edgy, a blueprint for gangster and noir films to come. I suppose Monogram chief Steve Broidy was just happy to be mentioned in the conversation with the larger studios, and Yordan would finally get his due in 1954 for the Western BROKEN LANCE. He had uncredited help on DILLINGER from his friend, director William Castle, for whom he’d written the excellent “B” WHEN STRANGERS MARRY. Philip Yordan’s resume includes ANNA LUCASTA, DETECTIVE STORY, JOHNNY GUITAR, THE HARDER THEY FALL (Bogart’s last film), DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, KING OF KINGS, BATTLE OF THE BULGE, and CAPTAIN APACHE among many, many others.

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There seems to be a debate among film buffs (like with PHANTOM LADY ) about whether DILLINGER classifies as film noir or is strictly in the gangster category. I fall squarely in the noir camp, as it has all the elements of a classic noir: the protagonist heading toward a downward spiral, the femme fatale who betrays him, shadowy cinematography, hard-bitten dialog, and sudden outbursts of unexpected violence. No matter which side you’re on, I can assure you DILLINGER is a classic example of how to make a low-budget film work that you’ll enjoy watching over and over again.

Halloween Havoc!: GHOST SHIP (RKO 1943)

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Val Lewton produced some of the most memorable horror films of the 1940’s, moody, atmospheric set pieces noted for their intelligent scripts, chiaroscuro lighting, and eerie use of sound. CAT PEOPLE, THE BODY SNATCHER,  and THE SEVENTH VICTIM  are just three that spring to mind when I think of Lewton movies. GHOST SHIP is one of his lesser known films, a psychological thriller about a sea captain obsessed with authority who goes off the deep end, and while it’s not supernatural as the title implies, it’s a good film worth rediscovering.

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A blind street singer on a fog-shrouded corner gives an ominous warning to 3rd Officer Tom Merriam, about to embark on his first voyage aboard the S.S. Altair, captained by veteran sailor Will Stone. Stone is stern but friendly, eager to teach Tom the ways of the sea, and implement his view’s of the captain’s authority. A crewman dies just before they’re about to set sail, victim of an apparent heart attack, and Stone, claiming “he was an old man”, launches without a replacement. A freshly painted grappling hook is left unsecured by the captain’s orders, despite Tom’s protestations. When the Altair hits rough seas, the crew risk their lives to secure it, and Tom learns his first lesson about questioning the captain’s authority.

When another sailor has an appendicitis attack, radioman Sparks puts in a ship-to-shore call to a doctor. Stone is unable to perform the delicate operation, and has Tom take over. Loyal officer Tom gives Stone the credit, as the captain explain he has the power if life and death over his men. We can see the cracks in Stone’s armor are beginning to show.

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Crewman Louie (an uncredited Lawrence Tierney ) dares to question Stone’s authority when he complains about being down two crewmen now. Stone once again offers an explaination for his actions, telling Louie before he leaves, ” There are some captain’s who’d hold this against you”. Later, Louie is down in the hold as the crew drop a massive chain down, and Stone locks him in, causing the sailor to be crushed to death. Tom sees him below, and accuses him of deliberately killing Louie. An inquest is held at the port of San Sebastian, and the sailors all side with the captain, even ‘The Greek’ who praises Stone for saving his life during his medical crisis. Tom is crestfallen and plans on leaving the Altair and settling up in San Sebastian.

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But Tom is knocked unconscious while break up a fight with the sailors in front of a bar, and shanghaied back to the Altair. Stone offers him the ship’s  hospitality, but reminds his former 3rd officer, “There are some captain’s who’d hold this against you”. The crewmen all give Tom the cold shoulder, even his friend Sparks. Tom returns to his quarters to find his door lock’s been tampered with, as well as his porthole. A wire comes through asking if Tom’s aboard, and when Stone tells Sparks to reply “no”, his supicions are aroused. Tom heads to the gun cabinet only to find Stone waiting for him. “Authority cannot be questioned”, says the unhinged captain. A wire comes through asking if Tom’s aboard, and when tone tells Sparks to reply “no”, the radioman’s suspicions are aroused. Sparks goes to Tom and says he’ll help him, but he’s intercepted by Stone. The captain then asks Tom to help send a wire, informing the shore that Sparks has gone overboard. The two men fight and the crew breaks it up, with orders from the captain to restrain and sedate Tom. The mute seaman Finn (whose inner thoughts we hear throughout the film) finds the wire and shows it to his mates. Stone overhears the men talking about the situation, and he completely snaps, hearing voices in his head saying “Maybe the boy is right”. He grabs a cutlass and heads to Tom’s cabin, murder in his eyes…

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The horror is strictly psychological here, there are no demons, zombies, or cat people, only the psychotic Captain Stone. Veteran actor Richard Dix (the Academy Award winning CIMARRON, THE WHISTLER series) gives a Queeg-like performance as the sea captain slowly descending into madness. Russell Wade(THE BODY SNATCHER) is fine as Tom, and Lewton regulars Edith Barrett (the only female in the cast), Ben Bard, Dewey Robinson, and calypso singer Sir Lancelot are also in the cast.

This is the American debut of actor Skelton Knaggs, playing the mute Finn. Knaggs had the creepiest looking face this side of Rondo Hatton, resembling a living skeleton, and has a long list of small but pivotal roles in horror films: THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, ISLE OF THE DEAD, HOUSE OF DRACULA, TERROR BY NIGHT, and BEDLAM, usually uncredited. He’s one of those actors whose name you may not recognize, but that face is unforgettable:

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Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography is outstanding as always, and Mark Robson’s direction keeps this GHOST SHIP taut with suspense. Most readers are familiar with Lewton’s greatest hits, but this quiet, gripping little film is worth seeking out. While GHOST SHIP isn’t out-and-out horror, I think you’ll find it quite a treat for your Halloween movie basket.

Beyond Redemption: 1947’s BORN TO KILL

The darker side of man (and woman) is on full display in 1947’s BORN TO KILL. Sex, violence, greed, blackmail, lust, and murder abound in this mean little film. It’s loaded with crackling hard boiled dialogue (example: “You’re the coldest iceberg of a woman I ever saw, with the rottenest insides”) by screenwriters Eve Green and Richard Macauley. BORN TO KILL shows the RKO film noir style at it’s moodiest peak. It’s hard to believe the director is the same man who helmed the sticky sweet Oscar winning THE SOUND OF MUSIC!

Robert Wise got his start in RKO’s sound editing room, graduating to film editor in 1939. He was nominated for Best Editing for Orson Welles’ classic CITIZEN KANE and was soon promoted to the director’s chair, working with producer Val Lewton on psychological horror gems like CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE and THE BODY SNATCHER (with the great terror tandem of Karloff and Lugosi). His resume includes bonafide classics like THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, I WANT TO LIVE!, WEST SIDE STORY, THE HAUNTING, and the aforementioned saga of the Von Trapp Family. But without a shadow of a doubt, his toughest movie is BORN TO KILL.

We begin in Reno, where Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) has just obtained a divorce. She’s been staying at a rooming house run by Mrs. Kraft, a blowsy, boozy old coot who lives vicariously through her next door neighbor, loose woman Laury Palmer (an ancestor of TWIN PEAK’s Laura, perhaps?). Laury’s got her eye on a new hunk, and plans on going out with another man to get him jealous. She describes him as “the quiet sort…yet you get the feeling if you step out of line, he’ll kick your teeth in”.

Helen goes to a casino that night and catches the eye of handsome brute Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney). She bumps into Laury and her date, and Sam’s face turns stone cold. When Laury and the young buck go to her place for a nightcap, Sam is there waiting. He mercilessly beats them both to death. Leaving the house, he sees Helen coming down the street, and ducks into a back alley. Helen notices Laury’s dog wandering outside, and she brings him home, where she discovers the murdered couple. Instead of calling the cops, she calls the train station to buy a ticket back to San Francisco.

Sam goes back to the hotel room he shares with his pal Marty ( Elisha Cook, Jr of THE MALTESE FALCON), and coldly relates the night’s events. Marty tells Sam to high-tail it out of town until the heat dies down. Sam strikes up a conversation with Helen at the railroad station. The two recognize each other from the casino. The sexual tension between them is so thick  you could cut it with a switchblade. When Helen tells him she’s headed back to San Fran, Sam decides that’s where he’s going, too.

Down on his heels private detective Albert Arnett (Walter Slezak) is hired by Mrs. Kraft to investigate the murder of her friend Laury. Arnett’s a verse-spouting weasel looking to make a fast buck off the old dame. He snoops around and spots Marty at various places connected to the crime. When Marty goes to join his pal in San Francisco, Arnett follows.

Helen is back home with her rich fiancé Fred and rich step-sister Georgia. She herself doesn’t have a dime, and connives her way through life on their money. Sam drops by Georgia’s mansion, and the four of them go out to a swanky nightclub. Sam sees right through Helen’s façade regarding Fred. When he discovers that Georgia is loaded, he quickly turns his charm on her. Helen sits there seething while Sam and Georgia dance a little TOO close.

Sam and Georgia marry, with Helen as the green-eyed maid of honor. Arnett slips into the wedding party washing dishes for food, and asking a lot of nosy questions about Sam. Helen has him thrown out, and announces to the happy couple she’ll be moving in with a friend. Georgia won’t hear of it, and insists she stay. So does Sam, who’s still hot for his new sister-in-law. While they’re on their honeymoon, Helen meets with Mart, and persuades him to move into his best friend’s new digs.

The honeymoon doesn’t last long, as the couple return arguing about Sam wanting to take over the family newspaper. He’s voted down, and storms out of the room. Later, Helen and Sam meet in the kitchen for  secret rendezvous. She tells him she knows about the killings, which seems to turn them both on. (Helen: “You’re adventure, excitement, depravity. There’s a kind of corruptness inside you”) Mart walks in on them as they lock lips, and Helen leaves the room in silent ecstasy.

She calls Arnett and they clandestinely meet in the shadows of the Golden Gate bridge. She offers him five grand to get off the case, but Arnett, knowing Helen has rich connections, won’t settle for less than fifteen (“Obstructing the wheels of justice is a costly affair”). Helen states she’ll need some time. Meanwhile, drunken old Mrs. Kraft has come to the city for an update. Arnett tells her the trail has gone cold, knowing he can make more by blackmailing Helen, but milks her for expense money anyway.  Mart has followed Arnett to Kraft’s room, and sweet talks her into meeting him later to give her the identity of Laury’s killer. He lays the smooth talk on her and the old sot is willing to take a chance.

Mart confronts Helen at the house, warning her to steer clear of Sam, and she throws him out of her room. Sam spots him coming out, and can barely contain his rage. Mart and Sam discuss what to do about nosy Mrs. Kraft, and the plan is for Mart to kill her. Mart meets her in a deserted part of town and attempts to stab her, but Sam comes up from behind and murders his friend for his perceived betrayal with Helen.

Things get really juicy from there, as Fred dumps Helen, Helen tells Georgia about Sam, the police pound on the door, Sam chases Helen up the stairs, he shoots through the bedroom door at her, the cops blast Sam, and find Helen with a gunshot right in her devious gut. As Arnett is about to leave town, he picks up a newspaper and reads about the grisly demise of Sam and Helen. Shaking his head, he quotes from Provebs 12:15. “The way of the transgressor is hard. More’s the pity, more’s the pity”.

Lawrence Tierney is terrific as the sociopathic Sam. He shot to fame in 1945’s DILLINGER. He had an up and down career, mostly down due to his excesses, but made a small comeback later in life as the boss in Tarantino’s RESERVOIR DOGS, and as Elaine’s father in a hilarious episode of SEINFELD. Claire Trevor was called “Queen of Film Noir” for her roles in MURDER MY SWEET, RAW DEAL, and her Academy Award winning performance in John Huston’s KEY LARGO. BORN TO KILL is filled with great character actors like Cook, Slezak, Esther Howard, Isabel Jewell, and Phillip Terry, and a must see movie for fans of lowdown and dirty film noir at it sleazy best!