Jackie Coogan is an iconic child star from the silent film era. He made his film debut at the age of 3 in the 1917 film SKINNER’S BABY. He played the baby. More famously he played the title character in the 1921 Charlie Chaplin movie THE KID.
His last movie to come out was 63 years later, and it was THE PREY. (If IMDb trivia is to believed, though, it was filmed in ’78, so it wasn’t the last thing he shot.)
I gotta admit, I kinda fell behind on Slasher Search here. I got into rewatching various horror classics, and I feel good about that. But I realized it was almost Halloween and I had done very few obscure slasher movies, so I got desperate. I rented 5 still-only-on-VHS movies that I knew little or nothing about, and by the time I got to watching them I didn’t even remember what most of them were. This was just on the top of the pile.
THE PREY was filmed in some woods somewhere (possibly Utah) by director Edwin Brown, a guy who mostly did sex movies like ALL ABOUT ANNETTE, A THOUSAND AND ONE EROTIC NIGHTS I-II, and the EVERY WOMAN HAS A FANTASY trilogy. The simple premise sounds up my alley: In 1948 there was a forest fire, and a bunch of gypsies died in the fire. In 1980 some young people (including Lori Lethin, the Final Girl from BLOODY BIRTHDAY) go camping in these isolated woods and are stalked by a survivor of that fire, a weird burnt up giant who lives in a cave.
Unfortunately there is pretty much no imagination or nuance of any kind anywhere in this movie, and the absolute bare minimum is put into defining these campers as characters or making them have any personality or believability. Without real characters or good filmatism it’s pretty boring when it gets to the point of slo-mo shots of them running and screaming.
There’s one girl named Gail (Gayle Gannes, THE JUNKMAN) who almost gets killed because she lags behind to brush her hair. There are a bunch of couples so they show them going swimming together, then cuddling or whatever. Maybe the one unusual thing they do is there’s a girl who shampoos her boyfriends hair while they’re sitting on a big rock next to the water.
Of course, there is some sex. Not real graphic like you might expect from a porno director’s one mainstream film, but more like you expect in a bottom of the barrel slasher movie. I laughed when one of the dudes offered his bro this advice: “First you play it real cool. Snuggle up in the ol’ sleeping bag… and then FFFFFTTTTT. Slip it right to ‘er!”
Then it cuts to the girls in another part of the woods, having a different picture of how it’s gonna go down. “It’s gonna be so romantic!” one of them swoons.
There’s some male bonding, for example they go to pee at the same time and one of them says “Hey, watch the leg!” Fun stuff like that.
Meanwhile, back at the ranger station there’s a young hunky ranger named Joel (Chippendale/Playgirl model Steve Bond) and an older one named Lester Tile (Coogan) having a conversation about cucumber sandwiches. This is the most personality in the movie. Coogan gets to goof around and then gives a monologue about how he’s never told anybody this before but decades ago he saw a burnt up kid hiding in those woods where those kids are staying and he has a bad feeling about them staying there. So Joel agrees to check it out. That seems like a pretty flimsy reason to go investigate, but I think he actually just wants to go talk to some cute girls instead of keep hearing about these fucking sandwiches.
The slasher part of the movie is not very elaborate, but at least a guy gets decapitated. The opening scene is kind of fun because it’s not some youths in a lover’s lane that get killed, it’s a couple of campers (Ted Hayden and Connie Hunter) old enough to be grandparents. “Good chow,” the man says about their dinner. A couple of squares here. The wife goes for a walk while the husband smokes his old man pipe and sharpens his ax. This was bad timing because “the monster” comes and uses the ax for purposes other than chopping wood.
The killer’s best move is when two of the dudes are rock climbing on “Suicide Peak.” One of them is just standing at the top looking down at the other dude, who is rappelling down. The killer comes up behind the guy, I thought he would push him off, but instead he lifts him up and crushes him. Then he starts yanking on the rope, bashing the other guy against the rocks! Sadly he just cuts the rope after that. It would’ve been pretty unique if he kept conking him on the side of the cliff until he was done.
The cover of the VHS tape says “It’s not human, and it has an axe!” Two nitpicks: the guy in the movie is human, and he doesn’t seem to have the ax anymore after the opening scene. He just uses his bare hands. Otherwise I 100% agree with this tagline.
The axless human is played by Carel Struycken, the 7′ tall giant best known from Twin Peaks and from playing Lurch in the ADDAMS FAMILY movies. You actually only see his hands, or less, for most of the movie, he couldn’t have much more than a minute of screen time after they finally reveal him at the end. I bet he spent longer putting on the makeup than filming. But it’s kinda cool when they show him. Then the ranger shoots him with a tranquilizer dart, stares at his watch for a minute, tackles him and hits him with a stick.
As usual it’s hard to know what the movie really looked like before it became a cropped VHS, but judging from that transfer the photography is ugly and there’s not alot of atmosphere. The funniest thing about the movie is how far it goes overboard in using nature footage. Some of the creatures you will see stock footage of include frogs, a raccoon, an eagle, a baby bear, a rattlesnake, a woodpecker, ants, an owl, a salamander, a centipede, a bee pollinating a flower, a spider building a web, a spider capturing a moth in his web, a millipede, a tarantula, some hawks, some vultures. There’s one part where the ranger is shown in the same shot as a vulture, so the overlong scene of vultures chewing on a carcass that turns out to be Gayle might be the one scene of animals or insects that was actually shot specifically for this movie. This is actually pretty funny filmatism here, an overlong series of shock cuts as Joel is horrified by the dead body and remembers himself ignoring Jackie Coogan’s advice to bring a real gun with him.
It’s funny how often they cut to the nature montages. The old couple gets killed at night, cut to footage of insects in the morning dew. Burnt up feral gypsy giant steals a girl, cut to tulips and a butterfly and birds chirping. So it’s got some laughs despite an overall boringness.
Another thing mentioned in IMDb trivia is that Empire bought it and cut out 15 minutes, including scenes of the gypsy camp that burns in the fire. Here is an IMDb commenter who says he was in the scene and that they had real gypsies playing authentic music. That’s funny because the movie just has stock footage of a forest fire with crying and moaning dubbed over it. It’s an embarrassing opening to the movie, but completely in line with the cheapness of the rest of the movie. You’d think if they had some flavor and production value in that opening they coulda kept part of it and trimmed one of the nature montages or something.
Oh well. I for one appreciated that it was only 80 minutes long. That’s a good length for something like this.
Another highlight is the ad for other EMI Thorn video releases at the end of the tape. There’s a trailer for FIRST BLOOD and a nice list of other titles – including “DEEP RED (THE HATCHET MURDERS)” – under some groovy elevator music.