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Sixty minutes of mostly-filler material give way to a surprisingly manic final twenty
In the greatest of 1980s-backwoods slasher traditions, "The Prey" follows a group of youthful campers who are exploring the Colorado Rockies. Little do they know, their hiking destination is also the stomping ground for a deformed killer disfigured in a forest fire decades prior.
Notorious for its convoluted production and release history (it seems few patent fact can be said in regard to either of these things; conflicting accounts from cast members abound, and director Edwin Scott, who made a name for himself in pornography, has never really commented on the film), "The Prey" is a film that I have affection for in spite of the fact that it's really quite badly put-together. The premise is very by-the-books so far as slashers are concerned, but the simplicity of it is strangely engaging. It's straightforward, no-frills, and good fun.
The film opens with a textbook nighttime slashing of an older camping couple before cutting to the youthful campers who are venturing into the same woods. The mountainous settings are remarkably atmospheric, at times recalling the also-maligned "Don't Go in the Woods" and the masterful "Just Before Dawn" (the latter is a far better film than "The Prey"; the former, not so much). The cinematography helps this significantly, and there is a true sense of wildness and danger as the characters venture through the barren terrain.
Where the film suffers quite remarkably is in its pacing, which is weighed down by repetitive, drawn-out stock footage of nature and wildlife. It's appropriate insofar as the "man vs. wild" theme is concerned here, but the director beats the audience over the head with it to the point of delirium. Given the film's brisk 80-minute runtime, it becomes clearer and clearer as the film plods along that the filmmakers really didn't know what they were doing, hence the proliferation of filler material. Also present is a flimsy storyline involving a park ranger and his boss (played by film legend Jackie Coogan) who relays the folktale about the killer and his origins.
An extended version of the film which runs 96 minutes was released in international markets, and this cut included an elongated backstory charting the villain's origins in a gypsy commune that burned to the ground after an act of arson; this is merely alluded to in the most widely available cut. The extended prologue also features drawn-out soft-core sex scenes between the gypsy villagers that ostensibly recall the director's previous talents as an adult filmmaker. This cut eliminates most of the filler nature footage, but I'd argue the shoehorned backstory renders it an actually worse film.
For all of its problems though, I do find "The Prey" to be worthwhile based merely on the last 20 minutes, which ramp up to be unspeakably tense. In a film that has managed to be so languorous and dull for its first hour, the final scenes achieve a sort of manic terror that is palpable and startling. The problem of course is that it takes an hour before any sort of tension really begins to come off the screen, but I'm not sure we could have one without the other-if the majority of the film wasn't as uneventful as it is, the finale likely wouldn't have the same impact it does by comparison.
Overall, I understand the qualms people have with the film, and it is fundamentally bad, but I can't help myself from admiring it for its finale, which manages to explode into a state of anxiety and fear that is both unexpected and masterful. Oh, and did I mention the gleefully demented final shot? Stock filler and cheapjack production aside, "The Prey" has a good film somewhere in it, buried under missed opportunities and wasted time. 6/10.
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