One of the great things about indie film, especially indie slasher film, is that it can venture where taste and decorum prevent mainstream movies from treading. This freedom is sometimes abused as a license for unmitigated gore, but occasionally it gives us an interesting movie like 1981’s “The Prowler.”

Not every movie could get away with casting a spurned veteran as its villain, especially not a WWII vet. Even in 1981, that generation was lionized for the austere morality of that conflict, set in sharp relief by the more controversial Vietnam War. And yet, “The Prowler” — out now on DVD from Blue Underground — ignores that attitude, and the result is a sly, strange statement about the stakes of war.

It’s also a bloody, terrifying, often sadistic slasher flick. The film opens in 1945, when a young woman named Rosemary, having dumped her soldier boyfriend through the mail, attends a snazzy graduation dance with her new beau. The set itself — a rambling white house strung with festive lights — is gorgeous, and a nice contrast to the bold red of the blood about to be shed. The couple leave the dance to find a secluded gazebo, where, mid-makeout, they are punctured with a pitchfork by an unknown man in a soldier’s uniform.

“The Prowler” is a war movie re-imagined as slasher flick. And its message is clear: Take your military heroes for granted and they will come back and kill you.

The murder becomes town lore. And when another graduation dance is held 35 years later, the killer turns up again, murdering kids like he’s behind enemy lines. One by one, students are lured away from the group to be gouged and gored, while the heroine (a plucky Vicky Dawson) and hero (Christopher Goutman) lurk in dark, empty houses. The movie’s title could refer to Dawson herself, who prowls her dorm and the nearby cemetery to solve the mystery.

Director Joseph Zito (“Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter“) has a good sense of gore, but the scares in “The Prowler” are only so-so. In addition to indulging far too many false jumps, he repeats some scenes almost shot for shot. The first time our heroine is left alone in a jeep, it’s unbearably threatening. The doors are only canvas after all, and a knife or pitchfork could puncture them easily. But the second and third time, it’s just dull. And the final act, the very last gotcha scare, is out of nowhere, a clumsy epilogue that does and says nothing.

Still, the movie is shot gorgeously, which comes through on the Blu-Ray version. Zito gives the gore a cinematic quality rather than the grainy luridness common to the genre: Grisly violence has perhaps never been captured so lovingly as in one swimming pool kill, shot almost entirely underwater.

For all its boldness of concept and carnage, “The Prowler” is never entirely satisfying. There are too many missed opportunities to transcend the genre’s schlock, too many passages where nothing happens, too many scares that fall flat. Still, it’s an intriguing artifact of an earlier horror-movie era, one that toys with the idea of villains and victims while slashing the slasher formula to bits.

Written by Express contributor Stephen M. Deusner
Photo courtesy Blue Underground