As this final Summer of Blood arrives at the slasher boom of the 1980s, it feels like a homecoming. For this is where we belong, truly: in the gutter trash world of miserably formulaic thrillers, propped up only by their most exploitative element and frequently by nothing at all. And while it's surprisingly willing to break with formula, director Joseph Zito's The Prowler, an independent release from the slasher's artistic peak year of 1981, certainly fits the second half of that summary. For the gore effects, by the justifiably legendary make-up designer Tom Savini, are as good as it gets, so persuasive and bold that they were cut to almost nothing by the reliably nervous censors in the United Kingdom, while winning Savini's praise as the work of which he is proudest from his estimable career. And there's damn little else about the movie that's of any particular merit at all. What the movie does best, perhaps, is to point out that just because a slasher film finds way to up-end and re-imagine all the usual formula signposts, it's not inherently the case that it will be good as a result of doing all of that.

And sure enough, The Prowler isn't much damn good at all, though it keeps promising that it will be, for serious, any minute now, just keep being patient. But it definitely starts out on the most unconventional footing it can manage. I beg you to tell me, how many slasher movies can you name that would have the guts to make this their very first image?

The next ten minutes are beyond doubt the weirdest and most interesting The Prowler has to offer; they're frankly among the weirdest and most interesting in the whole slasher movie Class of '81. And they are also typical of all the things that can frequently make the movie a frustrating, limited experience, since we find the movie trying three different times to start itself: first with this newsreel proclaiming the return of Our Boys from Europe following VE Day. Then it goes backwards, I think, to a letter by Rosemary Chatham, sorrowfully confessing to her boyfriend overseas (left without a name) that she just can't keep waiting, and she needs to let him go. Then it goes forward to 28 June, 1945, where the town of Avalon Bay is celebrating its graduation day dance, and we get to meet Rosemary in the flesh (Joy Glaccum), along with her new fella Roy (Timothy Wahrer), in a sequence that takes its nice, sweet time establishing the place of 1945 with remarkable attention to sound, costume, and behavior. It's not any kind of robust historical docudrama, or anything silly like that. But for a movie designed for no purpose other than removing teenagers from their dollars on the promise of violence and the odd pair of naked breasts, The Prowler's evocation of the '40s is surprisingly earnest.

Let us please not pretend that it's any more than what it is: the same exact first scene from dozens of other slashers, some of which had already been made by the time this film came out. It's the scene set in the past that shows how the killer started his career and sets up the scenario for the present-day sequences (no, tragically, The Prowler is not set in its entirety in the summer of '45; if it were, it's a dead certainty that it would be my favorite slasher movie of all time). And sure enough, just when Rosemary and Roy have sneaked away to spend some time alone, they're set upon by a man wearing the uniform of a U.S. infantryman, who pins them both together with a pitchfork. The attentive will note that this had already happened earlier in 1981, albeit with a different weapon, in Friday the 13th, Part 2, and in both cases the filmmakers were undoubtedly stealing primarily from Mario Bava's Bay of Blood/Twitch of the Death Nerve. Of course, that's because it's a great image that gets to the hard of the entire project of the slasher film: garish violence as a surrogate and punishment for sex. But it's also telling that in only its second year of widespread mainstream existence, the slasher film was already obliged to recycling ideas in such a conspicuous way.

The death of Rosemary and Roy throws us to the opening credits and thence into the future by exactly 35 years: now it's 28 June, 1980, the day of the graduation dance in Avalon Bay (this is a college graduation, not the more typical slasher setting of high school). Moreover, the day of the first graduation dance in Avalon Bay since that fatal one; Rosemary's father, Major Chatham (Lawrence Tierney, barely present), the town's foremost citizen, has spent every one of the last years using his influence to prevent the resurrection of this most hated reminder of his personal tragedy. But he has descended into weakness and senescence, and local student Pam MacDonald (Vicky Dawson) has spearheaded a movement to bring back the old tradition. And the attentive will notice that this also already happened earlier in 1981, in the form of My Bloody Valentine. For which we must surely only blame parallel evolution, though it's a weirdly specific case of that.

And at this point, The Prowler certainly becomes a much more typical slasher movie than the opening promised, though it still has some tricks up its sleeve. Pam has two roommates, Sherry (Lisa Dunsheath) and Lisa (Cindy Weintraub), who pretty neatly slot into "the slutty one" and "the pothead who's also, as it happens, the slutty one" stereotypes, while Pam is pretty significantly neither of those things. Pam does have a boyfriend, though, Deputy Mark London (Christopher Goutman), who has been put in charge briefly while Sheriff Fraser (Farley Granger) is on a fishing trip. And this will prove to be a very useful contact. See, Pam and Lisa are ready to head to the dance while Sherry's still getting ready and waiting for her boyfriend Carl (David Sederholm). He shows up, interrupting her in what I can only think of as a parody of the Psycho shower scene, and then a moment or two later is stabbed in the head with a bayonet, in one of the great triumphs of Savini's or anybody else's career. It's such a phenomenal piece of prop-making that Zito lingers on it well past any point of taste or even sense: as we watch Carl writhing and struggling for almost a minute against an attack that should have killed him almost instantly, it goes from scary to unnecessarily gross to silly. But it's never less than mind-blowing technique.

The same thing holds true for Sherry's death a moment later: she's attacked with a pitchfork in the shower, and it's filmed from every showcase angle that Zito and cinematographer JoΓ£o Fernandes can scrounge up. This time it never quite manages to round the corner to "silly", since this whole time the victim is wet and topless - in fact, The Prowler is unique to my slasher film knowledge in that its one and only boob scene is completely contained within one of its gore scenes. And that somehow feels crueler and more exploitative than if there had been some utterly extraneous nude scene just for the hell of it.

But morality and taste and sense all aside, the twin killings here are the best The Prowler will ever have to offer again. Back at the dance, Mark dances with another girl and earns Pam's ire; while trying to apologise, he manages to spill punch on her dress, earning even more. When she storms back to the dorms to change, she crosses paths with the man in the infantry uniform, and escapes from his clutches, after a discomfiting run-in with Major Chatham. And that's how, just about one-third of the way through its 89-minute running time, The Prowler has already entered, in a very vague way, its Final Girl sequence (as it were; this film leaves many more people alive than the phrase "Final Girl" implies), as the rest of the movie becomes an investigation by Pam and Mark into who the prowler and what he's up to (Sherry and Carl's bodies go undiscovered until the titanic pile of bullshit that is the movie's last scene), while just enough people trickle out of the dance to end up in the path of his bayonet and pitchfork.

The strengths and considerable weaknesses of the film are basically identical: Zito likes to keep things moving slow. When that results in giving Savini's gore effects a nice long showcase, or spending plenty of time building the '40s atmosphere that makes the opening sequence such a quirky experience, it's great, and makes The Prowler one of the most distinguished slashers of its era. But far more often, the result is a scene, stretching out for minutes and minutes, of nothing whatsoever happening while Pam and Mark stand around in the dark looking at clues and never putting together what's obvious to us from literally before the movie has even started: Rosemary's ex-boyfriend killed her and Roy in '45, and now that the dance is happening again, he's gone crazy and is killing again because of psycho killer reasons. Unless the contemporary killer is Major Chatham, raging against the bastard kids who've ripped open the memory of Rosemary's death. Either way, that leaves us with just two candidates for the title of the killer, and the one who isn't guilty vanishes out of the movie with no explanation.

But that's just an annoyance, sloppy writing of the kind that happens all the time in low-rent horror. It's the lingering that really makes The Prowler such a dispiriting experience; the waiting around in dark rooms for anything to happen, while quietly, sadly being certain that it will not. In the hands of great filmmakers, this would be potentially great material for turning the heat on real low and letting the film boil us alive; the tension crawling up our spines and making the movie almost unbearable by the end of it, in the best possible way. "Unbearable" would be overstating things - Dawson is an appealingly grounded protagonist for a slasher movie, and she helps to make the thing at least slightly interesting on a human level in between the moments that it's excitingly gory.

It is, though, atrociously dull, and that gets us into the neighborhood of unbearable, anyway. The film's unmistakble low points are very low - a random basement sex scene involving characters who are never thereafter heard from again, the worst imagined shock scene at the end that I think I've ever seen in a slasher movie, and so much aimless padding. So much. A film with The Prowler's specific strengths ought to be at least worth it for the genre faithful, and it is - but it is solely for the faithful, and only after they've seen enough of them that The Prowler's deviations from the norm can be seen and appreciated for what little pleasure they offer.

Body Count: 8, plus the horrible news in the opening scene that Glenn Miller's plane went down in bad weather.