Deadly Prey (1987)

As great painters refined their work, going back to the same set of ideas time and again, so it is for filmmaker David A. Prior. After making the thoroughly confusing “Killzone”, he still clearly had something to say in the “guy chased through forest by group of mercenaries” genre, so he wrote and directed “Deadly Prey”, his first cult-movie classic. Well, classic is perhaps stretching it a bit, but it’s certainly beloved and is every bit as entertaining on rewatch as it was when I first saw it.

Returning is Ted Prior, as Mike Danton, who we see in the very first shot do one of those poses like you saw at the end of “The Breakfast Club” or “Red Dawn”, so the entire movie is a flashback from that moment, or something. More crucial to the first few moments is David A. Prior’s love of grenades. If real grenades produced a pitiful flash and did as little damage as they apparently do in his world, I’m not sure anyone would ever bother using them, but he clearly worked out a way to do the grenade effect on the cheap, and uses it a heck of a lot (they’re a constant throughout his early movies, at least).

Anyway, it’s all just a ripoff of “The Most Dangerous Game”, where bored hunters decide to let humans loose in the forest and hunt them instead. This is one of the most enduring of B-movie templates, because it’s cheap (you only need a small cast, and sets can be kept to a minimum). A group of mercenaries, led by Colonel Hogan (Prior regular David Campbell) have decided the best way to train is to grab guys off the street and hunt them. Okay, I guess? Confusion comes from them filming a few scenes among a mass of military hardware, tanks and so on, that don’t really get used. I know why – they probably just borrowed the stuff from the local National Guard and weren’t allowed to use it – but it makes their low-rent training methods look even weirder.

In the grand tradition of bad movies, there’s a coincidence so monumental that you’ll either cheer it or abandon the movie in disgust. Danton is sleepily taking out the trash when some of Hogan’s men, looking for a new subject for their training, happen to be driving past. They see him and grab him, and even leaving aside the extremely simple questions “why not get homeless guys? Mexicans trying to sneak over the border? Literally anyone other than a guy from a rich looking suburb who’s more likely to have people who want to find him?” it’s a heck of a weird one. Turns out Danton is a former special forces soldier, trained by Hogan, who says when he finds out that he was the best soldier he ever trained! Come on! That one of the other soldiers is Danton’s friend from the army (thus keeping the “one of the bad guys is a secret good guy” streak going in Prior’s movies) is small potatoes compared to this.

While this is going on, we get a couple of B-movie legends showing up in small roles, an indication of Prior’s increased budgets. One is Cameron Mitchell, sure to be an ISCFC Hall of Famer (“Toolbox Murders”, “Raw Force”, “Demon Cop”); and the other is Troy Donahue, who was a teen heart-throb in the 1950s before a later career in such gems as this and “Hollywood Cop”. Mitchell is the Dad of Mrs Danton, and Donahue is the guy bankrolling this mercenary army. They have parts purely because Prior could afford them and wanted the star power – they’re billed first and second despite appearing for maybe three minutes each.

Of course, Ted is the star, and is great. I know I’ve speculated about David A’s sexuality before, as he has zero nude ladies (almost unheard of in the b-movie world he inhabited) but lots of ripped shirtless dudes. Here, he pans up the ripped shirtless body of his own brother, which might just be him doing his action-director job, but certainly could be seen as psychologically…a little odd? You do you, though, David A!

What’s perhaps most surprising is how it gives us an entire movie’s plot in the first third – Danton is captured, figures out who’s in charge and slaughters a lot of people, while wearing nothing more than jean shorts. He’s got a heck of a line in home-made booby traps, though (another recurring Prior theme). My wife, half-paying attention, said “there’s an hour to go? Seriously?” at this point, but the rest of the plot is the bad guys kidnapping his wife, and Danton just strolling out of the woods and going home to find her missing. Seriously, they say they’re 75 miles south of LA at one point, and they don’t even show him hitching a ride or getting on a bus or anything. There’s a couple of redneck locals who get involved in things, despite this being completely the wrong part of the world for rednecks – another trend making a repeat appearance in the Prior oeuvre.

The reason it’s so beloved is to do with how much weird stuff goes on, I think. Mitchell offers to help look for Danton, and he’s a retired cop, but evidently none of the other cops are interested in the rogue mercenary group operating on their territory as he’s the only guy who shows up to help. There’s the way our heroes slaughter many people, but keep leaving Colonel Hogan alive, for absolutely no reason. There’s the way one of the soldiers goes “we’re not hunting him…he’s hunting us!” and doesn’t even wink at the camera. There’s a guy getting beaten up with his own severed arm. There’s an embarrassment of riches in “Deadly Prey”.

Factor in a genuine “what the hell?” ending and you’ve got yourself a bad movie classic you should all try and watch. There’s a way OTT performance from Ted Prior and a crazily bad one from his wife (and a surprisingly good one from his old friend William Zipp, who deserved better than this), all sorts of fun and never a dull moment. There’s so much cold-blooded murder in this movie! And someone gets scalped! Low budget craziness for ever, I say.

Rating: thumbs up

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