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Cheap thrills [part 2]
In his second review from Indicator's Bloody Terror: The Shocking Cinema of Norman J. Warren 1976-1987 box set, Gort gets to grips with PREY, a film that doesn't unfold as expected and proves to be a multi-layered and disarmingly involving relationship drama in sf-horror clothing.
 

How's this for an exploitation movie plot? A shape-shifting alien takes the form of a handsome young man and moves in with two lesbians who live in an isolated house in the country in order to study their behaviour. Cue raunchy girl-on-girl sex sequences that climax in a liberating threesome. If that's what you're expecting, get back on the internet and leave Norman J. Warren's intriguing fourth film be. That's not to say the first part of that brief summation of the story is inaccurate, it's just that there's considerably more to it than that, and while there is indeed a sex scene involving the two women, cheap titillation is definitely not this film's raison d'être.

Low-budget get-arounds though they may be, the indications that this is not going to be the sex-and-gore fest suggested by some past video cover artwork are evident from the start. After a vocal exchange over a black screen that tells us that an astronaut named Kator has arrived at his interstellar destination, we're introduced to the two women with whom he is soon to interact. It would have been so easy to establish that the women in question are a couple by showing them cuddling each other in bed. But no, they're sleeping in separate rooms, and when pretty young Jessica is woken by the sort of flashing lights and noises that Close Encounters has made certain we know are of alien origin and runs into the older Josephine's room in a state of distress, she doesn't leap into bed with her or even get a comforting hug. The initial impression is that the two are just friends or – at a real stretch – mother and daughter. But there's something about the way Jo looks at and talks to Jessica that strongly suggests that the bond between them is more intimate than friendship. Even before it's confirmed beyond doubt it should be clear to all watching that these two are lovers. Once again, Warren's faith in his actors is fully justified. In a film whose outline seems to scream exploitation, subtlety rules. Nice one.

Kator adopts the body of Anders

The film then cuts to a couple snogging in a car at some isolated woodland spot on what we assume is the same night. The guy pushes it too far and the girl tells him no, and unlike Stephen in that early scene in Satan's Slave, this fellow takes frustrated heed. Denied the opportunity to get his rocks off, he nips out of the car for a piss and spots what he thinks is a peeping tom. On closer inspection he discovers it's a humanoid creature with piranha teeth. The man is quickly disposed of, but when the girl gets scared and abandons the car, she runs unexpectedly into his arms. Since we saw him killed and his body dragged off just a few seconds earlier, the fact that this alien – and we know he's an alien because of that opening vocal exchange and the piranha teeth thing – has taken the man's form is communicated without a word of expositional dialogue. As he looks coldly ahead, Kator – for it is he – gives the girl a comforting squeeze, which is accompanied by the sound of crunching bone and a strangled cry of pain. OK, now you really do have my attention.

A POV shot of the alien quietly snarling and approaching the isolated house in which Jo and Jessica are sleeping suggests an upcoming confrontation between beauty and beast. Instead we cut to the following morning and spend some time getting to know a little about the two women and their relationship dynamic. They're clearly in love, but there seems little doubt that the more dominant Jo has a possessive streak and that living deep in the country with no neighbours makes it easier for her to keep a leash on the more easy-going Jessica, despite the fact that this is Jessica's house. The difference in their personalities is neatly illustrated when they spot Kator-as-human emerging from a shack on their land, still in the form of his earlier victim. Jo angrily barks that he is on private property and demands that he leave, whereas Jessica shows immediate concern for what she perceives is an injury and convinces her companion to let him come back to the house.

Kator introduces himself as Anders Anderson, and once in the sunny conservatory he expresses a childlike curiosity at his surroundings. He's particularly fascinated by Jessica's caged parrot, which prompted me to wonder how long it would be before this particular animal ran down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. Despite being intrigued by this visitor, Jessica is not really sure about him. "He's weird," she says to Jo, who amusingly responds, "No weirder than most men." You're not wrong. In the really telling exchange that follows Jessica wonders if he might have escaped from a nearby psychiatric institution, but when she suggests that they give it a call, Jo tells her in no uncertain terms not to do so. Might there be a clue here to Jo's sometimes erratic and overly possessive behaviour? And why does she has the world's biggest flick-knife in a trunk in her room and why is it mixed up with clothing once owned by Jessica's former boyfriend? A boyfriend who mysteriously disappeared one day?

Kator joins Jessica and Jo for dinner

A suddenly turned-around Jo decides to let Kator stay for dinner and even spend the night, seemingly so that she can find out a little more about this quietly enigmatic visitor. He, meanwhile, hears a story on the radio about the missing couple he encountered when he landed and heads back to the location, presumably to dispose of their car. When he gets there, two policemen are giving it the once over. He runs and they give chase, but the tables are turned when he facially transforms and the hunters quickly become the hunted. He hides the bodies but I was left wondering how long it would be before a search would be launched for two missing policemen who probably radioed in what they had found and where they had found it. That little loose end is never addressed.

The next morning Jo gets up to find her chickens have all been slaughtered. Having spotted the torn-apart corpse of a rabbit shortly before her first encounter with Kator, she blames it on a fox and goes looking for this murderous animal with a shotgun. Good luck with that. When she spots it and shoots but misses she flies into a rage that goes beyond any level of logical frustration. And she can't let it go. Despite the fact that we all secretly suspect that a transformed Kator killed the chickens (when the girls fed him salad the previous evening he almost vomited – I feel your pain, brother), he responds to Jo's anger by hunting and killing the fox and flopping it down on the table in front of her. She's overjoyed and the two women decide to celebrate by throwing a party. All they need is something for Kator to wear…

OK, this is where the film takes what seems initially like a tonally strange turn, but one that makes sense within the context of its offbeat narrative. Well it does if you can make complete sense of Kator. He is, after all, an odd mix of predator and childlike innocent, able to pilot a ship halfway across the galaxy and hunt down a speeding fox with his bare hands and piranha teeth, but is bemused by much of what he encounters in Jo and Jessica's company. He fully understands the implications of a radio news report about the missing couple, but doesn't understand the concept of water (guess what happens when he tries to walk on it) and when he catches sight of Jo and Jessica in the throes of passion in the film's obligatory but tenderly handled sex scene, he's utterly bemused. He also didn't appear to catch the fox to curry favour with Josephine, but because it was something that she desperately wanted and it was within his power to make it happen. He's clearly trying to learn about them and their environment, but to what end is uncertain, and there's a sense that if they wanted to, Jo and Jessica could shape Kator into the most obedient and efficient handyman in the land. Instead they dress him up in women's clothes, put makeup on his face and ply him with him champagne, a drink he really takes to, a small nod, perhaps, to the corrupting effect of alcohol on the alien visitor in the previous year's The Man Who Fell to Earth. This gives the party that follows a surrealistic air, as Kator, who seemingly has no understanding of gender or dress codes, allows himself to be the subject of Jo and Jessica's drag queen makeover because he doesn't understand that this is in any way unusual. He is a bit thrown, however, when Jo unexpectedly finds herself attracted to him in this new guise. Yep, nothing is quite as it seems in the film.

Jo and Jessica muse on their life together

I really enjoyed Prey, and while in some respects it plays like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone, there's a lot more going on here than that glib description might suggest. It's an alien visitation story, yes, but it's also an involving and well-handled relationship drama that toys with things like betrayal, controlling relationships, gender identity, predatory masculinity and more. I'm not claiming it explores them in depth, but I have to tip my hat to Warren and screenwriter Max Cuff (for real?) for having the ambition to include them and the skill to weave them into the story without a hint of overstatement. And don't get me started (well, if you want to avoid spoilers) on the potentially multiple meanings of that title.

The film is very nicely shot and lit by first-time cinematographer Derek Browne, and all three leads are impressive here, though I'll give a special shout to Sally Faulkner, who is so expressive and committed as Josephine that I can't understand why she's only done a handful of films and has otherwise worked mainly in TV. As a genre work, its genuinely unusual, and I mean that in a good way, though it's worth noting that if you come to this one for the horror then you'll have a long wait. When it does arrive, however, it's genuinely startling. As for the ending, well, if you're paying full attention then you may well see it coming, but it's still nicely handled and is given a serious "holy crap!" edge by the content of the immaculately timed final freeze-frame.

sound and vision

The 2K restoration of Prey was carried out by Vinegar Syndrome and it's in excellent shape, enabling cinematographer Derek Browne's sometimes gorgeous 1.66:1 exterior compositions to really shine. When the light is flattering – exterior shots and anything filmed in the conservatory – the image looks terrific, with naturalistic colour, well-balanced contrast and crisp picture detail. Inside when the light levels drop there are no real problems, with solid black levels that still allow for generous shadow detail, in part because the film is so well lit. The colour on some of the night-time interiors has a slightly pastel-like warmth, but this makes a nice change from the green hue of the interior footage of so many other genre films of the period. I looked for dusts spots, but didn't see any. A fine film grain is there to remind you it was shot on film. Lovely.

Jo, Kator and Jessica go in search of the fox

The Linear PCM 1.0 mono soundtrack has quite a strong treble bias in places, which can sometimes add hiss to some spoken words that include the letter S, especially if delivered by Jo or Jessica. There's also some audible rumble and fluff in the background of some scenes. Elsewhere the soundtrack is clearer and boasts a sometimes lively reproduction of sound effects (the 'clack' of that flick-knife opening) and solid reproduction of Ivor Slaney's electronic score. Be aware, though that the quality can vary from scene to scene.

Optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired are present.

extra features

Audio Commentary with Norman J. Warren and Jonathan Rigby
Here Warren sits down with English Gothic author and regular Blu-ray special features contributor Jonathan Rigby to look back the making of the film and those involved in its production. Warren reveals that film was made for a preposterous £3,000 (with deferments), that this was former camera assistant Derek Browne's first film as cinematographer, that the actors had to all have tetanus injections after a scene in which all three were thrashing about in a filthy river, and that the producer Terry Marcel was so delighted with Alan Jones's editing of this sequence, which was shot in slow motion, that he wouldn't allow Warren to shorten it as he wanted to. There's detail on shooting individual scenes, lots of referencing of other films that have similar content or themes, and some interesting discussion of the film's subtexts. I was particularly amused by Warren's admission that when it came to the obligatory sex scene, neither he nor his actors had any idea how lesbians made love, so just had to wing it. Erm...

The BEHP Interview Part One(60:17)
The first part of a British Entertainment History Project interview with the ever-affable Warren that covers his early years and work and that stops just before he gets to directing his first feature. It does revisit a lot of the ground covered in the interview with him on the Satan's Slave disc, though sometimes in more detail and there is material that is specific to this piece. This includes info on two films he came close to making – one for AIP, one for Amicus – that ultimately fell through, and more detail on his two softcore sex films, Her Private Hell (which was released on BFI Flipside dual format in 2012) and Loving Feeling. Intermittently the camera autofocus goes a-wandering and at one point zooms out to an oddly framed wide (oh, the headroom), but it's the content that matters here and that's damned good.

Kator is dressed up for the party

Keep on Running (27:32)
Made for an earlier Anchor Bay DVD, this featurette is a welcome inclusion, despite some unattractive lighting on the interior interviews. Norman J. Warren talks about being drawn to the project, prepping the film that was being written and rewritten as they went along, the cast, the crew, and the style and atmosphere of the film itself. Producer Terry Marcel covers the genesis of the project, how doing everything on the cheap and everyone working for deferred payments kept the budget down to £3,000, and their unrealised plans for a sequel. Production designer Hayden Pearce recalls working within a limited budget and draws the rig used for a stunt that's not quite as spectacular as it's described. Soft-focussed editor Alan Jones (not the Frightfest one – he turns up later) goes on location to discuss the slow-motion near-drowning scene. Best of all, actress Sally Faulkner, who is so good as Josephine, looks back at the project with great affection and gives a detailed breakdown of the personality and motivations of her character. The climax is discussed in some detail and the ending of the film is included as an extract, so steer well clear of this until after you've watched the film.

On-set Footage (2:21)
A brief but valuable look at the filming of a dinner party scene from the film with explanatory commentary by Norman J. Warren. Nice to get a glimpse of the younger Warren directing.

Theatrical Trailer (1:01)
An utterly misleading trailer that paints the film as a battle between hostile predatory aliens and screaming, fleeing humans.

Image Gallery
54 screens of promotional and production stills, press book pages, posters and video covers

The Bridge (6:52)
The unfinished war film that Warren discusses a number of times in the special features, which has been married to a soundtrack consisting only of sound effects and music as the original dialogue track has been lost. This story of two allied pilots downed in occupied France and aided by the Resistance actually had me rather hooked, despite some painfully unconvincing model work of Spitfires in flight (they're stuck to a piece of corkboard and surrounded by cotton wool clouds). Then again, Warren made this when he was just 12 years old at a time when special effects of any sort were a complicated matter, and in all other respects he does an extraordinary job here. Some of the footage was (very nicely) shot by a young Brian Tufano, whose later credits include Trainspotting, Billy Elliot and Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. Can also be played with an informative commentary by Warren, who still remembers the names of everyone involved and seemingly every detail about the film's making.

Anders begins transforming into Kator

Making 'The Bridge' (1:31)
Brief but valuable silent footage shot on location of the making of The Bridge, complete with an explanatory commentary by Warren.

'Carol' Test Footage (2:52)
A rough assemble edit of promo footage for what was intended to be Warren's directorial debut Carol, a story of unwanted pregnancy and back street abortion that would have been ahead of its time but ultimately didn't get made. A real shame, given the glittering cast of future stars Warren had assembled to appear in it. The footage is silent, the sound having been lost.

Drinkin Time (2:32)
One of Warren's early shorts shot on Sundays with friends in which a man is woken from sleep, pours a cup of water and hitches a lift with vehicle-less driver, the cup still in his hand. When they collide with a policeman, chaos ensures. Done in the style of a Mack Sennett silent comedy, complete with cross-eyed Keystone Cop (played by Warren wearing a fake moustache), a saloon piano score, spectacular pratfalls and a small pie-in-the-face gag. It also has some well executed stop motion pixilation and a punchline that's tinged with Monty Python-esque surrealism, a few years before there even was a Monty Python.

'Drinkin Time' Director's Introduction (3:22)
Warren recalls the making of Drinkin Time and the efforts of he and his friends to promote it and sell 8mm copies.

Whipper Snappers (3:17)
Warren looks back at the first directing job he landed after Satan's Slave, a commercial for a long-gone children's toy called Whipper Snappers, highlighting the challenge of producing the amount of rushes that were expected and working with children for the first time.

 


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Bloody Terror: The Shocking Cinema of Norman J Warren, 1976-1987 Blu-ray cover
Bloody Terror: The Shocking Cinema of Norman J. Warren 1976-1987
Prey Blu-ray cover
Prey

UK 1977
78 mins
directed by
Norman J. Warren
produced by
Terence Marcel
written by
Max Cuff
story by
Quinn Donoghue
cinematography
Derek V. Browne
editing
Alan Jones
music
Ivor Slaney
art direction
Hayden Pearce
starring
Barry Stokes
Sally Faulkner
Glory Annen
Sandy Chinney
Eddie Stacey
Jerry Crampton

disc details
region 0
video
1.66:1
sound
LPCM 1.0 mono
languages
English
subtitles
English SDH
extras
Audio Commentary with Norman J. Warren and Jonathan Rigby
BEHP Interview with Norman warren Part One
Keep on Running making-of featurette
On-set footage
Trailer
Gallery
The Bridge short film
Making The Bridge
Drinkin Time short film
Drinking Timedirector's introduction
Norman J. Warren on Whipper Snappers

distributor
Indicator – Powerhouse Films
release date
12 August 2019
review posted
13 August 2019

See all of Gort's reviews