By far Warren’s simplest film, Prey is also one of his best. In synopsis, it sounds unbearably silly. But as filmed, it has a simplicity and an intensity which are tremendously effective and it manages to be very nasty without being excessively gratuitous. We’re not talking great cinema you understand, but this is a remarkably concentrated film with, if you’ll forgive me, guts. Even more astonishingly, it was made on a ten day shooting schedule for about £50,000.
The set-up is remarkably simple. Two women, Josephine (Faulkner) and Jessica (Annan) live together in a isolated house, maintaining an uneasy lesbian relationship which Jessica is not entirely sure she is happy with. One night, Jessica is woken by strange lights in the sky and the next day, they meet a strange man (Stokes) walking in their private woodland. Gradually, he insinuates himself into their home and, much to Josephine’s chagrin, Jessica begins to find him attractive. What they don’t realise is that their visitor is an alien who has come to earth on a scouting mission to discover an easily available source of protein for a potential invasion.
Prey is a short film and this is a key to its success. Detractors have complained that its slow moving and boring but I think that this is a little unfair. What Warren is doing here is something very unusual in the genre. Concentrating on a very small cast, he manages to create two well defined female characters who have a horribly believable relationship and into this uneasy household he introduces an element of instability which eventually leads to disaster. This is, of course, the old Theorem plot given a SF-horror twist, and the structure works extremely well. Gore lovers are frequently disappointed to find that Warren’s customary violence is limited to a few brief shots in the first hour and the incredibly nasty conclusion, but discerning horror fans should find that the minute building of tension is more than enough to keep their attention.
The performances are, of course, vital. Sally Faulkner is a sleaze favourite, having appeared – to her displeasure – in Larraz’s brilliant Vampyres and a variety of increasingly worse sex comedies. Viewers with long memories may remember her stripping off on a golf course in Confessions of a Driving Instructor. But she really is a good, strong actress and she makes Josephine a genuinely unnerving character who is, in her own way, a lot more sinister than the alien. There’s little doubt that her dominating presence is gradually destroying Jessica and the intimations that Josephine has already got rid of one of her lover’s potential male conquests suggest that the domination doesn’t stop in the bedroom. Sally Faulkner doesn’t overplay any of this, keeping Josephine one step from the loony bin without going over the top into complete insanity. Barrie Stokes is also memorable as the alien, his limited resources as an actor paying dividends in this role where he’s meant to seem gauche, awkward and an outsider. He certainly puts a lot of energy into the part, a role which requires him to half-drown, be made up as a woman and, in the unforgettable climax, eat a lot of offal straight from the fridge. As for the third corner of the triangle, this was Glory Annan’s first movie and, despite a very halting style of delivery, she does a pretty good job. It’s quite appropriate that she doesn’t have the strength of Sally Faulkner and she is just as attractive as she’s meant to be. Indeed, Annan has become something of a cult actress, especially for her role as another lesbian in Felicity.
Norman Warren’s direction is extremely efficient and full of suspense. It takes a good deal of skill to make something as coherent and professional looking as this in the space of ten days and the concentration required seems to have given him valuable focus. There’s none of the sense of ideas exploding all over the place that you get in Satan’s Slave and Terror and the camera set-ups are simple but imaginative. Considering that he was limited to three takes for each shot, the result – although undeniably rather simplistic compared to Warren’s other work – has to be counted as a genuine success. The cinematography isn’t as imaginative as in the other films mentioned above but the editing by Alan Jones is very skilful. Particularly noteworthy is the script which is low-key and intelligent, creating characters who are believable and heading towards a climax which is, as a second viewing confirms, quite inevitable. Also interesting is the way that it manages to suggest that Jessica and Josephine’s relationship is bound to end badly anyway, even if not quite as nastily as the way it does in the film. The special effects, bar the make-up, are very good and the final explosion of brutal violence is rather shocking – one moment in particular, involving Jessica’s throat, is rather horrible and hasn’t been included in a British version of this film before.
There are some flaws here. It could be argued that the portrayal of lesbianism is laughably clichéd and that’s perhaps true but, on the other hand, the sense of a close relationship in crisis is very credible indeed. Another possible defence is that none of the cast or crew apparently knew anything about lesbianism – the lengthy lesbian sex scene was improvised by the actors as they went along. In any case, to see any depiction of a sapphic relationship in a relatively mainstream film back in the 1970s was rare enough so Prey could be regarded as something of a milestone in permissiveness. A more serious criticism is the make-up. When he changes into his true form, Barrie Stokes looks less like a dangerous alien being than a badly made-up dog on children’s television. His appearance is less frightening than comic and this does result more in hilarity than horror. However, considering the budget and the schedule, Prey is quite astonishingly effective and certainly deserves rather more attention. It’s also got one of the great final lines of any British horror movie.
I feel honour bound to bore you with another “Doctor Who” connection. Sally Faulkner appeared, flashing her knickers, as Isobel Travers in the splendid 1968 story “The Invasion” which was also notable for launching UNIT and. featuring some very cool Cybermen rampaging around London.
Prey has certainly never looked as good as it does here. Since relatively few people have seen it at all, it’s nice to think that they will be seeing it for the first time in such a good transfer. A slight disappointment is that it is presented in 1.33:1 and the picture has obviously been cropped at the sides. No important picture information is missing and I'm sure this is the best that could be done with the available materials, but a letterboxed presentation would have looked better. Having said this, the film looks very nice. We get an impressively clean, crisp picture with vibrant colours and ample detail. There's a small amount of appropriate film grain and no serious artifacting problems. You won't find the film looking this good anywhere else and the Region 1 disc is also fullscreen.
The best soundtrack, once again, is the Dolby Digital 2.0 track, billed as stereo but coming out like mono pushed through the front channels. Dialogue is very clear and the clever, minimalist music score comes over very well. The Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 Surround remixes are unconvincing and, to my ears at least, rather badly balanced. I really do wish that Anchor Bay would present restored mono tracks without spending time and money on these unsatisfactory remixes.
The only extras on the disc are the trailer and a commentary track. Luckily, this is an excellent commentary. Norman Warren is joined by journalist and actor Jonathan Rigby – author of the indispensible “English Gothic” – and the result is a track which is packed with insights and fascinating information. Absolutely essential listening for any fan of British horror. The trailer is also quite fun, an attempt to make a small, low-budget film look like a Hollywood SF blockbuster.
The film is subtitled in English but the commentary is not.
Prey is an interesting and unexpctedly intelligent piece of filmmaking which has dated very well and is well worth a look for horror fans. This disc is an excellent addition to the Norman Warren Collection and is highly recommended.