As one of the musicians in This Is Spinal Tap sagely observes: "There's a fine line between clever and stupid." We don't always notice one way or another - plenty of good scary movies fall down on the plot, dialogue, or character fronts, but if what's happening onscreen keeps us invested, that's probably more important, and we don't always notice how smart a given movie is until it does something unexpected or otherwise subverts the expectations we have for the genre. But when a clever movie starts getting stupid, that can be a problem. Give me something that raises my expectations and I'm happy, but I've seen more than a few movies that lose the courage of their convictions and go for something easier and more cliched in an effort to meet someone's expectations of what a scary movie "should" be. Generally, they suffer as a result.
Prowl is not a complicated movie, but it is a generally good one. Unfortunately, it spends a good chunk of its running time walking a very fine line between being confident and smart about its material and falling into the sort of cliches that come part and parcel with the genre, and that wavering is ultimately a distraction.
Amber is a small-town girl with big-city dreams. Not so much to become a big star or anything, she just wants to get out of her little town. She's sick of looking after her alcoholic mother, misses her father, and has dreams where she runs and runs and runs away from something that keeps trying to bring her to ground. A small get-together at her friends' house sketches out the limits of her world - her friend Suzy, Suzy's complicated-relationship boyfriend Peter, spacy rich-kid Ray and his girlfriend Fiona, and nerdy, yearning Eric. They like where they are, interpersonal drama and all, but Amber doesn't. She's got a line on an apartment in Chicago, but the person offering to rent it to her has gotten a better offer, and unless she can drop off a deposit in the next day, he's going to rent it out to the other prospective tenant instead. Desperate, Amber turns to her friends to help get her to Chicago in time (which turns out to be a much more complicated affair than you'd think, but not in a way that feels implausible), and after much negotiating and eating of crow (nothing like having to hit up your nerdy friend for the use of his car the day after firmly rejecting his advances), the whole gang is on a road trip…until their van breaks down maybe 20 miles outside of their hometown. Well, shit.
Luckily, a trucker headed into the city takes pity on them and lets them pile into the back of his trailer, asking that they just not mess with the cargo he has in the back. They're smart about the offer - they take pictures of themselves with the trucker to let their friends know where they are, and one of them rides up front with the trucker to keep him honest (of course, nerdy Eric draws the short straw on that one). And they're off, making the best of the back of the trailer with booze and weed and music and Truth or Dare. Everything goes swimmingly until the truck takes a bad bounce and a swerve. Attempts to get Eric to answer his phone up front get only the trucker, who claims Eric is asleep, and he's awfully reluctant to wake him up. Then - peering out of holes in the side of the trailer - they notice they aren't anywhere near Chicago. Then one of them wonders why the trailer has holes in the side in the first place. Inevitably, someone messes with the cargo - it turns out this guy is carrying bags of blood, and it's not a refrigerated truck.
The premise of Prowl isn't that complicated - there are hunters, and there are the hunted. For the most part, the movie does a very good job with a very basic setup - it's a stripped-down, kinetic movie with little to no superfluous material (the same director made the far superior Rovdyr, which has all of this movie's strengths and few of its weaknesses). Everything that happens has a point and a purpose, even the smallest, most inconsequential asides at the beginning of the film. Once the action starts, everything moves quickly and decisively, and although there isn't necessarily a lot to outright scare you, there's a good overall atmosphere of tension and fear for the most part. As teen-meat setups go, it's a reasonably intelligent take - the party scene is a deft, economic sequence, communicating a lot about who these people are without necessarily spelling everything out, and that's one of the movie's strengths - the ability to convey a lot of information, trusting in the ability of the audience to make sense of what's going on without belaboring the obvious. The protagonists are actually pretty competent throughout - they make very few dumb decisions, and actually take action against the creatures hunting them, instead of completely breaking down. We're mostly kept in the dark about who/what the antagonists are, which is for the better, because when the lead antagonist starts talking, you get the feeling if they'd let the dialogue go on on any longer, it would go right headfirst into stupid cliche.
And that's where this movie gets into trouble - it is constantly veering back and forth between being on the right side of the line and being as stagey as any other I Know What You Screamed Last Summer When You Took A Wrong Turn on Friday the 13th sort of movie. When Amber tells the trucker (apparently in all seriousness) that she has to get to Chicago because it's her destiny, your eyes roll completely up into the back of your head, even though it ends up paying off in the end. Amber's friends spout teen-movie homilies one second and talk like normal human beings the next. It's pretty apparent what's hunting them, and it feels like the movie wants to give us some sort of explanation, some sort of mythology, but stops short. It's better that way, because there's no reason to think that the explanation we get would be anything special, and so you wait to cringe at how cheesy it's going to be, but it never comes. But still, based on the wildly uneven tone of the movie overall, it could come at any second, so the cringe just sort of sits there, just under the surface of your face, waiting to happen.
Our sense of place and time is sort of a problem, too - you get the idea that the meat of the action is supposed to be taking place at night, but there are flashes of daylight as the protagonists move from one place to another, and since they're running from abandoned warehouse to…another abandoned warehouse?…it gets easy to feel like this is less about people trying to escape a bad situation and more like they're doing laps around a very large set. To its credit, though, its final act has a nice little reversal that feels just unexpected enough to be a pleasant surprise, but is still rooted very solidly in everything that came before (even redeeming some of the sillier and less understandable moments from earlier in the film), and the ending feels refreshingly ragged and free of closure in a good way. It avoids cliche as often as it flirts with it, but in doing so, you get the feeling that you're watching a good movie that has a mediocre one trapped inside it, struggling to get out.
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