Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Ready Player One still flying the flag for beloved touchstones of the Reagan years, we’re looking back on some unsung gems from the 1980s—the movies from that decade that deserve their own loyal fan followings.
Deadly Prey (1987)
Calling Deadly Prey a “good” movie isn’t an accurate statement, but calling it a “bad” movie doesn’t quite work, either. Deadly Prey exists in that twilight world occupied by films like Miami Connection and Dangerous Men, where the passion and dedication of its creators—not to mention the fun you have while watching it—make it impossible to discount a film entirely, even if the filmmaking itself is undeniably incompetent.
Deadly Prey was directed by David A. Prior, one of the great backyard auteurs of the VHS era who spent the ’80s and much of the ’90s pumping out dozens of no-budget action, horror, and sci-fi movies on his own direct-to-video AIP (that’s Action International Pictures) label. In interviews, Prior, who died in 2015, spoke of filmmaking like one might speak of selling used cars: a reliable way to make money that’s even more reliable if you finance and distribute your own product. (At least, during the VHS era. In the digital age, he said, the market became far too saturated for little guys to profit.) But there must have been something besides finances motivating Prior to make movies. After all, he released three films in 1987 alone, and even with minimal attention to detail and a rushed shooting schedule—things that are both evident in the sloppy set decoration and oddly pitched performances in Deadly Prey—there are less strenuous ways to earn a buck.
One clue might lie in Prior’s fascination with films about Vietnam veterans out for revenge. Aside from Deadly Prey—which, plot-wise, is little more than The Most Dangerous Game crossed with First Blood—he made Killzone (1985), Hell On The Battleground (1989), Night Wars (1988), and Operation Warzone (1988), all of which deal with Vietnam vets being traumatized in some way. There are few confirmed facts about Prior’s life before he started making movies, but he was born in 1955, which, whether he served or not, would have made the Vietnam War a formative event of his youth. What demons was Prior trying to exorcise rounding up friends and fading movie stars, handing them fake machine guns, and making them run through the scrub-covered hills of Southern California playing at war?
Or maybe the opportunity simply presented itself. After all, David’s brother, Ted, was quite the hunk in the ’80s, with feathered blond hair and rippling muscles good for selling at least a few dozen videotapes. (Don’t take our word for it: Playgirl’s March 1984 issue features him as its centerfold.) David cast his brother as the lead in many of his films, including Deadly Prey, where he plays Mike Danton, a former Marine whose special-ops training kicks in when he’s kidnapped and hunted by a group of mercenaries led by the sadistic Colonel Hogan (Prior regular David Campbell).
A few other characters wander in and out—including ’60s TV star Cameron Mitchell and ’50s heartthrob Troy Donahue, who were written into the script at the last minute after Prior found out they were available—but mostly, Deadly Prey is a Ted Prior vehicle, and he attacks his starring role with great aplomb, if not great skill. Prior capitalizes on his brother’s physique to (unintentional) comedic effect in Deadly Prey, greasing his chest and outfitting him in tiny denim cutoff shorts that give Mike the look of a buff, hairless ape as he duck-walks across bamboo groves and jumps out of leaf piles onto unsuspecting extras, pausing at one point to eat a worm. (He’s only supposed to have been out in the wilderness for about 12 hours at that point, which makes the whole thing even more inexplicable.)
Ever the salesman, Prior’s stated motivation in making Deadly Prey was to cram as much action into the movie as possible, and to give audiences things they had never seen before. Its gonzo climax certainly delivers on that front, as Mike attacks the mercenary who kidnapped his wife, cutting off one of his arms with a machete. He then proceeds to beat the man to death with his own arm, both of them grunting and gurgling as a Casio drum fills pulse in the background. Then he—well, we won’t spoil the entire ending of the film. (You can watch it below, if you’re so inclined.) The best way to sum up Deadly Prey is if the infamous alley fight in John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) were stretched out to feature length, with all the goofy machismo and campy surrealism that that implies. Only, you know, not on purpose.
Availability: Deadly Prey, believe it or not, was released on Blu-ray in 2015 by Olive Films’ Slasher Video imprint, which presents the film in the best quality possible given the lack of an HD master. That same version is also currently streaming on Amazon Prime.