Prime in the Dustbin: ‘The Night the Prowler’ (1978)

The Night the Prowler (no comma or ellipses for you, ladies and gentlemen) is an Australian movie that might be a satire about high society or a bloodless slasher movie or a searing drama about a teenage girl who looks like she might be in her late thirties, early forties. Perhaps it is all of these things. If so, it is not entirely successful at any of them. But it is certainly strange, over the top, and confusing in that pretentious sort of way that film lovers are supposed to nod their heads about and appreciate what the artists are trying to say.

The teenager in question is named Felicity (Kerry Walker), also known by the nickname Chi Chi. This is much like being named Richard and having the nickname Sir Steven Panhandle Phantom Tollbooth. She lives with her parents in eastern Sydney sometime during the late 1960s. The family is well to do, with aims at becoming weller to doer. Mother Doris (Ruth Cracknell) is a shrike with a tendency to be overdramatic. Even while speaking on the phone, she stares at herself in the mirror, examining her own facial expressions to make sure she is striking the proper tone. Father Humphrey (John Frawley) is emotionally unavailable, but still attempts to control his daughter’s life. Felicity is frustrated by her own journey into adulthood, her secret wishes to reject her parents’ way of life, and her sexuality.

This all sounds like pretty straightforward dramatic material, and it is on the surface, but the way it plays out in the film is bizarre.

Felicity awakens the household with claims that she woke up with a man lying in bed beside her. Not only was she raped, but the prowler forced her to go downstairs, drink her father’s brandy, and smoke a cigar. She refuses to let the family doctor do a medical examination. The police arrive, but all they do is hang around in the dining room, drinking and smoking. Felicity’s description of the intruder is not helpful; he was muscular with breath that smelled like potato chips. Thanks a lot, kid. We’ll get our sketch artist right on that.

No one really seems upset that Felicity has been violated, but they all seem to keenly feel the loss of her virginity. They mourn it like a death. Never mind the violent crime that was committed, it’s the fact that someone got in there before Felicity got married. Her father seems particularly petulant about it, like someone cut ahead of him in line.

Since Felicity is no longer a virgin, she feels compelled to break off her engagement to John (John Derum), who is some sort of diplomat. This enrages her status-seeking mother who cries, “What have you done to us?” This response encourages already sullen Felicity to withdraw further into herself, resulting in some interesting behavioral changes.

Time is played fast and loose here, with flashbacks occurring without warning. In one scene, Felicity is a teenager. The next, she is two years old. It gives the viewer a kind of whiplash. Story hints are dropped and never picked up again. Was Felicity sexually abused by her father with her mother’s complicity? Is she still a virgin? Does she know how silly she looks tromping up and down the streets in black leather biker gear, scaring the straights as they exit a formal party?

Her sudden decision to dress like Glenn Hughes is just part of her descent into adolescent madness. This personality change is unintentionally hilarious and senseless; she’s living in her own private I dunno. Felicity attends a psychedelic party, with marijuana cigarettes and kids dropping acid while reading existentialist philosophy with their hoodlum friends. She spends way too long staring at a piece of lava rock. I had always heard the drug-fueled orgies of the Sixties were crazy, but apparently, people just looked at random objects and read Camus.

The constant through all of this madness is Felicity’s wretch of a mother, Doris. Ruth Cracknell’s performance is on a John Waters level of crazy. She screams and hollers, she vomits, he preens and tries to hit on younger men. I think if she could have set herself on fire while polishing the furniture, she would have done it. She was nominated for an AFI Award for Best Actress in a Lead Role for this performance and it is the finest reason to watch this film.

But there are also many reasons not to watch The Night the Prowler. Satire works when it overexaggerates and lampoons its subject matter. The Night the Prowler descends into downright mockery. There isn’t a single believable moment in this film. Even at the beginning, when we first learn about the attack on Felicity, it’s obvious that something is fishy about the whole thing. The failure of the movie to establish the validity of this one event, the catalyst of all the action to follow, instantly hamstrings the entire thing.

The Night the Prowler was directed by Jim Sharman (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and he sets up some visually interesting shots, repeating motifs such as Doris constantly checking her look in the mirror. She wants to change her clothes, her hair, her face. Felicity shows up in mirrors also, part of the family yet separate from it. He also employs extreme close-ups, both fascinating and grotesque. If you like to watch elderly folks shoving rich party foods into their mouths, there’s a sequence in this film tailor-made for you. But clever angles do not a great film make, and Sharman’s skills at composition can’t save this one.

I have a tremendous affinity for Australian cinema, and the more films I discover from Oz, the more enamored I become. And yet, I can’t recommend The Night the Prowler, outside of Cracknell’s utterly nutball performance. The movie makes basic mistakes that it never bothers to correct. It’s like the picture forgot to tie its own shoes, so it trips all over the place. Also, for cryin’ out loud, put some punctuation in your title.

The Night the Prowler is available on the Prime the Video the right the now.

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