It can be a bit of a trip to look back on movies and books of yesteryear that attempted to address gender and sexuality amid the significantly more repressed cultural norms of their respective eras. It’s true that they are not often wholly successful, yet they can still be strangely intriguing. Case in point, we have Prey (1977), a movie that is basically an adaptation of the novella The Fox (1923) but with a human-eating alien species thrown into the mix.
The Fox by D.H. Lawrence inspired its own film adaptation in 1967, which in turn apparently inspired this truly odd horror film. The similarities between Prey and The Fox are certainly enough to note, with an isolated, repressed lesbian relationship threatened by the arrival of a man (or an alien species masquerading as a man) being a unifying factor. In the novella, the metaphor around a wily fox that breaks into the chicken coop is attached to the man in question while the roles of the women have fluctuated somewhat over various adaptations. There’s a bit more to the story than can quickly be summed up, but queer critics, in particular, have been torn over what exactly its message about queer women is. This is certainly just as true for its film adaptation with Vito Russo criticizing its dismissive violence towards its lesbian protagonist, and Bruce LaBruce naming it a queer classic due to its subtextual condemnation of heterosexuality as dreary and defeating. The story itself is a complicated and moody piece, as is the film adaptation thereof. Then, there’s Prey.
Prey was directed by Norman J. Warren, a name that will sound familiar to fans of British horror in the ’70s and ’80s. Released soon after what is perhaps his best-known venture today, Satan’s Slave (1976), Prey feels like a continuation of the DIY edge and themes of erotic horror that were present through many of his feature films. This was pitched to him by its producer and was shot in only ten days at a backlot in Shepperton Studios, utilizing leftover props and sets from other projects to a somewhat jarring visual effect that is only heightened by the droning soundtrack.
In Prey, an alien named Kator (Barry Stokes) lands on earth to suss out how difficult it would be to turn humanity into livestock for his species. His final conclusion is “very easy,” but it surprisingly takes until the end of the film for him to get there. He kills a few random people and takes on a human alter ego named Anders. He meets an isolated couple, Jo (Sally Faulkner) and Jessica (Glory Annen), and finds himself unwittingly assigned a role as another player in their collapsing relationship.
Jessica is the more stereotypically feminine of the two while Jo is a soft butch prone to angry outbursts. We discover that Jo killed a man who had an interest in Jessica and hid his body in a chest. Jessica doesn’t discover this until later, but it doesn’t cause her quite as much stress as one might think. They quickly pull a perpetually confused Kator into their weird dynamic, and they even put him in a dress and makeup for a “dinner party.” This is again a reference to The Fox, which holds a similar scene with somewhat different implications. Here, it is perhaps meant to emphasize Kator’s indifference to gender and to imply that Jo’s hatred of men is likewise somewhat arbitrary, but the intent is muddled by a binary understanding of queer identities and the fact that two out of three people in the room are active murderers.
The relationship between Jo and Jessica continues to deteriorate. Jessica still seems interested in staying with Jo even as she clearly identifies that Jo is absolutely terrifying when suffering from uncontrollable bouts of rage. Kator does ultimately kill them both but more due to the chaotic circumstances of the story rather than any greater objective.
Jessica is easily the most complicated character in Prey, though it’s difficult to parse her motivation at times. She seems to genuinely adore Jo despite enjoying making her jealous, and it’s directly a result of Jo’s prolonged abuse that she attempts to flee with Kator. Meanwhile, Jessica’s interest in Kator seems, at best, casually friendly until she begins to view him as a vehicle through which she might escape Jo’s violence. She has more than enough reason to want to get away from a home that, despite owning, she has become a prisoner from within.
The inclusion of a literal fox in the narrative is another element that is borrowed from The Fox but manifests differently here with Jo fervently wishing to kill it and Kator succeeding in doing so. In these ways, the story moves more towards a vague commentary on the nature of predator and prey. Kator is an emotionless alien set on the destruction of humanity, but he and Jo both pose a fatal threat to Jessica. They are both predators, and Jessica falls prey to each of them in different ways.
Perhaps the most striking scene is when Kator nearly drowns after unknowingly leaping into a pond of dark, oily water. Kator leaps after a bird, expecting the water to be solid, and so immediately splashes and screams horrified that he is now stuck in an unknown substance that he can’t seem to grab hold of. Jessica and Jo run to help him, but his panic makes him difficult to save, and they all find themselves in danger of drowning with him. This scene is all in slow motion, accompanied by moody synth sounds, and it goes on for a surprisingly long time. Looking at it metaphorically, there is any number of things this scene represents, but even viewing it literally, it’s a haunting and unsettling culmination of themes in this truly bizarre film.
Prey is sometimes referred to as Alien Prey, and there was an intended sequel that would have been called Human Prey but was scrapped. It’s hard to imagine what a sequel to this would even look like, but it is fun to think about. It may go without saying that this movie has its flaws, but there is, nevertheless, an uneasy quality that makes it plain to see how it earned its cult following.
Sara Century is a contributing writer for Manor Vellum. She is a writer of short stories, articles about comics and film, and many, many zines. She is also an artist, comic creator, filmmaker, and podcaster, and she used to be a musician. She’s written for SyFy.com, StarTrek.com, Bustle, Gayly Dreadful, and many more. Visit her website at SaraCentury.com. Find Sara’s webcomic with Tana Thornock and her podcast about comics with SE Fleenor. Follow her on Twitter @SaraCentury.
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