Welcome Marc V. Calderaro to Fetchland. In addition to being a regular member of the Magic: The Gathering event coverage team he is a film critic, attorney, and is obsessed with fringe cinema. His first piece for us laments the passing of straight-to-video auteur David A. Prior — BDM
To most people, Tuesday was just another day. But to a very small community, August 18, 2015 was a tragedy. Legendary director David A. Prior passed away, after battling various health failures for a long time. He was 59 years old.
There’s earnest in the low-budget, high-concept genre rips off that graced the early video-store shelves—video stores who were starved for content, any content. Directors like Prior answered the market call for movies on tape, and delivered in spades. Since Prior’s first film Sledgehammer (1983)—the first “shot-on-video” horror film—Prior made flick after flick full of grit and grisly spectacle, all for the lowest production costs possible.
After continuing in the horror genre with Aerobicide (aka Killer Workout), in 1987 Prior made the film he’s most remembered for, Deadly Prey. Full of Prior’s regular tropes—a Vietnam vet haunted by the past, a group of baddies that underestimate the vet’s capabilities, a whole lot of violence—Deadly Prey became the pinnacle of the straight-to-video, Z-Grade action subgenre (Cannon Films were the pinnacle of the B-Grade). It has over-the-top dialogue, low-quality effects, and a veritable shit-ton of heart.
Deadly Prey was my entry way to Prior’s work. In high school, my friends and I trolled the flea markets for whatever VHS tapes looked the craziest. When we saw the Deadly Prey box staring back at us from the dollar bin, we knew we had a winner. And boy did we.
The film is everything you could ever want it to be. Shot in the Alabama woods as a stand-in for Vietnam and everywhere else required (as were most of New Jersey-native Prior’s films), it’s an obvious First Blood rip that cuts out all the boring parts, and has Prior’s brother, Ted Prior, rip the throats out of a bunch of mercenaries while spouting one-liners like, “You’re dead.” And yes, the same Ted Prior who was a Playgirl centerfold.
To this day, I have never scene a kill quite like when Ted Prior’s character, Mike Danton, cuts off an opponent’s arm, beats him with it, then scalps him.
Little wonder this film blew all of our little high-school minds, and furthered my deep obsession with auteur, almost-outsider filmmaking.
Prior went on to make tons of films including directing David Carradine in Future Force and Future Zone, Robert Z’Dar in The Final Sanction, Brigitte Nielsen in Watership Warrior (aka Hostile Environment), Pamela Anderson and Stacey Keach in Raw Justice, and plenty more. Prior has made over 30 films in total.
My personal favorite, one of Prior’s most underrated, is Night Wars. A Rambo-Nightmare on Elm Street hybrid, Night Wars tells the story of two Vietnam vets haunted by their dreams of the POW they had to leave behind. But their dreams seem to be more and more realistic, so they start going to bed armed to the teeth, attempting to save their fallen comrade from the Vietnam camp in their dreams.
There’s a sweetness to the crazy affair, and there’re are plenty of insane, joyful discontinuities. For example, while cutting between the dreams and reality, when the solider shoot in their dreams, they’re actually shooting their weapons in real life too, decimating the ceiling above them. However, the soldiers also throw grenades in their dreams. Where are the grenades going?
Oh, and look out for Grizzly Adams himself, Dan Haggerty.
Of all the niche film communities, 80s straight-to-VHS aficionados are among the fiercest. And to this day, Prior’s contributions are regaled throughout the world within our little group. Even as the internet has all-but subsumed the want of VCRs, the VHS tapes of David A. Prior are still passed along from person to person like a rite of passage. Copies of Deadly Prey still fetch high prices on Ebay, and are often hard to come by because no one who owns it wants to sell. Our high-school dollar-bin find is paying dividends.
Heck, Night Wars still doesn’t even have cover art on IMDB. His work is seems to stand defiantly analog.
David A. Prior is a large part of the reason I’m where I am today. And his untimely passing yesterday has hit me a bit harder than I thought it would. In a world of slick digitization, Prior is a testament to the grit of DIY filmmaking, being stuck in the past (even if that past haunts you), and the fact that with enough imagination, the Alabama woods can be just about anywhere in the world.
David A. Prior, you will be missed.