As you know (or will understand after reading this sentence), I love a ridiculous movie. Where some see incompetence, I see quirk. Where some see nonsense, I see charm. Where some laugh at the stupidity, I also laugh at stupidity, but in a more endearing way. I’m always looking for an undiscovered, lunkheaded gem. Every once in a while I find a movie that exceeds my expectations. Some movies are so loaded with absurdity it is like an embarrassment of riches. Or, more accurately, an embarrassment of embarrassments. The 1987 low budget action extravaganza DEADLY PREY is such a movie.
Nefarious Col. Hogan (David Campbell) is training an army of mercenaries for vague and undefined reasons. His favorite war game is having his right hand thug, Lt. Thornton (Fritz Matthews), pick up random saps off the street and set them loose for his men to hunt down. They make a serious (and wildly coincidental) error when they snatch Mike Danton (Ted Prior), who happens to be the deadliest Special Forces operative Hogan ever trained. Using his incredible killing skills and the mercs’ obvious vision problems (no one can look up or behind them), Danton takes out scores of Hogan’s men and escapes. Hogan isn’t about to let Danton ruin his operation by talking to the cops, so he kidnaps Danton’s wife (Suzanne Tara). With some help from a ‘Nam buddy and a doddering Cameron Mitchell, Danton is about to bring hell down on Hogan’s rapidly diminishing camp.
Full disclosure: DEADLY PREY is a rock stupid movie. Take the most mindless action flick you can think of, remove the nuance and plausibility, and you have DEADLY PREY. Ostensibly, it has a THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME premise (see also: TURKEY SHOOT, SURVIVING THE GAME), but the plot is really only an excuse to kill as many nameless bad guys as possible. What it lacks in, well, everything resembling quality, it makes up for in pure enthusiasm and dedication to its theme. The theme is: Ted Prior is awesome.
A musclebound slab with a voice akin to a low frequency seismic vibration, Ted Prior’s Danton is a man of action. When he’s not killing someone, he’s preparing to kill someone. And the movie excels in coming up with new ways for Danton to kill people. He likes his knife, so there are multiple stabbings, but he also whittles a spear with it (rather than picking up one of the dozens of assault rifles dropped by his victims). More impressively, he picks up and snaps a guy’s back against a tree, impales a dude with a twig, and stuffs a grenade down some poor schmuck’s pants. Near the end, he breaks down and uses a gun, which, as it turns out, is much more efficient than a spear. It would have been a much shorter movie if he started with that. But then we wouldn’t get to see him push a mound of rocks down a cliff onto a bunch of soldiers like he was Wile E. Coyote, so it’s just as well.
In addition to his killing prowess, the movie shows off Danton’s keen survival skills. He wraps a single vine around his torso to disappear into the thick Californian jungle. He lies on a bare branch two feet over everyone’s head pretending to be a chunky pink python. Not only does he dig a pit to hide in within seconds, he also fashions a camouflaged bamboo covering to use for ambushes. He is such a dedicated survivalist that he eats worms (for real) and knows how to cook a mouse on a spit. I don’t mean just skewering the whole thing over the fire like a barbarian. He cuts the mouse into the choices bits and cooks those on a tiny stick. Surprising amount of meat on a mouse.
The movie doesn’t tip its hat right from the beginning. At the start, Mike Danton seems like an average lazy bum, not wanting to get out of his sweet waterbed to take the trash out for his wife. Thornton certainly doesn’t realize what he’s getting into when he snatches Danton (in broad daylight, in front of house, surrounded by witnesses). Everything changes once his sweatshirt comes off, though. When the camera makes a slow pan up his almost naked body—as if he were a Greek god in cut-offs—we know those paramilitary clowns are in trouble.
Not that they weren’t in trouble enough to begin with. The movie opens with a full squad of mercs stalking an unarmed, overweight accountant in comically tattered clothes. He is the most un-deadly prey imaginable, but they still can’t bring him down, even with full automatic weapons and grenades. The accountant even manages to take one of them out with a rock before finally being mowed down by Thornton, the only competent soldier in the bunch. Setting these guys against a murder machine like Danton is blatantly unfair. It’s like sending out a bunch of ducklings to hunt a tiger.
Do you remember that sequence in RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART 2, where John Rambo uses the jungle to stealthily take out several Vietnamese soldiers? DEADLY PREY is like that sequence, but stretched out to the length of a whole movie. Danton lays waste to the first group of soldiers in minutes. When Hogan realizes who they are dealing with (Thornton should have totally been fired for picking that guy), he sends a larger batch of reinforcements. Danton wipes them out and the next batch Hogan sends the day after. It’s funny that no one balks at being ordered to hunt a guy who’s killed the last forty-five guys they sent after him. They are less mercenaries than they are professional lemmings.
I blame Hogan. The shady businessman funding his army building enterprise (Troy Donahue, one of two “big names” in the movie) describes Hogan’s training skills as “the best.” I must politely disagree. First of all, he is clearly running a bargain basement operation. His headquarters is a military surplus depot surrounded by WWII era Army vehicles that we are supposed to believe still function. Most of his elite recruits look like stoners fired from Arby’s. Their training seems to consist of walking in a straight line and shooting randomly without aiming. The few times they get close to Danton, they engage him in hand to hand combat, one at a time, naturally. I’m glad their training prevented them from doing something stupid, like just shooting Danton when they had the chance.
Part of Hogan’s special training must include being oblivious to anything happening behind you, because the Tin Man could sneak up on any of these guys. This includes Danton himself (Hogan’s prize pupil). First he is knocked out and dragged into Thornton’s Jame Gumb abduction van while he’s giving directions. Then, after an entire day of eluding Hogan’s men, he is taken by surprise by a couple of DELIVERANCE style yokels (who talk in thick Southern accents despite being in California). Also, his field of vision seems to be limited to the framing of the camera, because he gets a surprise punch from a guy literally standing right beside him in an open field as soon as the shot pans over.
While they spend most of the movie showing you that Danton is awesome, they also spend a lot of time telling you that Hogan is somehow equally awesome. According to Danton, Hogan is the “most decorated Special Forces officer in history.” Unless his metals are for Advanced Desk Sitting and Creative Grenade Arrangement, I see no evidence of this statement. Hogan barely lifts a finger the entire movie. I don’t even understand why anyone listens to him. When Thornton manages to capture Danton, Hogan tries to persuade him to switch sides. His negotiation tactics amount to him yelling “Join me, damn it!” Somehow, Danton resists this compelling argument.
As terrible as he is at everything else, Hogan does have a Jedi like ability to make people not want to kill him. The first night, Danton sneaks up on Hogan. Rather than slitting his throat, he just tells Hogan to back off and stop making him kill all his guys. Basically, he lets him off with a warning and disappears into the shadows. Hogan immediately sends a bunch of guys to hunt him some more. Danton has multiple opportunities to kill him afterwards, but doesn’t. Even after he [Spoiler] causes the death of his wife, Danton still doesn’t kill him. He kills Thornton, spectacularly. That guy gets his arm cut off and is beaten to death with it. Then Danton scalps him! The only thing he does to Hogan is tell him to take off his shirt and shoes and start running. Presumably this is to give Hogan a taste of his own most dangerous game, but we never know because the movie just ends with a freeze frame of Danton giving a battle cry. Um, yay… I guess? It’s a strange time for the movie to discover ambiguity.
There just isn’t enough room to talk about all the overflowing moments of joy in this film (I didn’t even get to the part when Danton recognizes the guy he’s strangling is an old ‘Nam buddy, and they are instantly friends again). I would be remiss not bring up one very special guest star, though. Instead of calling the police after witnessing Danton’s abduction, his wife calls her dad. Because who needs the police when your dad is the one and only Cameron Mitchell?
Mitchell is in full weird-rambling-uncle mode here, much like his character in RAW FORCE. Most of his screen time consists of wandering around with a gun, looking slightly confused, and spouting monologues about his time as a cop on the streets, “where there is no music.” I’m fairly sure he had no idea what movie he was acting in. All he needed to know was there was a paycheck waiting for him in the end. He has a great scene where he gets the drop on a soldier coming out of the trees and asks “Friend or foe?” When the soldier replies “Friend,” Mitchell calls him a liar and shoots him anyway. Why did he bother to ask in the first place? It’s all part of the mystery and grandeur that is Cameron Mitchell.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about this movie is that it has a sequel. From 2013! Now, it is not uncommon for the director of one of these forgotten, super low budget indies from the ‘80’s to claim that they are working on a sequel. It’s always a pipedream, but director David Prior (Ted Prior’s brother) somehow pulled it off. I haven’t seen it yet, but apparently Danton didn’t kill Hogan after all! Hogan’s been in jail all this time. Now that he’s out, he’s looking for revenge. Man, that guy is still an entitled prick. I can only imagine what kind of deadly, high tech office desk he will sit behind this time.