Prom Night (1980)
Directed by: Paul Lynch
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Casey Stevens, Anne-Marie Martin, Michael Tough, Mary Beth Rubens, Joy Thompson, David Mucci, Leslie Nielsen, George Touliatos, Sheldon Rybowski, Robert A. Silverman, Antoinette Bower, Pita Oliver
1/2 (out of 4)
You must be on guard against ninjas 24/7.
The early 1980s was the golden age of the slasher. Sure, some slasher films existed before 1978 but it was Halloween that caught Hollywood’s attention and cemented them as a new, legitimate “genre.” The turn of the decade saw an increase in the number of body-count films; in the year 1980, there was Friday the 13th, Terror Train (starring Jamie Lee Curtis), New Year’s Evil, and this cult favorite – Prom Night (also starring Jamie Lee Curtis). And like Jamie Lee’s character in the film, ready to be crowned Prom Queen, Curtis herself would be elected horror cinema’s official Scream Queen, with five horror films under her belt by 1981. Prom Night finds itself in the period of slasher adolescence, trying to “find itself” as it were, getting comfortable developing all the tropes started in films like Halloween, Black Christmas, A Bay of Blood, and the gialli of the 70s. It’s not the best slasher out there – even a bit dull in spots – but it gets by on a huge heaping of nostalgia and an air of innocence, if that’s the right word.
Tag! You’re defenstrated!
It’s quaint, is what I’m saying, but I mean it as a compliment. Sort-of a movie about how the tragedy of death can corrupt those who witnessed the event, it starts off in 1974 as a group of children, playing a game of tag but modified in a disturbing fashion (“Killers are coming! Killers are coming!”) tease a girl named Robin Hammond, who accidentally falls out a window to her death. The frightened children flee the scene but not before forming a pact never to tell anyone what happened. Six years later, the now teen-aged kids – Wendy (Anne-Marie Martin), Jude (Joy Thompson), Kelly (Mary Beth Rubens), and Nick (the late Casey Stevens) – are getting ready to attend the prom at Alexander Hamilton Senior High. However, somebody who witnessed Robin’s death years earlier has decided to crash their party. Thrown in the mix is Robin’s siblings – Kim (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Alex (Michael Tough), and their dad (also Hamilton High principal) Mr. Hammond, played by Leslie Nielsen (take note that Airplane!, which would launch his comedy career, was released in theaters the same month!). The first twist: Kim, who is to be crowned prom queen, is going out with Nick, who hasn’t been able to bring himself to tell Kim the truth about her sister and is still racked with guilt over the incident. Making things complicated is the fact that Nick and Wendy used to be an item, and now she wants revenge, so she recruits total brute Lou (David Mucci) to help her.
Frank Drebin demonstrates his watch-stun device.
Prom Night loads up on the red herrings. There’s the subplot involving police efforts to track down escaped killer Leonard Merch, who Lt. McBride (George Touliatos) thinks was responsible for Robin’s death. The crazed, disfigured killer has returned to his hometown, Michael Myers-like, so Prom Night spends some time with the cops trying to locate him. But perhaps the killer is the very weird school janitor Mr. Sykes (Robert A. Silverman). There’s even a point where the film hints that the murderer might be Mr. Hammond himself. Actually, if you pay enough attention you can probably guess the killer’s identity (or at least eliminate the suspects) but remember that in 1980 this stuff was kinda fresh. Anyway, Jamie Lee Curtis proves that her turn in Halloween wasn’t a fluke; here she plays her character with a nice mixture of confidence and vulnerability. Also, like Halloween, the deaths here are relatively gore free, except for a nice beheading at the climax, where the victim’s head rolls onto the dance floor as disco and pulsing lights complete the scene.
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No? How about Let’s head on down to the dance floor!
Well, ok we tried.
What struck me about Prom Night is that, unlike later slashers where you are encouraged to dislike the characters and therefore cheer their deaths, in this movie their deaths have a sting of melancholy. One victim is abandoned by her date when she refuses sex and is then murdered at her lowest moment. Contrast that with another victim who has sex for the first time and tells her partner “I’ll remember this night for the rest of my life” before she is cut down by the murderer. In each sequence, there’s a real sense of loss attached to the killings. Even super bitch Wendy, who is stalked in the hallways of the school during the prom, elicits sympathy. Hell – the killer, when revealed, also earns sympathy. There’s almost a sense that everybody in Prom Night finds themselves victims of fate and that they don’t really deserve their deaths (well, except for one particular asshole).
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I also liked the soundtrack – Paul Zaza and Carl Zittrer have some eerie compositions that help set the mood, and then there’s the overabundance of disco, which provides background to most of the last third of the film. While the disco is certainly dated, I really got a kick out of watching Jamie Lee Curtis cut a rug, channeling Saturday Night Fever. (Confession: I like the Prom Night theme from Zaza and Canadian band Highstreet). Prom Night isn’t a masterpiece or anything; the escaped killer subplot doesn’t really work and the kill/stalking scenes are slightly clumsy, not to mention the fact that the two movies it steals from (Carrie and Halloween) are superior films. The truth is that for today’s audience, the film may not be enough to hold interest, given how minimalistic it is. However, it’s a good time capsule that I’ve learned to like a bit more with each viewing. It lacks the cynicism and post-modernism of flicks like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer; in other words, Prom Night plays it straight, and I admire that.
– Bill Gordon
Buy Prom Night on DVD
Not Trading Places quality boobage… but it’ll do.