"Prom Night" (1980) Review
PROM NIGHT (1980) Directed by Paul Lynch
Prom Night is one of several films that rocketed a young Jamie Lee Curtis to early '80s "Scream Queen" immortality (the others, of course, include the original Halloween and Terror Train). Prom Night has been a late night cable staple for decades now, and I remember being creeped out by it when I first saw it as a young teen, many moons ago. Unfortunately, the film has dated very badly and watching it again last night only served to reinforce how easily impressed I must've been back in my younger days. But hey, if an extremely low-rent combo of Halloween and Saturday Night Fever (yes, really!) - with none of the suspense of the former or the amazing dance sequences of the latter - sounds like your idea of a good time, feel free to read on.
Filmed on the cheap in Canada and rushed out to drive-ins to capitalize on the then-burgeoning Slasher Film craze, "Prom Night" spends an absolutely agonizing amount of time on set-up with precious little payoff. We open with a flashback to six years previous, when four shrill children (Nick, Jude, Wendy and Kelly) are playing a "Hide & Seek" style game called "Killer" in an abandoned building. The apple-cheeked Hammond siblings - Alex and his sisters Robin and Kim - happen to pass by, and when Robin sees the game going on, she tries to join in while her brother and sister continue on their way. Unfortunately, the other children belittle and threaten poor Robin and chase her through the building till she accidentally falls out of a window to her death. The stunned quartet swear never to tell anyone what's happened and cover up the entire incident. We eventually learn that a local sex offender was arrested for the crime, and after an escape attempt left him catatonic and disfigured, he was railroaded off to the insane asylum. Wow, sucks to be him, huh?
Returning to the present day, our four Cover-Up Kids (plus Alex and Kim, who's now played by Jamie Lee Curtis) are all grown up and attending Alexander Hamilton High School. The specter of young Robin's death hangs heavy over the Hammond family, particularly the clan's still-grieving mother (Antoinette Bower) and father (Leslie Nielsen, in one of his last 'serious' acting gigs before "Airplane!" sent him off on an entirely new career arc), who is also the principal of Hamilton High. The prom (which, as fate would have it, falls on the anniversary of Little Robin's death) is quickly approaching and it would appear that Kim and her boyfriend Nick (Casey Stevens) - yes, that Nick - are clear favorites to be voted Prom King and Queen. As the teens prepare for their Big Night in the disco-themed bash at the school gymnasium, the four conspirators begin receiving threatening phone calls from a mysterious heavy-breather who asks them if they "still want to plaaaaaayyy ?"
In the meantime, Wendy (Anne-Marie Martin) from the prologue has grown up to be Hamilton High's "Mean Girl," and she's jealous of Kim's lock on the Prom Queen title. She and the school's tough guy Lou (David Mucci) have cooked up a prank (think "Carrie," but with less pig's blood) to ruin Kim's big coronation moment. Adding another unnecessary ingredient to the soup, the so called "catatonic sex offender" who'd been accused of Robin's murder has escaped from the asylum, so we're treated to several "Halloween"-ish scenes in which a grizzled police lieutenant (George Touliatos) stands around looking at a map on his office wall, chain smoking, and having inner dialogues with himself about why this guy is back in town and what he could possibly want.
...so with all this drama going on, when does the slashing start? I was asking myself the same thing by the film's mid-point. Instead, the film attempts to build up suspense by showing us seemingly endless shots of the high school's darkened hallways and a mysterious set of hands tearing kids' photos out of the Hamilton High yearbook, Thankfully, the Prom eventually begins, to which viewers are likely to say "Geez, it's about damn time!" But even then, before the bodies start to pile up, you've got to endure some absolutely cringe inducing scenes of Kim and Nick showing off their bad-ass disco moves as they boogie-oogie-oogie on the light-up dance floor. Arrrgh!
I will give Prom Night credit for one thing - it breaks the time honored Slasher Film rule that states the virgin always survives. One of the first victims is Kelly (Mary Beth Rubens), who refuses to "go all the way" with her boyfriend in a secluded locker room and promptly has her throat cut by the ski-masked intruder. Jude (Joy Thompson) is then murdered after a tryst in her new boyfriend's tricked-out van (she should never have said "I'm going to remember this night for the rest of my life..."), which knocks out two of the four. Mean Girl Wendy is soon dealt with after an extended chase scene through the school's science lab, boiler rooms and auto shop, leaving only one member of our Not-So-Fantastic-Four - Kim's boyfriend Nick, who's about to accept his Prom King crown. Ski Mask guy crashes the backstage just as beefcake Lou springs his prank, which leads to his decapitation by axe (the scene where Lou's severed head flies out from behind the stage curtain and lands on the King & Queen's runway, where it sits resplendent in the strobe lights, is the film's lone money shot) and mass panic ensues. Kim and Nick battle valiantly against the axe wielding maniac for several minutes before the police finally arrive and the murderer's identity is finally revealed -- is it indeed the wrongly imprisoned sex offender, back for revenge? Maybe it's the creepy old groundskeeper, Mr. Sykes, who's been leering at the well-stacked female students for the entire movie and seems to know his way around gardening tools? Or is it someone else entirely? I'll leave it for you to discover, but let's just say you'll probably have it figured out way before the characters do.
Summing Things Up...
Prom Night may be an interesting watch from a historical perspective, but it certainly isn't one of the Great Slasher Films by any means. One has to wonder if it would be held in such high regard today (or if it would even be remembered today) if it weren't for the presence of Jamie Lee Curtis. Film quality aside, it seems that 1980 audiences just couldn't get enough of seeing J.L.C. being pursued by murderous lunatics, therefore the film made money and eventualy inspired three belated, unrelated sequels (1987's better-than-you'd-expect Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II, 1990's passable Prom Night III: The Last Kiss, and 1992's godawful Prom Night IV: Deliver Us From Evil, A widely-hated, PG-13 "remake" appeared in 2008, which I've also been unfortunate enough to see. Let's put it this way: if I were forced at gunpoint to choose between the 1980 Prom Night or the 2008 version, my response would be "Just pull the trigger already."
I acquired Prom Night on a budget priced eight-movies-on-2-DVDs set entitled The Midnight Horror Collection, released by the fine folks at Echo Bridge Entertainment. I feel compelled to warn potential viewers that Echo Bridge didn't bother to remaster or otherwise clean up their print of the film before tranferring it to DVD; the picture and sound quality is so wishy-washy at times that I might as well have been watching a beat up VHS tape. Nighttime scenes (which take up the bulk of the film) are so dark that sometimes all I could make out were shadowy figures moving about in what looked like black tar.
I was hoping for a "so bad it's good" slasher flick when I pressed play on Prom Night, but In the end, all it did was remind me that disco sucked, and so did the movie. View at your own risk.