"Prom Night" (1980) Review
Prom Night (1980)
Directed by: Paul Lynch
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Leslie Nielsen, Anne-Marie Martin
Prom Night was one of the films that rocketed young Jamie Lee Curtis to '80s "Scream Queen" immortality (the others include the original Halloween and Terror Train). Prom Night was a late night cable staple for decades, and I remember being creeped out by it as a young teen, many moons ago. Unfortunately, the film has dated very badly and watching it again recently only served to reinforce how easily impressed I was as a kid. But hey, if a 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-current Slasher Film craze, Prom Night spends an agonizing amount of time on set-up. We open with a flashback to six years previous, with four shrill children (Nick, Jude, Wendy and Kelly) 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 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 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 still hangs heavy over the Hammond family, particularly the clan's grieving mother (Antoinette Bower) and father, who is also Hamilton High's principal. (Fun fact: Dad is played by the great Leslie Nielsen, in one of his last 'serious' acting gigs before "Airplane!" sent him on an entirely new career arc), 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 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 virtual lock on the Prom Queen title. She and tough guy Lou (David Mucci) are cooking up a prank to ruin Kim's big coronation moment (think "Carrie," but with less pig's blood). Just to add another unnecessary ingredient to the soup, the "catatonic sex offender" blamed for Robin's murder has escaped from the asylum, so there are 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.
...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 tries to build up suspense by showing endless shots of darkened school hallways and a mysterious set of hands tearing kids' photos out of the Hamilton High yearbook, When the Prom eventually begins, viewers are likely to say "Geez, it's about damn time!" ...but before bodies start to pile up, you've got to endure some absolutely cringe inducing scenes of Kim and Nick showing off their 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. Mean Girl Wendy is dealt with after an extended chase scene through the school's science lab, boiler rooms and auto shop, which leaves 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 area just as Lou springs his prank, which leads to his decapitation by axe. The scene where Lou's severed head sails out from backstage and lands on the royal runway is the film's lone money shot. Naturally 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 figure it 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 went on to inspire 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 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.
© 2011 Keith Abt