Written by: William Gray (screenplay), Robert Guza Jr. (story)
Directed by: Paul Lynch
Starring: Leslie Nielsen, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Casey Stevens
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“You seem a little anxious, Wendy. By the way, who are going with tonight?"
"It's not who you go with, honey. It's who takes you home."
"It's not who you go with, honey. It's who takes you home."
When Prom Night was released in July of 1980, the slasher genre was just crystalizing itself into a formula after previous films had toyed with various elements during the past decade. At the time, it was still teetering on the precipice of the typical splatter offerings that would come to define the 80s (and Friday the 13th provided a forceful nudge in that direction a few months earlier), so there were still different blueprints and setups at the Canadian production’s disposal.
Not content to borrow from one, it instead dipped its pen in multiple bloody wells: you’ve got the “prank gone wrong” setup, liberal use of the Halloween formula, a whodunit approach, and a dose of gory effects. In many ways, it feels like it should be the ultimate 80s slasher, especially since it features the genre’s earliest scream queen in Jamie Lee Curtis. Somehow, though, this is one of the more forgettable efforts since it’s not great at pulling off any of these modes with any consistency.
Things kick off with a bang, though: a group of young kids are playing a twisted form of hide-and-go-seek where the seeker is fashioned into a “killer” that stalks and hunts down those hiding. Little do they know that it eerily foreshadows the impending tragedy that occurs when 10-year-old Robin Hammond wants to join the game. The other kids will have none of it, though, and begin teasing her as a gang until she accidentally falls through a second-story window, with any doubt of her fate being swiftly dashed when the glass then crashes down and impales her. Terrified, the group vows to keep the incident a secret while her family is left devastated and with the assumption that Robin was the victim of an attempted sex assault.
Six years later, the children have seemingly kept their pact and have even managed to become good friends with Robin’s brother, Alex (Michael Tough), and sister, Kim (Curtis). However, someone is aware of the accident and begins to make threatening phone calls on the day of the prom. Not a bad setup, eh? It’s certainly one that would be repeated to great effect by later offerings, and it might have been pulled off fine here had the film just stuck with it. Instead, the script unnecessarily entangles the proceedings with other devices, such as a subplot that reveals that authorities blamed Robin’s death on an innocent sex offender…who just happens to have recently broken out of the mental institution. The Halloween formula is then dutifully retread with a local cop and the man’s doctor investigating his escape.
When combined with the whodunit aspect, this subplot becomes an obvious, meandering red herring, especially since the film aggressively introduces other suspects, such as a bizarre looking landscaper at the high school who leers at the students. As such, the film is attempting to pay fealty to Halloween and Agatha Christie all at once, and the two are really sort of incompatible (Carpenter’s film thrives on the leanness that’s granted by knowing the killer up front). Even the kids’ lives is full of drama: Kim is going to the prom with Nick (Casey Stevens), who recently broke up with the still-jealous Wendy (Eddie Benton). The jilted girl schemes a prank with the school roughneck (David Mucci), thus ensuring that the film liberally borrows from Carrie as well. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast maneuver themselves into position to eventually be slaughtered at the dance too, and it’s deathly dull. Forget “whodunit?”—the real question here is “who cares?”
While no one exactly expects a slasher to excel in the character department, this bunch is almost completely forgettable, including Curtis, who turns in her most undistinguished performance in a slasher (you already get the since that she’s dreading being typecast). Even Leslie Nielsen seems unengaged as the school principal and the Hammond patriarch; this was before Airplane! set him on the path towards slapstick, so this is a straight role for him, and it’s so deadpan that he barely registers (that he’s only in the film for so few scenes doesn’t help). At any rate, Prom Night’s second act is a slog, full of uninteresting people doing uninteresting things, with none of the characters really emerging as a protagonist—Kim just sort of feels like she should be the lead, and I suppose most of the film revolves around her to a certain extent, but it’s not like the film draws any compelling arc for her.
Again, that’s not really something these films are usually great at anyway; however, most slashers also bother to absolve themselves with actual slashing or some sense of dread atmosphere. Prom Night doesn’t have a whole lot of either. Paul Lynch endows the film with the stylistic flair of a soap opera, with many shots being buried beneath a murky, soft focus that gives the film an overblown look. Eventually, there is some slashing, but not for about an hour, which is probably the film’s chief failing (well, besides allowing Nielsen to attempt dance moves). Authorities do discover the mangled body of the nurse that the mental patient escaped with (another requisite Halloween beat), an early development that doesn’t make a lot of sense once the film has completely unfolded.
The good stuff starts in earnest during the prom, where the film shows a bit of ingenuity in retrospect; thirty years later, viewers might expect certain conventions or rules (especially in light of Scream), but Prom Night doesn’t really abide by them. Swearing off sex and retaining one’s virginity doesn’t do much good here, as the students have their throats slit, get burned alive, and even decapitated regardless of their fornicating prospects. The splatter itself is okay, with the decapitation being a true show-stopper that’s worth the price of admission alone (unless you have an affinity for cheesy disco tunes and bad dance numbers, in which case you will be fully sated).
Despite its shortcomings, Prom Night found a huge audience during the summer of 1980, where it became a huge hit on the drive-in circuit. In the 30 years since, it’s been often cited as a slasher favorite, but it’s never quite clicked with me; in its attempt to cobble together so many genre conventions in one movie, it just winds up being a generic effort that would eventually be done by its sequel. I’d say it’s the type of film that should be revisited, but the redux from five years ago hardly improved on things a whole lot; technically, someone could give it another shot since the 2008 movie was a remake-in-name-only, but it’s not like several films didn’t borrow and improve on the Prom Night formula anyway. In fact, Scream itself is certainly one of them; for all the reverence Kevin Williamson showed towards its more famous contemporaries, Prom Night seemed to be just as influential on the screenwriter. For a cult classic, it’s hardly been treated all that well by DVD companies: Anchor Bay’s 1998 DVD was a non-anamorphic effort that would eventually be marginally improved by an Echo Bridge release in 2007. Neither disc is much to write home about, but, then again, neither is Prom Night itself. Rent it!
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