Prom Night (1980)
The original Prom Night is a perplexing film. While it’s undoubtedly a slasher institution and boasts some of the genre’s more memorable moments, it’s never quite clicked for me personally*. Bits and pieces of it—like that gnarly, mean-as-hell opening scene where a kid plummets to her death—certainly leave a mark, but it has trouble sustaining even that kind of low-brow intrigue throughout much of the film. Despite having so much going for it, including Jamie Lee Curtis, Leslie Nielsen, and tons of disco, Prom Night is kind of a weird snooze. It’s perhaps interesting as a slasher artifact, as it almost feels like watching the genre find its way right there before your eyes. After Halloween forcefully blew the door wide open, Prom Night hesitantly stepped into the void in an attempt to figure out where to go next. Its answer was to essentially ape bits of Carpenter’s film (there’s an entire subplot dedicated to an escaped mental patient that turns to be an elaborate fake-out), liberally borrow from Carrie, and up the gore quotient in the service of a rote whodunit narrative.
But here’s the thing: save for that opening sequence and a climactic decapitation, none of that gore is especially memorable, nor are just about any of the characters. Sure, it’s neat seeing Nielsen playing a suspect in a slasher, but I can barely remember anything he actually does, even though I’ve seen Prom Night multiple times. Curtis doesn’t exactly recycle her turn as Laurie Strode, but there’s a reason she’ll always be remembered for Halloween instead of this. The body count is eventually ample, but it takes nearly an hour for the corpses to pile up, meaning the film essentially strands you with a bunch of nondescript characters. Simply put, Prom Night just isn’t nearly as fun as it seems like it should be, especially since director Paul Lynch would go on to helm Humongous, which at least indulged the slasher genre for all its schlocky potential. Prom Night, on the other hand, reveals the genre’s embryonic possibilities, as later slashers (including its own sequels) would take its various threads and spin them into more assured, memorable efforts.
*I will say that finally seeing it on a quality release gave it a better chance to finally do so—if you’ve never seen Prom Night at all, go for Synapse’s Blu-ray, which is far and away the film’s best home video presentation.
Prom Night (2008)
Not among those ranks of slashers that improved upon the Prom Night formula was this 2008 redux. Released at the height (or nadir, depending on how you look at it) of Hollywood’s horror remake craze, it didn’t exactly arrive without credentials. Boasting the participation of screenwriter J.S. Cardone (The Slayer, Wicked Little Things), Prom Night was in a fine position to be a remake that should improve upon the original. And to Cardone’s credit, he didn’t just set out to recreate the first film, as this Prom Night only shares a title and a minor plot point with the film that inspired it. Unfortunately, it commits to the lamest possible take on that subplot and does so hastily: within the first ten minutes, we learn that scumbag teacher Richard Fenton once harbored an obsession with his student, Donna Keppel; when she wouldn’t return his affections, he murdered her entire family. Now, three years later, he’s escaped a sanitarium and is set to finish the job by ruining Donna’s prom night in bloody fashion.
That’s the entire story, and while slashers obviously don’t thrive on complex plots, this one is so thin that it requires something to help compensate for it, whether it be memorable characters, skillful direction, or loads of gore. Remarkably, Prom Night whiffs on all three: the characters range from lame to utterly annoying, it’s directed with all the flair of a new employee’s orientation video, and the gore is largely non-existent (even in its “unrated” form). There’s pretty much no reason to ever watch this movie unless you have a particular fondness for late-aughts pop music or just really love sleek, soulless cash-ins. One might argue that it might be interesting to see Idris Elba, but even he’s saddled with playing a clueless detective leading one of the most incompetent police forces ever put on screen.
In what feels like a theme for this title, Prom Night never embraces its potential, and this one refuses to do so to a confounding degree. As flawed as the original is, there’s at least a scuzzy disreputability to it at times; this, on the other hand, is soaked in that glossy, generic Screen Gems sheen that makes it fit for tween consumption. Hell, it doesn’t even have the guts to off the obligatory bunch of catty girls and meatheaded jocks that are begging to become fodder. Never trust a slasher that can’t even bother to do that.
The verdict: ditch both of these two. For a good time, call Mary Lou instead.
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