Thursday, March 4, 2010

Retro Review: Prom Night (1980)

The second of Jamie Lee Curtis' trio of 1980 follow-ups designed to cash in on her scream queen breakthrough two years prior in Halloween, Prom Night is a decent, enjoyable little slasher romp. Certainly not the groundbreaker and earthshaker that John Carpenter's aforementioned classic is, but really, that's a very unfair comparison for just about any slasher flick. Unfortunately, Prom Night suffers a bit for following in the footsteps of Halloween, but if you enjoy vintage slashers, then it delivers the goods.

Jamie Lee is dependable as always in the role of Kim, one of a group of high schoolers who must live with the accidental death of one of their pals (and Kim's sister) some six years previously. However, there's a ski-masked, glass-shard wielding lunatic on the loose with some horrible telephone etiquette, and he/she doesn't seem anywhere near as willing to let it go.

Surprisingly, the acting for most of the "teenage" characters is probably a cut above what you'll find in Halloween. I've often remarked about the Debbie Does Dallas-level performances of the pseudo-adolescents in Carpenter's film (Ms. Curtis excepted, of course), and in this one area I will declare that Prom Night has it over its generally superior inspiration film. As for the usual gang of bumbling incompetent grown-ups one finds in a movie like this, what can I say? It's certainly always a hoot to watch a pre-Naked Gun Leslie Nielsen play it straight, that's for sure.

There are red herrings galore--almost to a fault--but the central plot thread of the movie does deliver some chills, even if it takes a bit to get going. The killer is quite creepy, although the big identity reveal at the end always has me asking, "OK, and...?"

Even more so than Halloween or Friday the 13th, Prom Night is very much of its time. I find you have to put yourself in the mindset of the era, when a steady stream of slasher and exploitation sleaze was being fed to local cinemas like a pipeline of awesomeness. There's a certain hazy, hyper-real quality to the way it's all shot, as if someone toweled their forehead, wiped it off on the camera lens, and left it that way for the duration of the movie.

And just in case you didn't realize when this movie was made, there's the infamous disco prom scene. Perhaps it makes me a smarmy post-modern ironist, but I absolutely love the fact that the entire film stops dead so that Jamie Lee and company can engage in a slick, choreographed disco number, compete with Martin Scorsese rotating camera. You can keep the throat ripping, this is by far my favorite moment in Prom Night.

Yes, it's derivative and follows a certain slasher formula, but so were so many other highly enjoyable films of the era. In fact, many would argue that that's what made them so great, their methodical exploration of a certain expected series of tropes, and the manner in which they added something just a little different or new--a nuance her or there. Yes, the shadow of Halloween hangs over the whole thing, but, for example, I also couldn't help but notice the strong influence of another recent horror hit, Carrie--a film totally outside the slasher tradition. That, in itself, was an interesting twist.

The script, by future soap writer Robert Guza Jr. and William Gray, is certainly a by-the-numbers affair, but it knows how to get the proper reaction, in the proper places. Gray, in particular, had just come off scripting The Changeling, a film whose power hinges on its ability to generate psychological terror.

Liverpudlian director Paul Lynch may not have been at the level of a Carpenter (well, 1980-era Carpenter, at least), but he knows the basics of keeping a viewer engaged, which is all that's required with a potboiler plot such as this. It's not about reinventing the wheel here, and Lynch is up to the task of delivering a solid slasher flick. Fascinating trivia department: Lynch would go to quite the genre TV career, directing episodes of Beauty and the Beast, The Twilight Zone, Ray Bradbury Theater, Dark Shadows, The Outer Limits, Poltergeist: The Legacy, Xena, Sliders, and both Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: The Next Generation.

All in all, Prom Night is undeniably a product of the post-Halloween slasher craze, but certainly one of the better ones. If you're a fan of the subgenre, it's got everything you're looking for, wrapped up in a beautifully garish Carter Era bow.

* Thanks to the ravishing Marilyn Merlot for suggesting this week's Retro Review. If you have a suggestion, drop me a line!

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For those who are oh-so-eagerly waiting to find out the winners for the 2009 Cyber Horror Awards, stay tuned. The next post here on the Vault will be just such an announcement. In the meantime, check out Cinefantastique Online's Wonder Award nominations, announced today. Unlike the CHAs, which focus strictly on horror movies, the Wonders go across-the-board for horror, science fiction and fantasy. It's quite an interesting line-up, and I was honored to be asked to participate.


  1. Been WAAAAAAY too long since I have seen this one! Want to, so bad. Gonna check Netflix ASAP. Thanks for a great review, as usual.

  2. One of my favorite horror movies from the 80's. The twist ending when you find out the killer is the best.

  3. I made my 13 year old niece watch this film (the kid is infatuated with Jamie Lee Curtis since her crazy uncle turned her on to the original Halloween last year). She looked stunned at the end of the film. Her only comment: "Wow, people sure danced weird back then!"

    She also figured out the killer twenty minutes into the film.

  4. For all the Agatha Christie comparisons that most early slashers get, this is the one that really does follow the Dame's template; especailly considering the number of suspects involved.

    And as for the big reveal at the end; the question that I always have is what's up with the make-up? You're wearing a mask?

  5. I remember seeing this one at the theater when it came out. I didn't care for slashers back then, but I liked this one. I don't remember a twist, but I do remember the disco—where they definitely did NOT do the twist, so...

  6. Thanks guys, I'm glad you enjoyed the review. I had actually never pondered the connection between Agatha Christie and the early slashers, that's pretty fascinating!

    And Pax, disco dancing is a funny thing, because as cheesy as it may have been, I always thought it was a sweet return to the more formal, ballroom style dancing that had been phased out in favor of more of the "anybody can do it" rock n' roll school of solo dancing. But why am I discussing this on a horror blog? Who knows...

  7. Wow. I watch a lot of the older horror movies, but somehow I missed this one. I have not seen the remake either. But knowing Ms. Curtis stars in it is enough to get me to slot it into the netflix queue. Well, that and the promise of a slick disco number. :)