Pros: Film has its moments…along with plenty of DISCO MADNESS!
Cons: The horror movie tricks and treats are a long time coming
Made in Canada and released in 1980, just a few months after the original Friday the 13th, Prom Night is yet another horror flick based around a date or prominent event. While playing a tag-like game in an abandoned building, a young girl named Robin Hammond is accidentally forced from a second story window and falls to her death. The four children who witnessed the accident immediately take an oath of secrecy to hide their involvement, police pick up a convicted sex offender they believe is responsible, and the incident is all but forgotten…or is it? Six years later, as the date of their high school prom approaches, the now-teenaged kids involved in Robin’s death are being harassed by an unknown stalker. Could it be that the “disfigured, schizophrenic psychotic” who was convicted of the crime, sent to a nearby asylum, and recently escaped has come back to clear his name? Has the super skeezy school janitor finally lost his marbles and become a pervert murderer? Or is there someone else out there who wants to avenge the young girl’s death?
Who could this ax-wielding maniac be?
Considering the familiarity of the material, it’s somewhat inexplicable that Prom Night has achieved and maintained a substantial amount of popularity since its production. Written by William Gray from a story by Robert Guza, Jr., this film includes virtually every slasher film cliché imaginable. When Gray’s script introduces a character who, much like Halloween’s Dr. Sam Loomis, has a vested interest in the escaped mental patient or a Carrie-like revenge plot that’s ready to play out at the prom, it’s pretty clear that not a whole lot of genuine inspiration or creativity went into this thing. Try as he might, director Paul Lynch can’t do much to add vitality to an excruciatingly talky script that devotes way too much time to pointless and inconsequential character development. To make matters worse, Gray’s choppy script can’t even stay focused long enough to build any single character up as being entirely relatable or even remotely interesting.
A viewer will be in for a lot of typical high school drama in getting to the film’s “big payoff” moments.
By far the worst of the issues is that Prom Night delivers nary a single moment of legitimate action or suspense for more than two-thirds of it run time. A viewer of this film has to sit through an hour of buildup before there’s any serious threat of murder and even once the kill scenes are primed, set, and ready, Lynch interrupts the action for an extended disco dancing routine. Hell, the entire last thirty minutes of this picture pulsates to the beat of a never-ending string of faux-disco hits (made exclusively for the film by composer Paul Zaza), which can either be viewed as a good or a bad thing depending on one’s tolerance for bad music. It also should be pointed out that while most other slashers of the early ‘80s went the “bigger is better” route and featured body counts in the double digits, the number of kills in Prom Night can be counted on one hand.
Yes, that’s Leslie Nielsen of Airplane! fame doing the hustle.
It’s a good thing then that director Lynch makes sure that at least some of the murders here are memorable: a slow-motion throat slashing in which Robert C. New’s camera focuses not on the gaping wound and pumping blood, but rather the distressed eyes of the victim is actually very effective at conveying the horror of the situation. Another rather brutal sequence finds a young woman being stabbed repeatedly in the chest and throat after her sex games are interrupted (remember kids – have sex and you die!). Other than these two moments however, Prom Night plays by the book and is relatively bland, delivering an extended scene in which an ax-wielding prowler chases down a hysterical teen and a decapitation that may as well have been pulled straight out of Friday the 13th. Oh, and there’s also a vehicle somersaulting down a cliff and exploding. Can’t forget that. Gore effects are adequately done but fleeting, and the element of the film that may be the most shocking is the sheer number of boom mics clearly visible in the final cut. I counted at least six instances in the first twenty minutes or so where this occurs and there seems to have been almost no effort made to correct this problem – the mic just sits onscreen for minutes at a time. Frankly, this is completely inexcusable and points to the amateurish nature of this production as a whole.
Rutrow!: post-coital activity of an unfortunate variety.
Jamie Lee Curtis stars as the film’s main character Kim Hammond, the most popular girl in the school and Robin’s older sister. This was Curtis’ third horror role (following Halloween and The Fog, both made for director John Carpenter), and she’s believable enough as a hot to trot teenager getting ready for her prom date with boyfriend Nick (played by Casey Stevens), who’s one of the kids semi-responsible for Robin’s death. Par for the course in these sorts of films, these lead actors do all right when they’re tearing it up on the dance floor, but can’t for the life of them inject any sort of emotionality into the more dramatic moments. Particularly strained and laughable is a scene in which Nick comes close to telling Kim the whole story about her sister’s death – watch as Stevens contorts his face to convey his “inner torment!.” Leslie Nielsen meanwhile walks the straight and narrow for a change as the school principal and Kim’s father, Michael Tough plays Kim’s brother, and Mary Beth Rubens, Eddie Benton, and Joy Thompson are the promiscuous girls and obvious murder victims. I’ve got to give credit to David Mucci (playing the school’s chain-smoking tough guy), Sheldon Rybowski (as a would-be ladies man named “Slick” who tools around picking up women in his van), and Robert A. Silverman (the hilariously stereotypical pervert janitor) for making the most of their goofy minor roles: it’s them and not the leads who ultimately add a sense of fun to the proceedings.
I bet there, bud. I bet.
Even if it’d be easy to trash director Lynch’s handling of this film, he does manage to create a few standout moments. I liked the way in which a handful of rather ambiguous flashback sequences tell the story of how Robin’s death was pinned on a sex offender with no connection to the case. It would have been easy to spell this out for the viewer but instead, Lynch and Grey insist that the viewer put the pieces together for himself, which is commendable: I’m always a fan of making the viewer use his brain. Additionally, scenes in which the raspy-voiced killer phones and threatens his intended victims have a definite creepiness about them, especially due to their use of a jagged editing scheme, and the lengthy aforementioned “DISCO MADNESS” scene boasts nice choreography and photography (seems someone watched Saturday Night Fever a time or three). Sad to say, I’d almost be more comfortable with calling this dance sequence the true climax of the film since Prom Night is a definite letdown in the horror department. Despite its many problems and shortcomings however, similar to a film like Sleepaway Camp, I think most horror fans would want to see Prom Night just to say that they did. It’s not a perfect film by a longshot, but I’d give it a slight recommendation.
Special edition Blu-ray from the always reliable Synapse Films includes a commentary track with director Lynch and screenwriter Gray, a 25-minute making-of featurette, nine minutes of additional scenes (added for TV broadcast) and outtakes, as well as a still gallery and collection of trailers. The film is presented in an outstanding anamorphic widescreen version with optional English subtitles – a top-notch home video package. I should also point out that viewers should avoid the Alliance Atlantis print of the film (which occasionally pops up on cable) at all costs – the print is so dark as to be almost unintelligible.
4/10 : Slow-going for most of its run-time, then releases a handful of fairly low-key but decent kill scenes in its last half hour. Moderate gore, including a decapitation by ax. Minor drug content.
3/10 : I noticed one f-bomb, but these teens keep it mostly clean.
3/10 : A pair of sex scenes with just a hint of topless nudity.
6/10 : Has its admirers for sure, though for my money, there are much better ’80s horror flicks out there.
“Lieutenant, you’re asking me to comment on a catatonic schizophrenic who was disfigured and institutionalized six years ago.”