Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 14 October 2013
Source Echo Bridge DVD
Categories 31 Days of Horror X
It’s little wonder that high school proms have frequently become the settings for horror films. Sure, proms are more cinematic than your average high school day: just think of how much time and energy is spent on the costuming, set design, and soundtrack. But beyond that, the prom is an event so rife with hope, fear, lust, and frustration that it all but begs for the horror treatment. Brian De Palma’s Carrie is prom horror’s primary touchstone, but there have been echoes of, and answers to, his film ever since its release, offering a fascinating array of heroes and villains clad in taffeta and heels. Every Saturday for the next four weeks, look for a new review of a film that mixes slow dances and corsages with terror.
After Bob Clark’s Black Christmas and John Carpenter’s Halloween helped to establish the slasher as we know it, filmmakers started gobbling up nearly every notable occasion on the calendar and fitting each with a plot about deranged murderers stalking naïve young people. Prom Night, directed by Paul Lynch, was released in the US mere months after Friday the 13th and hit theaters before New Year’s Evil, My Bloody Valentine, Happy Birthday to Me, and April Fool’s Day laid claim to their special days. Lynch’s film emerged at a time when slasher movies were lucrative but not yet fully codified: Prom Night’s audience wouldn’t be making predictions about who the Final Girl might be, for instance. Watching it now, in an era when horror has become ever more steeped in self-consciousness (see Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and Cabin in the Woods), there’s something kind of endearing about Prom Night’s general lack of the same. It knows it’s a Halloween knockoff — and stars Jamie Lee Curtis to boot — but it isn’t a film about what it means to be a Halloween knockoff. It’s about some creep ruining prom.
The plot is pretty standard for a slasher of this era, beginning with a crime that took place years ago. (In this case, a group of children accidentally kill one of their playmates and vow never to tell anyone the truth about what they did.) From there we fast-forward to the present day, where a rash of murders are taking place and everyone is a suspect. The film expends more energy baiting the audience with red herrings — including a conspicuously unsavory school groundskeeper (whose over-the-top creepiness provides the film with much of its unintended humor) — than it is with developing its teenage characters. They register mostly as a series of types, including a burly meathead with limited social skills and a mean girl obsessed with the race for prom queen.
Unfortunately, Prom Night, like a lot of eighties horrors, never quite lives up to the fabulously lurid promise of its VHS cover: the copy that I rented in my youth had packaging that featured Curtis in a tiara, pouting and cradling a bouquet of red roses and a blood-spattered axe, which is a more iconic image than anything in the movie itself. Released at the end of the disco era and apparently inspired as much by the popularity of Saturday Night Fever as it is by Halloween, Prom Night at times seems to have more interest in soft-focus dance sequences than scares. (No, really: Curtis and her co-star Casey Stevens have a full-on dance routine, surrounded by their impressed classmates, and no one interrupts it with a grisly discovery or crazed murder attempt.) Nevertheless, the film can be effectively squicky when it wants to. Though I hadn’t watched it in over a decade before revisiting it to rewrite this review, I could still vividly remember a scene where a severed head rolls out onstage at the big dance while flashing lights and pulsing music underscore the moment’s surreal nastiness. And there are other spooky bits, like a prolonged sequence where the balaclava-wearing killer stalks a potential victim through the deserted halls of the high school. There are also some amusing touches of irony, my favorite being an upbeat disco tune that plays rather endlessly at prom, repeating the lyric, “Love me till I die!”
Prom Night remains interesting to genre fans mostly because it anticipates many later films: it’s hard to miss how its mask wearing, creepy-phone-call making killer seems to have influenced Scream, for instance. But it’s also worth noticing where Prom Night falls out of step with other slashers of the time. The final reveal regarding the film’s killer may not be much of a shock, but it is played surprisingly straight, opting for a sad, short death scene instead of aiming for giggly jump-in-your-seat scares. Without spoiling too much: it doesn’t exactly tease a sequel. (And when there was one, a belated seven years later, it had basically nothing to do with the original.) Prom Night doesn’t have Halloween’s iconic villain or chilling score, and it’s unlikely to haunt its audience’s dreams the way Carpenter’s film did. Yet it disconcerts us in a quiet way by ending on a sincere, and very down, note, and it has a kind of lo-fi appeal that’s absent from the 2008 remake of the same name. The latter is slick but unremittingly bland, while the original, though not quite essential, offers an often entertaining and amusingly discofied glimpse at a moment when horror was beginning a major invasion of the mainstream.
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