Prom Night (1980) ***½
Paul Lynch’s Prom Night is a fascinating film. When I revisited it this past weekend— for the first time in I don’t know how many years— I found myself marveling over how it was possible for a director of little real ability, working from a script that transparently started life as a cynical attempt to cash in on the success of Friday the 13th, Halloween, and Carrie, to create as if by accident one of the best of all the early-80’s North American slasher movies. Such a thing shouldn’t be possible; the result of so obviously mercenary a scheme ought to have come out looking like The Prey at the very best. That Prom Night would rise above the limitations built into it to approach the standard set by Halloween and Maniac is simply staggering.
You’d never guess what was coming from the first act. In a setting-up-the-motive prologue that can stand alongside the silliest of its kind, a group of children are playing a variation on the theme of hide-and-seek (apparently called “The Killer Is Coming”) in an abandoned convent when something goes horribly wrong. Three more kids— Kim, Robin, and Alex Hammond— wander onto the scene on their way home from school. Heedless of the fact that Wendy, Nick, Kelly, and Jude have never been especially friendly toward her or her siblings, Robin breaks off from the latter pair and tries to join the game. The other children merely terrorize her, and are so successful that the girl accidentally backs out of a ruined second-story window and falls to her death. Wendy, believing Nick, Jude, Kelly, and herself to be the only witnesses to the lethal mishap, swears her playmates to eternal secrecy. The local police believe Robin’s death to be the result of an attempted sex crime, and go after a known child molester who lives not far from the convent. Leonard Merch runs his car off the road fleeing from the cops when they come to arrest him, and is burned nearly to death in the wreckage.
Six years later, the children from the prologue are all students at Alexander Hamilton High School, where the Hammond kids’ father (Leslie Nielsen, from Forbidden Planet and Day of the Animals) works as the principal. Kim (now played by Jamie Lee Curtis, of Halloween and The Fog) is one of the Beautiful People these days— in fact, she’s been voted Queen of the Prom. Her brother, Alex (Skullduggery’s Michael Tough), on the other hand, has grown up an introverted nerd; one suspects that his twin sister’s death hit him especially hard. As for the Dark Secret Club, Kim is friends with all of them but ringleader Wendy (Eddie Benton, aka Anne-Marie Martin, from The Boogens and Runaway). Jude (Joy Thompson, from Trapped and Pacific Banana) seems to be one of Kim’s best gal-pals, the future prom queen often finds herself serving as relationship counselor to the shy and somewhat mousy Kelly (Firebird 2015 A.D.’s Mary Beth Rubens), and she’s just started dating Nick (Casey Stevens), himself to be crowned King of the Prom. It’s that last bit that has turned Kim into Wendy’s arch-rival. The latter girl has developed into one of those obnoxious rich bitches who regard themselves as genetically entitled to get whatever they want, and it burns Wendy’s ass something fierce that her boyfriend has dumped her in favor of Kim. Tensions between the two girls mount steadily until, by the night of the prom, Wendy is ready to consider drastic action to even the score. To that end, she takes up with Lou Farmer (David Mucci), the biggest hoodlum in school, in order to use him and his gang as an instrument of revenge. But the students of Alexander Hamilton High are going to have much more important things to worry about on prom night than a petty adolescent feud. Prom night happens also to be the exact anniversary of Robin Hammond’s death, and that very morning, somebody makes a round of threatening phone calls to all four members of the Dark Secret Club.
Now Kim is obviously too well adjusted for it to be her, and besides, she’s played by the highest-billed actress in the movie. Alex, however, might just be our man— he’s certainly got the motive, if in fact he really did witness his sister’s fall from the convent window after all. Then again, Alex isn’t the only one with a motive. Early on prom night morning (well what would you call it?), Nick’s father, police detective Lieutenant McBride (George Touliatos), calls up a psychiatrist buddy of his named Dr. Fairchild (David Gardner, from Class of 1984 and that miserable “RoboCop” TV show) to tell him about some disturbing news. McBride was in charge of investigating the Hammond case, while Fairchild spent a stint six years back tending to the now completely psychotic Leonard Merch; you’ve probably already guessed that McBride has brought in the doctor to tell him that his old patient has escaped from the hospital.
That makes two suspects— you want to try for three? Okay then, how about Mr. Sykes? Sykes (Robert Silverman, from Rabid and The Brood) appears to be the prototype of that slasher movie mainstay, the Sinister, Rat-Faced Janitor. He’s new to the school, and some of the girls claim to have caught him peeping on them in the locker room. (Is it possible that this wouldn’t have gotten a man instantly fired even in the benighted days of the early 1980’s?) He also always seems to be around whenever anything creepy happens, like the time somebody smashes the mirror in the girls’ bathroom and makes off with a dagger-like shard about the same size and shape as the bloody one that McBride’s men find beside the dead body of the nurse Merch kidnapped while making his escape.
All the necessary pieces would seem to be in place now for Prom Night to get down to its main business, with the killer (Merch? Alex? Sykes?) stalking the high school and offing the prom-goers one by one. The thing is, though, that that’s not quite what happens. Instead, screenwriter William Gray seems to have been seized by a sudden surge of inspiration at this point, because the plot suddenly takes off in a rather different direction from the standard slasher movie template. Some of this is unnecessary and silly, like the amazing spectacle of Jamie Lee Curtis— Disco Queen! Other aspects, though, like the striking way in which Wendy’s Carrie-like plot to sabotage her rival’s coronation goes lethally off the rails, are what enables Prom Night to break away from its shameless ripoff roots. Even the requirements of the usually obligatory Final Girl formula are tossed out the window, but in a way that still allows Kim to play the hero— she actually ends up rescuing Nick from the killer, who, believe it or not, harbors no ill-will against her at all, and goes out of his way to avoid hurting her in the climactic struggle. And most shocking of all, the concluding scene of this movie carries some real emotional weight!
That, in turn, leads us to Jamie Lee Curtis’s contribution to Prom Night’s success. One of the bigger surprises here is how far she has come as an actress since her star-making turn in Halloween two years before. Curtis’s performance in the earlier film was certainly serviceable, and hinted strongly that she would be someone to look out for in the future, but I think it was in Prom Night that she really emerged from her chrysalis. Gray’s screenplay calls on her to portray a very different and in some ways much trickier range of emotional qualities and character traits than Carpenter’s had, and she rises to the occasion, doing much to elevate even the nakedly plagiaristic first half to comparatively respectable levels. Without her to serve as the center of attention, I might have dismissed the movie out of hand before it had a chance to make its big turnaround.
And there certainly is much temptation to out-of-hand dismissal during the first 45 minutes or so. The most obvious fault in Prom Night is the amazing parade of cliches and stolen story ideas. From Carrie, we have the theme of the popular girl out to get revenge on the elected prom queen, whose alliance with the school’s most prominent knuckle-dragging bad-ass proves much more complicated to manage than she had prepared for, along with a panic-inducing disaster disrupting the dance itself. Halloween gives us a disfigured murderer who escapes from the hospital to which he had been confined and heads straight for his old stomping grounds, a cop and a psychiatrist who join forces to catch him, and a potential victim who just happens to be that cop’s teenage offspring. Halloween’s incredible success at the box office also no doubt provided the impetus for the casting of Jamie Lee Curtis as Prom Night’s female lead. It’s Friday the 13th, though, that provides most of the pilfered plot points. The opening prologue establishes exactly the sort of revenge-incubating-for-years premise that drove the better-known movie, Sykes is obviously modeled after Friday the 13th’s Crazy Ralph, the killer (once his identity is finally revealed) has a lot more in common with Pamela Voorhees than he does with Michael Myers, and there’s even an attention-getting decapitation sequence. Meanwhile, Paul Lynch gives the movie plenty of handicaps to overcome too. His direction is so flat and lifeless that Sean Cunningham looks like Dario Argento in comparison, and he outdoes even Lucio Fulci when it comes to not using nearly enough light. Prom Night came out so dark and murky, in fact, that it’s just as well the filmmakers didn’t have access to a virtuoso like Tom Savini to provide the gore effects— we’d never have been able to see them anyway. That William Gray and Jamie Lee Curtis were able to drag this movie kicking and screaming into the realm of quality 80’s-style horror is potent testament to their respective talents.