Prom Night (2008) **½
The in-name-only sequel has been with us for along time, at least since The Return of Doctor X in 1939. The in-name-only remake, on the other hand… So far as I can tell, it took the movie industry more than a hundred years to dream up that mind-bending concept. Why mind-bending, you ask? Well, think about it. Titles are not subject to copyright protection, although under certain very restrictive circumstances, they may be covered by trademark laws instead. If you have— oh, I don’t know— say a screenplay for a horror movie that involves kids getting killed at their senior prom, there’s really nothing to stop you from calling it Prom Night, so long as your script bears no other meaningful resemblance to the early-80’s Canadian slasher flick of the same name, the pair of lame Nightmare on Elm Street rip-offs that were passed off as sequels to it in 1987 and 1990, or the dismal killer priest film that was passed off as a sequel to those in 1992. Remake rights cost money, though. Why spend that money if you don’t care about Kim and Alex Hammond, or Mary Lou Maloney, or Father Jonas, or even Hamilton High School as a setting? Is it possible that being derivative has finally become so fashionable that filmmakers are now eager to pretend to be rip-off artists, even when they come bearing new stories of their very own? I can only conclude that it must have, for within the space of three years, we’ve had a House of Wax that owes almost nothing to House of Wax, a Black Christmas that owes almost nothing to Black Christmas, and a Prom Night that owes but a single moment of a single scene to Prom Night.
Three years ago, Donna Keppel (Brittany Snow) enrolled in a high school biology class taught by Richard Felton (Jonathon Schaech, from Quarantine and The Forsaken). Felton became obsessed with Donna— as in, “John Hinkley shooting the president to impress Jodie Foster” obsessed— and when she and her family rightly erected every obstacle they could think of to his having any further contact with her, Felton came by the house one evening, and murdered Donna’s father, mother, and little brother. Donna was out of the house for the first two slayings, but she came home just in time to find her male relatives’ bodies, and to watch from hiding while Felton stabbed her mother to death. Mom’s last act of parental devotion was to tell the killer that Donna was away at a slumber party, and wouldn’t be returning all night; in point of fact, she could see Donna under her bed from where Felton had her pinned to the floor. Felton believed Mrs. Keppel’s lie, and Donna was able to summon the police after he stalked off in search of her. The deranged teacher was apprehended a short while later, and although he was found not guilty by reason of insanity, he’s been locked up in a maximum security mental hospital ever since.
These days, Donna lives with her aunt and uncle, Karen (Jessalyn Gilsig, from Destination: Infestation and the new version of The Stepfather) and Jack (Linden Ashby, of Resident Evil: Extinction and Anacondas: Trail of Blood) Turner. It’s not exactly clear whether the couple were already neighbors of the Keppels, or whether they relocated to Bridgeport, Oregon, in order to spare Donna the hassle of a move on top of the trauma she’d already experienced. Donna still has the occasional nightmare, still takes powerful anti-anxiety drugs, and still sees a therapist on a regular basis. Nevertheless, she’s come a long way, psychologically speaking, by the waning weeks of her senior year, and her life has resumed something resembling its normal contours. She has two very close friends in Lisa (Dana Davis) and Claire (Jessica Stroup, from Pray for Morning and The Hills Have Eyes 2), and she’s dating an extremely supportive and considerate boy by the name of Bobby (Scott Porter). She’s also been accepted at Duke University, for which everyone she knows is justly proud of her. All in all, it’s easy to see why Donna is so heavily invested in the prom this year— after what she’s been through, successfully participating in so thoroughly ordinary a social ritual is as big a triumph for her as getting into a top-shelf college. Naturally, she’ll be attending in company with Lisa and Claire, and the boyfriends— Bobby, Ronnie (Collins Pennie), and Mike (From Within’s Kelly Blatz)— have all chipped in to rent both a limousine and suite 312 in the Pacific Grand Hotel, the super-swank lodging whose ballroom will serve as the venue for the dance. The school can afford this because Prom Committee president Crissy Lynn (Brianne Davis, from Something’s Wrong in Kansas and The Haunting of Marsten Manor)— who is also Lisa’s arch-rival for the position of prom queen— belongs to probably the richest family in Bridgeport, and persuaded her father to write an extremely large check. I’m not sure how Bobby, Ronnie, and Mike have pulled it off, though.
The kids don’t realize this as yet (indeed, half of them won’t realize it until it’s much too late for realizing to do them any good), but they’ve got a lot bigger things to worry about than whether Crissy or Lisa winds up wearing the little rhinestone tiara later on. At the Bridgeport police headquarters, Detective Nash (James Ransone, from The American Astronaut and A Dirty Shame) picks up a fax which he immediately rushes over to show his boss, Detective Winn (Idris Elba, of 28 Weeks Later and The Reaping). Richard Felton has escaped from the mental hospital, and worse still, it’s taken the security staff there three days to get around to alerting the cops in the one town on Earth where he’s almost certain to go. Winn quickly pays a visit to the Turner house, then heads over to the Pacific Grand to reconnoiter and to pass around Felton’s mugshot to the hotel staff. Unfortunately, Felton looks rather different now than he did three years ago— no more beard, no more long, stringy, unkempt hair— and consequently, no one on staff makes the connection between Winn’s outdated photograph and the man who just checked into room 309 under the name Howard Ramsay. Thinking he’s a step ahead of the killer when he’s really several steps behind, Winn calls back to the station for enough backup to put a man or two on each of the hotel’s numerous doors to the outside.
Prom Night goes about things a little differently from the typical slasher movie from this point on, and not just in the sense that its PG-13 rating prevents much of an exploitation sensibility from developing. Richard Felton has a very clear, very specific agenda in mind, and mass slaughter per se is not really a part of it. What Felton wants is to have Donna to himself, and while he’s more than willing to kill in order to realize that goal, he’s clever enough and focused enough not to bother with anyone whose death will not further his aims in some concrete way. Bobby, as Donna’s boyfriend, is an obvious target. So is Lisa, who also had Felton for Freshman Biology, and therefore eventually recognizes him after seeing him repeatedly in the hotel corridors. Donna’s other friends are in danger only to the extent that they might get in the killer’s way (which, to be fair, is a pretty significant extent, since they’re all sharing the same suite at the Pacific Grand), and no one among the multitude of other prom-goers is of any interest to Felton at all. Come to think of it, that’s another feature this movie has in common with the earlier Prom Night, in which the killer also had an unusually clear purpose, and never treated murder as an end unto itself.
With the stalk-and-slash element relatively muted and confined almost completely to the second act, Prom Night spends the bulk of its time and energy following the lead of horrific cop thrillers like Seven and The Silence of the Lambs. Director Nelson McCormick is quite open about his admiration for both of the aforementioned films, and there is a set-piece during Winn’s attempt to secure the hotel with SWAT team assistance that unabashedly copies Hannibal Lecter’s hotel escape in the latter. Distancing the film in this way from the borrowed title’s genre associations was a wise tack to pursue, given that the restrictive rating would have made Prom Night unsatisfying indeed had McCormick and writer J. S. Cardone gone for a more conventional killer-on-the-loose approach. As it is, the more slasher-influenced segments are the weakest parts of the film, relying far too much on three or four varieties of false scare. We get the closet gag, in which a character rummaging around in a closet that may or may not contain the killer is surprised by somebody coming up behind them; the medicine cabinet gag, in which a character looking for something in a bathroom medicine cabinet closes the mirrored door to reveal somebody standing behind them; the obstacle gag, in which a character attempting to make a stealthy retreat from Felton backs noisily into some manner of furniture; and the “all just a dream” gag, in which Donna awakens to safety a split second after falling into Felton’s clutches. And we get all the foregoing again and again and AGAIN, sometimes even in combination. It would make a hell of a drinking game, but I wouldn’t recommend that anyone who weighs less than about 250 pounds actually attempt to play it.
The biggest thing Prom Night has to its credit is a much better cast than any ostensible remake of a 1980’s slasher movie really deserves. Most of the actors playing the kids have a good bit of television work under their belts, and while none of them are going to blow anyone away with the depth and insight of their performances, the experience does show to the movie’s advantage. Idris Elba and Jonathon Schaech are really the ones to watch, though. Each in his way plays up a point about Prom Night that, although very easy to miss, goes far toward explaining why I like it as much as I do in spite of its faults. On their side of the story, this movie is about a duel of wits between two very competent and fairly evenly matched antagonists, but in no sense can either cop or killer be considered a genius. Winn possesses no special talents or intellectual gifts, while Felton has no gimmick or grandiose scheme unifying his crimes, and those two facts set Prom Night as far apart from the average Silence of the Lambs wannabe as its emphasis on police procedural elements sets it apart from the average Friday the 13th clone. In Elba’s portrayal, Winn looks sharp enough to get the job done and sufficiently forceful to inspire confidence in those whom he has to protect, but he also comes across as believably fallible. (Also, for whatever this is worth, you’d never guess that Elba was British watching him here.) Schaech, meanwhile, gives one of the better renditions of the Creepy Nonentity school of serial killer acting that I’ve seen in some time. The script puts him up to some stuff that he can’t quite sell here and there, but Schaech’s overall combination of outward nondescriptness and inward intensity makes Felton an unusually effective villain with little recourse to the usual trappings of villainy.