On the anniversary of the original ‘Prom Night,’ we examine the unusual slasher franchise and what legacy it’s left behind
“It’s not who you come with, it’s who you take home.”
There are almost more slasher films available than there are expendable victims for the killers from those films to murder. Audiences latched onto the gory sub-genre of horror and it’s not surprising to see why these sorts of films would become so popular. It’s easy to get lost amongst the leagues of slasher titles that are out there, let alone be aware of which ones are actually worth your time. Sometimes cult classics can get ignored just because they have unfortunate titles. The Prom Night films, as flawed as they are, are titles that are absolutely worth your attention…for the most part.
The Prom Night films encapsulate an oddball of a franchise that I would always pass in the aisles of video rental stores, but never actually checked out. I was quick to assume that it was much like many other slashers from the ’80s where a jilted, crazy woman took to those who wronged her with an ax/machete/what have you. The franchise is actually a lot more complicated than that and the films go in some ambitious directions that I’ve never seen other horror franchises go down before. Prom Night is an incredibly problematic series and out of the five pictures in the series (including the 2008 remake), only two of them are really worth the effort. Those aren’t good stats. There are even more worthwhile films to watch in the Leprechaun series, after all. That being said, Prom Night is a series that is constantly trying to do something new and different, and while that results in very sloppy films for the most part, there are still some underseen horror gems amidst the trash. With the original Prom Night having come out 37 years ago today, what better time to re-enroll in Hamilton High and explore this curious piece of horror history.
Prom Night might have been created as a response to the holiday-centric horror film Halloween being a smash hit, but the Prom Night films would curiously end up mirroring John Carpenter’s original plan for the Halloween series more than the Halloween films themselves would. After the Michael Myers story had been “concluded” in Halloween Part II, Carpenter intended for each following Halloween film to be a totally new idea and for the series to turn into an anthology effort. Obviously things didn’t go in that direction after the failure of the Myers-less Halloween III. It is however an approach that would essentially come to pass with the Prom Night pictures.
Each Prom Night movie is more or less an entirely new idea or reboot on the basic premise of murders occurring on the night of prom. The Prom Night franchise strikes out with a lot of these fresh takes on its central idea, but that doesn’t mean that the idea itself is flawed. The execution of all of this might be rusty, but at least the Prom Night films are trying to do something unconventional here.
The original Prom Night came out in 1980 courtesy of Paul Lynch, who was essentially a newcomer director, with a script by William Gray. Prom Night was also a big part of the slasher renaissance that was happening in Canada in the early ‘80s, with this, Black Christmas, and Terror Train all being formative films for the genre. It’s just a little funny to think that Canada of all places was the home of all the best gory slashers at the time. The film was an undisputed success, taking a modest budget of $1.5 million (CAD, at that) and earning almost $15 million in the United States. In spite of this success, that franchise and film are still seen as the redheaded stepchild of the slasher world to some extent.
The film sees a gaggle of high school students being hunted by a masked killer who’s trying to get revenge for a death that they were responsible for. The anniversary of this death just so happens to be coinciding with prom night. This original film is hardly groundbreaking material, but there’s plenty of charm coursing throughout it and it helps introduce the basics to the fledgling genre. William Gray, the screenwriter, was also just coming off of writing The Changeling, which is all about psychological horror, so it’s easy to see why this script also doesn’t have the usual pacing and relentless speed of other films of a similar nature.
It’s also in Prom Night’s favor that there’s actual commendable acting coming from these teenagers—something that is definitely questionable on the later Prom Night films, Prom Night II excluded. The film takes its time so you actually get to know these characters and care about them so their deaths have weight to them. They may not be deep characterizations, but they feel like believable characters, which is also something absent in the other films.
On top of that, Jamie Lee Curtis is leading the pack as Kim, completing her early horror trifecta in the process between this, Terror Train, and of course, Halloween. While her work here is hardly as memorable as her performance from Halloween, she still does a good job. Then there’s also Leslie Nielsen doing great work as Mr. Hammond. Prom Night was pre-Naked Gun and before Nielsen was primarily associated with comedy, but his chilling work here or in Creepshow is some of his most satisfying stuff, in my opinion. It’s a shame that he wasn’t able to do a bit more dramatic work in the later stages of his career. He would have been perfect on a season of Fargo.
While Prom Night is certainly guilty of being a slash-by-numbers horror film, it’s still full of shocking, memorable scenes that give it a strong presence. Right from the crazy game of hide-and-seek-then-murder that starts the film off, things are in a very tense place. During this opening scene there’s an overwhelming feeling of, Oh, they’re not going to kill a child, are they? And then they kill a child. Before this moment, the “killers are coming” chant is already a creepy as hell touch with there being such a building sense of dread to it all. Tragic introduction is also sure to hammer in the fact that these people are kids. After Robin falls to her death, one of her friends bursts into tears because they are children. That’s what makes it so nuts to see them all so quickly shift into murder pact mode. Seriously, this is essentially I Know What You Did Last Summer, but with pre-teens.
The early scenes where the killer is taunting his victims with phone calls is also shot in a way that feels different than the moments with Kim and friends. There are quick, impatient cuts of him dialing the phone or tapping his pencil into oblivion on a pad of paper that create tension. It’s such a disruptive visual style because his actions are so thoroughly interrupting the lives of these characters. This film is also doing the whole Scream thing over the phone before Scream itself was, so it deserves points there. The film also takes plenty of opportunities to show the killer peering through shrubs in a voyeuristic style where you’re watching first-person through his perspective.
It’s kind of funny that a film that spends so much time building up to the prom ends up saving it for the final act. Even then, the murders don’t start happening until the final half hour (but when they do, they don’t let up). A lot of the killer’s murders are pretty bland, but there are still moments of inspiration, like the ridiculous death where a guy drives off a cliff. The prom itself is also a real sight to take in, with it being full of shining neons and a disco décor. You wouldn’t think that disco and stabbings would go together that well, but Prom Night pulls it off. It also allows for absurd setpieces, like a five-minute disco showcase, to go off in the middle of a horror film. What better way to create terror, right?
When it comes to Prom Night’s ending, it’s a real spectacle that concludes the minute the film resolves its mystery. This abrupt cut to credits is because this film is all about trauma and not being able to find the right help before it becomes too late. Coincidentally, it’s the sort of rich backstory that’s going on in Halloween, with this being a much deeper film than it originally lets on to be.
This is a story about someone needing help and being unsuccessful in that journey, so a bunch of people die in the process. It’s an ending that’s supposed to bum you out. It doesn’t allow the characters any time to decompress, or the audience any time to reflect, over what’s just happened. You’re thrown out as soon as twisted vengeance is thwarted because their journey is done now. It’s incredibly powerful in its brevity and how it forces the aftermath to go on in the audience’s heads. It forces you to think about the slimy answers to the questions that it brings up in its final moments and there’s something to be said in the poignancy of that.
The Prom Night sequels don’t attempt anything quite so lofty, but its first follow-up, Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II, is actually a better film than the original and the best of the lot. The craziest thing about this is that the film didn’t even begin as a Prom Night film. Bruce Pittman had finished work on his film, The Haunting of Hamilton High, but after executive producers were displeased with it, they hired Ron Oliver to re-write and direct the film, with it turning into the wonderfully twisted Prom Night II. It’s a mystery why this was done seven years after the original film’s release though if it was trying to cash in on the film’s success. It certainly feels like Oliver deserves more credit for the film’s surreal tone than Pittman does, with all of the film’s iconic scenes being his doing.
Prom Night II shifts the series from a troubled serial killer looking for revenge, to the ghost of a spunky prom queen being awakened from a magic costume trunk and then wreaking havoc and possessing people. It’s an idea that doesn’t make any sense, but it knows exactly what it’s doing and establishes a tone early on that it’s able to maintain. In spite of this being bonkers right from the jump, it’s somehow able to keep this weird momentum going and create a fascinating, unpredictable horror film in the process.
The film’s first glimpse of Mary Lou Maloney shows her in a confession booth voicing a hefty list of sins to the priest before finally saying, “Father, there’s one more thing: I loved every minute of it,” before writing her phone number and “For A Good Time Call Mary Lou” on the confession booth wall. Then suddenly the scene smash cuts to Mary Lou dancing to “Tutti Fruiti.” If that’s not a bad ass, catchy introduction to a character, I don’t know what is. It also helps when a film’s antagonist has so much personality. Mary Lou is tossing out quips and more charming than Freddy Krueger or Chucky. She’s such an entertaining villain that it’s a shame that this rendition of the character isn’t present through the rest of the franchise.
The outrageous prom prank that’s played on Mary Lou is so over the top that it makes the stunt that’s pulled in Carrie look like cyber bullying in comparison. It’s so graphic and such a strong way to kick off the movie. Like what an awful, bubbling face burn. I was honestly shocked over how gruesome and realistic it looks, with it acting as such an effective example of burn effects. This introduction helps establish that all bets are off in this movie and that anything can happen. It seriously sets you on guard for what’s to come. Furthermore, up until this point you’re led to believe that Mary Lou is the film’s protagonist. For her to suddenly get brutally burned to death and the film to then jump forward in time is certainly surprising.
It’s also great to just watch the range of Wendy Lyons, the actress who plays Vicki Carpenter, the film’s actual protagonist. She does a believable job as a meek goodie-goodie, but watching her get taken over by Mary Lou and going crazy in the process shows that she’s clearly capable of more. These moments that push her into various extremes are the ones that play best. The moments where she’s feeling worried for her sanity or that she’s losing it genuinely connect. It’s hard not to feel scared for her. Besides, watching her get to snap and tell some “bitches” to “shut their fucking mouths” is just damn fun, too.
As Mary Lou continues to toy with Vicki, a number of fantasy sequences occur, which are all such upsetting and unusual detours. They also begin to show off the heavy Lynchian vibe of this film, which does this material so many favors. It all feels very Silent Hill or Stranger Things-like as the lights will just randomly shut out and Vicki will find herself in a scarier mirror version of the world. It’s so damn good and fun. The film tries so many ideas that I’ve never seen done before and just gets creative in a way that more films need to explore. One of these fugue states involves Vicki getting tied up in black, inky spider webs just because it’s an effective, cool visual.
The material in the “rocking horse scene” is seriously the stuff of nightmares and worth the price of admission alone. It’s as if David Lynch was ghost directing these scenes. Right before things start going off the rails, Vicki becomes coiled up by her bed sheets and it legitimately feels like a moment from out of a Nightmare on Elm Street film. The rocking horse material might not sound that terrifying, but the toy has a man’s eyes and a human tongue darting out of its mouth, and it’s some of the most upsetting material you’ll ever come across. It’s brilliant, disturbing mayhem and I love it so much. In another scene Vicki is just casually thumbing the horse’s tongue for stimulation. Essentially every death is a sequence on par with this madness, which keeps the film consistently interesting.
This same energy is present in the bonkers “whirlpool” chalkboard moment where Vicki is seamlessly pulled into a chalkboard like it’s a pool of water. It’s a great effect and I’m truly surprised I haven’t seen this sort of thing done somewhere else. They’re Inception level visuals. This is a long way from just some deranged serial killer running amok. Later on, there’s a death involving electrocution from a computer that is so out of nowhere. It almost seems like it’s intentionally trying to become some meme-worthy relic of the ‘80s. Mary Lou all of a sudden inexplicably has control over computers and electronics even though she has no connection at all to that realm. Who cares though?
There’s also a truly insane death scene in the ladies locker room that needs to immediately be discussed. Not only does it begin with Vicki trying to rape her female friend in the shower, but after she nakedly stalks her prey, she then psychically causes the lockers to collapse in on themselves after singing some of “Tutti Fruiti’s” chorus. Like, excuse me? How does any of that make sense or even remain consistent with Mary Lou’s previously established powers? It’s complete nonsense but it’s just so damn awesome that you don’t even care. Like isn’t that just one of the coolest visuals you’ve seen from some high school slasher film? Let Mary Lou—and this film—be their weird, nonsensical selves. Prom Night II also wisely taps into a weird sense of humor around these killings.
Prom Night II also pulls off a satisfying ending that makes all of this nonsense work all the better. The final act features a sequence where a zombified Mary Lou tears herself from out of Vicki’s body cavity. It’s supremely disturbing, but a great final scare to go out on as the prom goes down in flames. Then the ending features the crazy visual of Vicki emerging from the magic prop trunk once Mary Lou’s spell is broken, only she’s dripping in goo as if she’s come out from a cocoon or something. It’s weird, but it works. Finally, all of the Prom Night films attempt to go out on a surprising twist ending, but the majority of them just come across as buzkill conclusions. Prom Night II is the one entry that gets the closest to that playful sort of gotcha ending that slashers thrive on.
With the first two Prom Night films being the only really satisfying entries in the series, this would be a more than suitable point to end this retrospective on the slasher series. Lord knows this is likely more words than you’ll ever need to see about prom murders. That being said, Prom Night III and IV both feature a number of unbelievable scenes that are still worth touching on and because being a horror fan is all about being a masochist, we’re still going to briefly explore the shining moments of the rusted blade that is the latter Prom Night films.
While the film itself is sort of a tone-deaf misfire, there’s something fascinating about the intentions behind Prom Night III: The Last Kiss. Rather than doing a straight on horror film, the third Prom Night film is instead a parody of the previous films that’s much more interested in trying to make its audience laugh than it is in making them scream. Like imagine if Scream 3 was just Scary Movie and they weren’t their own separate franchises? It’s a bonkers idea, but one that you sort of have to respect. If Halloween had become an anthology franchise, it certainly feels like one of those installments inevitably would have been a satire of the series. It weirdly makes sense. The problem is that it just isn’t that funny. It is entertaining though for how bizarre a movie it is.
The film begins in Hell, with the purgatory being depicted as a sad disco that Mary Lou eventually breaks out of by destroying her chains with a nail file. That ridiculous statement pretty much is this film in a nutshell. Not much later a man is getting electrocuted by a jukebox until his pacemaker bursts out of his chest. We’re a long way from childhood murder pacts.
The biggest problem with Prom Night III is simply trying to understand the film’s unusual sense or humor. For instance, something peculiar will go on, like a professor chomping on a huge hoagie while handing out final exams. Like, I guess that’s funny, but it’s not really a joke. Further on, Mary Lou has killer manicured nails that pop out like Wolverine. Later she stabs someone through both of their hands with ice cream cones. Other weird murders, like the one that involves battery acid coming out of a beauty salon hair drier, feel like they could be from right out of Scream Queens.
The film’s infamous “football murder” doesn’t even make sense. Like what is going on here? A football just all of a sudden turns into some vicious screw? Why! Then it’s all capped off with an “Oh, not again…” In fact, there are many times where comical circus-like music plays over scenes where a body is being disposed of as Alex grunts something like, “Boy, this is not your day.” Meanwhile, Mary Lou operates with such wonton control over the universe, it’s as if she’s the Genie from Aladdin. That’s not what you want in a villain.
In the end, prom is such an afterthought in Prom Night III that the event doesn’t even really come into play until the film’s final 15 minutes. Then the film goes out on one of the darkest, most pessimistic endings possible. It’s just a mess. That being said, it’s still leagues better than Prom Night IV and the unfortunate 2008 remake. Prom Night IV: Deliver Us From Evil deals with a killer, possessed priest that seems to have a grudge against the “whores” out there celebrating prom. There’s barely anything going on in this movie and it just hangs onto “ideas” like religion to make it seem more meaningful than it actually is. Towards the end of the movie some crucifixions of Jesus burst into flames because RELIGION and that’s more or less the film in a nutshell.
Finally, the last attempt at pumping life into Prom Night happened in 2008 by director Nelson McCormick, who was coming off hot with his remake of another piece of ’80s horror, The Stepfather. While it would appear that McCormick had at least some sort of love for the original Stepfather films, that sort of passion for the source material appears to be wholly absent here. Like why even make this into a Prom Night remake if so much is going to be changed and the end product barely resembles the original films?
Prom Night’s real claim to fame is that it has the honor of being the first slasher film with a PG-13 rating. This bastardized ion and selling out of horror has been an increasing problem through the years, with Prom Night being the precursor for all of it. The profit that the film would end up turning surely has more to do with the film’s child-friendly rating and not the quality of the film itself. Unfortunately, what could have been an ample opportunity to breathe life into a series that is practically defined by the ’80s, turns into an embarrassing debacle.
The film is basically just rich kid porn. The film is set in a huge, lavish hotel with so much of it taking place outside of prom itself. The film could be called Hotel and no one would question it. Or like why not have these characters be there for a wedding or going on some big grad trip together? If you want people in a hotel, there are so many better reasons to get them in one, yet the idea is still so antithetical to the small-scale nature of the original film. At this point, just do something different
No one in this film is a strong female character. Hell, no one feels like a character, period. The killer is also so angry and out of control. He kills an irresponsible amount of people for no reason at all to the point that it begins to border on being comical. He could avoid so much of this, but he doesn’t. And he’s always just very violently stabbing people. Nothing creative. This body count of 13 is almost double the original Prom Night’s much more modest kill count of seven (eight if you include the opening death). Oh how times have changed.
So even though Prom Night might not be the most seminal franchise in horror history, it does still hold a special place during the creation of the slasher genre. While every film in the series might not excite you, with the series celebrating its birthday, at least give the first two installments a spin.
There are precious disco dance moves to learn, after all.
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