The difference between “Prom Night” and “Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night 2” helpfully illustrates two of the main strands running through 80s horror and slasher cinema. Firstly, is the complete indifference to continuity. Originally titled “The Haunting Of Hamilton High”, and intended as a homage to horror/exploitation directors of the past (there are cast members with the surnames Carpenter, Romero, Craven, Waters, Henenlotter and Browning); the producers didn’t think much to it, so they reshot half. Then, the distributors Alliance Films retitled it to “build on the success of Prom Night”, you know, the sort-of popular movie from 7 years ago? It, of course, shares no cast*, crew or significant plot details with the first movie, aside from the name of the school – and it’s not like anyone says “hey, remember that slaughter we had at prom a few years ago?”
Secondly, is the evolution of the genre. “Prom Night” is (relatively) cheaply shot, with a cast of mostly amateur actors – see also “Hell Night”, “Final Exam” and most of the others of the era. The killer in all instances was a real flesh-and-blood person, but “A Nightmare On Elm Street” threw the doors open for horror movies to mess with reality, making it more “plastic”. This plastic reality, while not exploited to quite the same extent as Freddy Krueger did, is one of the many strands to this movie’s bow, along with a lot of psychological depth, with religious repression, a vaguely satirical anti-American message (from a Canadian movie) and what I think is a strong feminist undertone.
Mary Lou Malone (Lisa Schrage) is a sexually active, hard-partying girl in 1957, which makes her a cross between the devil and Hitler to some people. I mean, okay, she goes over the top a bit, telling the Priest at confession that she sins all the time, loves doing it, and writes “for a good time call Mary Lou” along with her number on the wall of the booth; but her behaviour isn’t that bad. Anyway, she has a boyfriend, Billy, who she says “treats me right…and he’s rich”, but is unafraid to go and have sex behind the stage at Prom with Buddy, who she’s more sexually compatible with, and doesn’t seem bothered when Billy finds them. Okay, that behaviour is pretty bad.
Billy overhears a couple of kids who have a stink bomb but abandon it in a bin, so he takes it, sneaks up onto the gantry above the stage, and when Mary Lou has just been crowned, lights it and throws it down. Rather than doing whatever it is stink bombs are supposed to do, it sets everything on fire and kills poor Mary Lou, who sees Billy just as she dies and has revenge in her eyes.
Fast-forward to the present day, and for some reason Mary Lou’s personal effects (including her old sash and crown, which did well to survive the fire) are locked in a chest in the theatre’s prop room. Our Final Girl, Vicki (Wendy Lyon) is trying to find a prom dress – respect to her for not spending a fortune on one – but, in the one visual link to part 1, we are helpfully told via rapid cutting from one to the other that some of the characters were around back in 1957. There’s Buddy, who’s now a priest; and Billy, who’s the Principal of the school. Billy is played by Michael Ironside, who’s livened up many a movie with his super-intense bad guy portrayals, but here he’s a guy who appears to have successfully repressed the events of the past completely.
Fairly early on (certainly compared to part 1) Mary Lou comes back looking for revenge, thanks to Vicki’s best friend Jess, who we thought was gay but it turns out was looking sad because she was pregnant, prying a jewel from the tiara and releasing her spirit. Unlike the killer from part 1, Mary Lou appears to not give much of a damn who she kills, although she’s certainly got her eye on Billy and Buddy (not sure why she’s got a hate-on for Buddy, he did nothing other than have sex with her and try to put the fire out).
I like that they made an effort with the background teenagers, as they’re not just the sort of bland pastel that most movies would have. There’s punks and skateboarders, heck, even a few black people! I also like bad girl Terri, who wants to be Prom Queen despite Vicki being a shoo-in (no idea why, she never seems all that popular); and her amazing boyfriend, who we christened Fabio Jr. Such flowing locks! But their evil is as nothing when Mary Lou decides that possessing Vicki is the way to go. She forces nightmares on her, including one amazing scene where she’s sucked into a blackboard, until eventually she’s ready to be taken over.
I mentioned there was an element of feminism here, and I think it’s to do with the repression of female sexuality. Mary Lou seems happy with her life, until she’s burned to death by a guy who wants her to behave like him; and then Vicki in the “present day” is controlled by a Bible-thumping mother who seems intent on her not being a sexual being at all. There’s a spot where the possessed Vicki kisses her own father and he responds – okay, it’s super-weird, but it’s showing how little human warmth is in that house, and so many others. There’s the sense that when Mary Lou takes her over, she’s pretty happy with the arrangement (with the possible exception of all the murdering).
Or, you could see this as a crude rip-off of “The Exorcist”, which joins “Elm Street” and “Carrie” (for what happens at the Prom) as the three main inspirations. It goes a little off the rails at the end, admittedly, wearing its influences a little too obviously on its sleeve and giving us the traditional supernatural slasher cop-out of “she’s not really dead!”; and no-one seems all that surprised that Vicki murdered a bunch of people, then had Mary Lou tear herself out of her body, then mysteriously came back with no problems after everything…or that hundreds of people saw the Principal shoot his own daughter. But, dream-logic, I guess.
For a movie with an at times very light tone, there’s a lot of darkness to it, and a heck of a lot of fairly meaty stuff to chew on. Without wanting to give what might be a random joke by a set designer too much credit, Vicki’s bedroom has a copy of Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” displayed prominently on the wall, which is not something a religiously controlled home in middle America is going to have even heard of, much less buy, frame and display. It’s a movie about subconscious desires and repression, dressed up like a cheesy 80s slasher.
A quick word about a few decent-sized “That Guy / Gal” names who show up. Vicki’s boyfriend, as bland and ineffectual a man as has ever been put on screen, is Louis Ferrara, who was in “Breaking Bad” and “Stargate Universe” – this was the very beginning of his career and was probably his “break”. Also, as the weirdly-coiffed…teacher?…well, the guy who was organising the prom?…is John Pyper-Ferguson, from “Suits”, “The Last Ship” and just about every big TV show of the last decade. And, with links to our “Endless Bummer” season of largely Canadian-produced 80s sex comedies, Jess, the girl who dies near the beginning, is Beth Gondek, aka Candy Barr from “Screwballs 2”, aka the short-sighted girl who touched Bryan Genesse’s penis.
I really liked “Hello Mary Lou”, and think it’s well worth a critical renaissance. Perhaps they need to de-emphasise that it’s a horror sequel? And from my faulty memories, part 3 is more or less a comedy, so that doesn’t help the argument either. But this one is absolutely worth your time.
Rating: thumbs up
- Weirdly, there’s one guy who appears in all four original Prom Night movies, as different characters, but I didn’t know who he was so I think we can dismiss him as the grand unifying thread.