I’ve been pondering slasher movies more and more, as we’ve been covering them. Are we guilty of using our 2016 biases to judge early 80s movies? Well, of course we are. But the more of them I see, with questionable levels of acting, gore, and pacing, I think “is it a fool’s errand to try and review this genre now? Is it uniquely tied to its era and fanbase?”
Then I watch something like “Prom Night” and all those questions go away, because it’s great. It manifests the same structural problem as other slashers, in fact to a crazy extent in one particular instance, but thanks to an interesting visual style, some good performances and a great script, I was never bothered by them.
“Prom Night” is, like our recently reviewed “Hell Night”, from producer Irwin Yablans, who was using the sweet cachet he got from “Halloween” to make more money / more horror. Asking director Paul Lynch to base the movie round a holiday, Lynch tweaked it to be prom night, and used a story from a friend of his, Robert Guza Jr, about a tragic event years earlier returning to haunt a group of teenagers. Funding was secured when Jamie Lee Curtis signed up (who I recall was trying to avoid slasher typecasting, but she did okay), and away they went.
It’s 1974, and a group of small kids, all around 11 years old, are riding their bikes round the neighbourhood, and decide to play a rather mean version of hide-and-seek in an abandoned convent. Robin, who’s just 10, sneaks in to join them, but when they find her, they corner her, chanting “Kill! Kill! Kill!” She backs up and backs up and eventually falls out of a window to her death. The kids, led by Wendy, decide to just run away, leaving the discovery of the body to Robin’s twin brother Alex. Later, the murder is pinned on a known rapist, who’s sent to prison for life.
Then we’re up to the present day, 6 years later, and it’s the run up to prom. Alex and his other sister Kim (Curtis) are looking forward to it, with Kim in the running for Prom Queen; their Dad (Leslie Nielsen, the same year his life was changed forever by “Airplane”) is the school Principal. There’s the evil kid turned evil teenager Wendy (Eddie Benton, “Sledge Hammer!”), who also wants to be Queen; but this normal teen activity is disturbed when the four kids responsible for Robin’s death get phone calls telling them they’re going to pay for what they did! And we find out the rapist has escaped from prison and is on his way!
As a quick aside, apart from “Halloween”, the escaped psycho is a red herring way more often than they’re the killer. I think a solid half the slasher movies we’ve covered recently have had an escaped mental patient or murderer in them, and they’ve not been the killer in a single one. Perhaps it’s just some sort of code among horror directors.
Like I said, the pace of “Prom Night” sets it apart. Aside from the opening (and an offscreen kill committed by the escapee, nowhere near town) no-one dies until 63 minutes, which must have really frustrated the early gorehounds who went to see it. What they do is build up dread wonderfully (almost to the level of Jamie Lee Curtis’ previous horror movie) and fill things up with some really good escalating tension, lots of languid shots, as well as a variety of great characters. My favourite is “Slick” (Sheldon Rybowski), who shows you don’t need to be a bronzed Adonis to get with women. He charms the beautiful Jude (Joy Thompson) by having a cool van, a hollowed-out book with like 30 pre-rolled joints inside, and by being confident and able to talk to her, despite looking like a traditional nebbish-y teen. Good work Slick! There’s an amazing performance from a monobrowed David Mucci as “Lou”, the freshly expelled monster who Wendy has sex with so he’ll help her get revenge on the school; and a quick mention for a long-pre-fame Jeff Wincott, who made tons of JCVD-esque martial arts movies in the 90s, in what might have been his movie debut. Not all the acting is fantastic, but when you’ve got a lead actor as strong as Jamie Lee Curtis, you’re fine.
There’s a lot of red herrings, of course, and when Leslie Nielsen disappears from the movie with about 20 minutes to go he makes a strong case for being the killer (don’t worry, ol Les just must have had another job, because his absence is coincidental). There’s also my least favourite trope of horror movies – the “victim running away from help”. Wendy shows excellent resourcefulness to fight off the killer, but rather than make her way back to the prom, with loads of people who can help her, she keeps running into darker and darker rooms and corridors and eventually cupboards. Sprinkle in a bit of “let’s not tell anyone the rapist – killer escaped” at the beginning, and you’ve got your requisite amount of dumb movie decisions to make sure all the pieces are in place.
What has been interesting is seeing the way the genre developed. I think Friday The 13th, released the same year, was the beginning of the end for interesting slasher movies, as all producers had to do to get people in the cinemas was put a bunch of teens in an isolated location and kill them all in ever-more-brutal ways. Given this was filmed in 1979, when the only game in town was “Halloween”, the “rules” weren’t in place yet and you could go down all sorts of different paths. Not saying all those paths were interesting, or good even, but they were there.
What I really liked about this is that the killer’s actions make perfect sense. He goes after a very small group of people, with the only real “I just fancied killing him” death being that of the great Slick. There’s no indication that they just hated all teens, or wanted revenge on the entire school, or anything like that. Plus, they’re sort of dumb, getting tricked several times by Wendy in their big chase (a long way from part 2, or even slashers from the same year, like “Friday the 13th” where Mrs Voorhees is capable of incredible feats of prediction and strength).
If you like disco, you’ve got an extended sequence where Kim and her new boyfriend Nick (Casey Stevens) do a sweet disco dance, and it’s really them, no stunt doubles. Talking of Stevens, he dropped off the face of the earth after making this movie, and died of an AIDS-related illness a few years later – information about him is extremely limited.
I think this is absolutely worth watching, to see the evolution of a genre before the rules were set in stone, and to see a movie which prioritises atmosphere over shocks (but still puts some great tense action sequences in).
Rating: thumbs up