Synopsis: A masked killer stalks four teenagers, responsible for the accidental death of a little girl six years earlier, at their high school’s senior prom.
Stars: Leslie Nielsen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Casey Stevens, Eddie Benton, Michael Tough, Jeff Wincott, Mary Beth Rubens, Joy Thompson
Director: Paul Lynch
Running Length: 92 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Original Release Date: July 18, 1980
Review: Though the origins of the so-called slasher film dated all the way back to the early days of cinema and popped up in films like Psycho, it truly hit its peak in the early 1980s. Given a jump start by John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween before being fully revived in early 1980 by Friday the 13th, the slice and dice films took off like a locomotive that same year which saw the release of no less than 19 stalk and kill films that set the box office aflame.
Nowadays many of these films are looked back on with wrinkled noses and heavy eye rolls thanks to their low-budget nature and grade school acting but there are a few that have stood the test of time and Prom Night is one of the better efforts of those early years of horror. It doesn’t deserve to be front and center on the same shelf with the true classics but it earns a spot just left of the middle considering how derivative it could have been.
Opening with a childhood game that turns unexpectedly deadly, the bulk of the action in Prom Night takes place in the “present” (1980 and don’t you forget it!) where a ski-masked killer targets the half dozen teens that were involved as they disco the night away at their senior prom. The red herrings are piled on with gusto but watching it again recently I was struck by how uncomplicated screenwriter William Gray and director Paul Lynch made the whole affair. Most bait-and-switch plots of the era hammer home that they’re trying to distract you from the real killer but the set-up of Prom Night allows the central red herring to play out with ease, until the quickie ending undoes all of the layers of misdirection from the previous 90 minutes.
Prom Night was the second of three horror films Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween II, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later) starred in in 1980. Playing a minor role in John Carpenter’s The Fog allowed Curtis some time to breathe before the one two punch of Prom Night and Terror Train, fully cementing her Scream Queen status. Though she looks every bit the 22 years she was when the movie was released, there’s an ease and relatability to Curtis that helps you buy she’s a barely 18 year old senior. Curtis doesn’t have to do much of the heavy lifting here because she spends the greater part of the final act of the film dancing away at the festivities…her now-legendary disco sequence is still a highlight of the viewing experience.
The rest of the cast is made up of forgotten faces (and Leslie Nielsen as Curtis’ father that disappears halfway through the film and is never mentioned again) all served up to the killer’s knife in marginally creative ways. There’s an especially good chase sequence that extends longer than normal, showing that there was more interest in building up tension than merely skipping to another act of bloodletting. Everyone in the film is much too old for their characters but there’s such a quaint charm to the façade that you wind up going along with it all.
Though it had several sequels (like Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II) and was remade in 2008 as a PG-13 terribly toothless mess, the only thing that tied these films together was the name of the high school so it’s best to ignore everything that came before it and give the original a try. It’s been remastered beautifully for a BluRay release and it’s worth watching as an example of the early days of the soon to be mass produced slasher film.
For those of you too chicken to watch the film, you still deserve to watch Jamie Lee Curtis’ excellent disco moves in a now classic scene.