Friday the 13th clones, each trying to be crasser and bloodier to scrape the most cash out of a low budget and undiscerning fanbase. That most 1980 slashers are not as good as most 1981 slashers is a quirk of history that should not take us away from the point that there's just a certain something about that year, in which so many people all decided at the same time, "hey, there might be money in this..."
After Friday the 13th itself, the best-known slasher film of 1980 is almost certainly Prom Night, which I take to be because its first two credited actors are Leslie Nielsen (who had just begun making the shift from strait-laced B-actor to parody specialist: Airplane! was his film immediately preceding this one) and Jamie Lee Curtis. Certainly, it is not because it is the best slasher film of 1980; it's not even the best Canadian-produced slasher starring Curtis from '80, an honor I would unhesitatingly bestow on Terror Train. Yet there is something unfathomable about Prom Night, something that has very little to do with quality, and more with some X-factor that it attains largely through circumstances utterly beyond its control or creation.
In many early slasher films, you see, there's a kind of tension between the extremely musty clichés that weren't clichéd yet, and jaw-dropping breaks from formula that weren't jaw-dropping then because there wasn't a formula to break from. That conflict might be more present in Prom Night than in any other slasher film I can name, which is confident and proud in presenting exactly the elements which would become the most overdone and annoying in the years to come, while also presenting in the most casual, unthinking way a narrative structure, and to a great degree characterisations that are just plain weird. Lose sight of the historical context, and it's just as easy to overrate it as to underrate it, though for totally opposite reasons.
Anyway, we should just get into it. Prom Night opens in summer, 1974, with three young siblings following some peers - "friends" would be an outrageous exaggeration - into an abandoned convent. Two of them turn back almost immediately, but 10-year-old Robin (Tammy Bourne) gets tangled up in a tag-like game called "The Killer Is Coming", whose rules seem to consist of four 11-year-olds getting together to gang up on the frightened kid, chanting "kill" at her and freaking her out so bad that she backs up through a window, falling to her death. The four horror-stricken bullies agree on the spot that they will never, ever tell anybody what happened, but they don't see that somebody was watching the whole thing.
Six years later, we arrive at the week of senior prom at Alexand Hamilton High, in the good old U.S. of A., where the cars all have Ontario license plates. Robin's elder sister, Kim (Curtis) has recovered from the trauma to become the most popular girl at school and the newly-elected Prom Queen, even making good friends with three of the guilt-ridden manslaughterers: the nervous, virginal Kelly (Mary Beth Rubens), pleasantly ditzy Jude (Joy Thompson), and Prom King, and Kim's new boyfriend, Nick McBride (Casey Stevens). This last relationship is the one that has thrown all the principals into a tizzy of petty high school melodrama, for the fourth secret-keeper, and the bitchy ringleader of them all back in '74, is Wendy (Anne-Marie Martin, under the name Eddie Benton), Nick's not-quite-ex, who is furious as hell at Kim, and pretty much everybody. Even as this pot boils over, we're well aware that the sexual jealousies of a bunch of 16-year-olds don't add up to a hill of beans: not when there's an unseen figure making threatening calls to the gang of four (Wendy instantly becomes my favorite by sarcastically shutting down what she thinks is an obscene call), cutting their faces out of a copy of the yearbook, and generally acting like a psycho killer in a movie where a cast of one-dimensional teenagers are slaughtered one at a time.
One of the first things that sets Prom Night apart is its ambition to be more than just cheap body count thriller, but a right proper mystery: for our delectation, it presents no fewer than five possibilities for the eventual killer. In the order that they're presented, we have Robin's dad, Mr. Hammond (Nielsen), whose shocked face and the heavy misery he carries around him makes him a prime target for vengeance, and whose role as principal of Hamilton gives him all the access he needs; better yet, the seasoned genre watcher will note that he's the film's biggest name (in '80, at least), the first-billed, and by the time the killing starts up, he's barely been in the movie for five minutes. There's also Robin's brother (it's not exactly clarified, but I think we're meant to infer that they were twins), Alex (Michael Tough), who has not recovered from his sister's death nearly as well as Kim, but has instead turned into a sad sack loner; Leonard Murch, a convicted sex offender who was apprehended by the police as the most obvious possible candidate for what was treated as a violent sex crime back in '74, and who has conveniently just escaped, undoubtedly nursing a grudge against the real perpetrators; Sykes (Robert Silverman), the school's new caretaker, a developmentally disabled man that several of the girls think they've caught peeping in the locker room; and Lou Farmer (David Mucci), the school's foremost delinquent, who pretty much hates all of the characters enough to cause them any harm at all, though the movie ends up finding that to be a lot of red herrings to juggle, and ends up making it pretty clear pretty early that Lou isn't the killer. Instead, he and Wendy team up to play some kind of awful prank on Kim: dousing her at prom with a bucket of blood drained from the bodies of her friends! No, not remotely, but in all the years of Carrie knock-offs, I'm a little disappointed that nobody ever saw fit to introduce that little frisson.
The other thing that serious separates Prom Night from very nearly every other movie that ever earned the description "slasher", is that the killer is unusually focused on his one goal: killing the people responsible for the death of Robin Hammond. Every other person who dies is collateral damage whose death is completely unavoidable: it's noteworthy that only one of the girls' dates is killed deliberately, with the other being allowed to leave before the murderer strikes. It is, and I am very concerned with using a phrase like this, psychologically grounded: the killer's actions make sense, at least they do if we concede that the killer is a crazy-ass loony toon with a definition of "making sense" that we are not all going to agree with. He's also particularly human: capable of being duped by some very obvious feints in the long, genuinely tense stalk sequence with Wendy (the only character to be stalked, and perhaps the only one clever enough to stave off the killer for so long: God help me, she might be a one-note bitch, but I do love Wendy), and no more physically resilient than you'd expect from the person he turns out to be. Given that elsewhere in 1980, Friday the 13th was trying to convince us that a middle-aged woman in a sweater was a nigh-invincible superman, this marks Prom Night out as being in the tradition of Cassavetes-like realism.
And then, there is one more thing, and it's here that we start to hedge our bets: Prom Night is unbelievably slow. Not even by the standards of our modern-day, fast-paced killathons, either; all of the seminal slashers and proto-slashers before it generally start to pick up around the halfway point. Halloween is rocking and rolling with its barely-seen Shape within the first third of the movie, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has already killed the majority of its cast by the two-thirds point, Black Christmas is one nice long boil of tension. Prom Night, now, is 89 minutes long. The third death in the movie, and the first that can reasonably be called a body count death, happens at minute sixty. And I wouldn't necessarily hold this against the movie - might even count it a strength, in fact, if those first 59 minutes were being used to good effect, deepening the characters, building up their world, pulling us into the film, all that jazz.
That's what the movie is doing, kind of. Honestly, I think that William Gray's script, from Robert Guza Jr's story, has a really fascinating character-driven slasher film in it, though it would require two things to get there: somewhat more focused directing, and massively better acting. Snip Jamie Lee Curtis out of the film (and she is absolutely, titanically wonderful: every bit as good as she is in Halloween in creating a likable, realistic, recognisable high school girl), and you have taken with every genuinely solid moment of dialogue delivery; some of the actors manage to cheat their way into seeming decent by being extremely well-cast according to their physical appearance for the part - Thompson especially - but just because somebody looks right for a character doesn't mean they're actually performing that character in any compelling way. Given that Prom Night stakes a lot on our feeling the society of Hamilton High as a real, living entity, the generally inhuman quality of everybody onscreen is a major problem.
Meanwhile, director Paul Lynch, ruining far too many well-blocked scenes by cloaking his sets in too much darkness, abetted by DP Robert New, doesn't make any attempt to keep things tight and tense as he's building us to that two-thirds release point: the only time he comes alive, visually, is during the prom itself, when we discover that Jamie Lee Curtis really wanted to be in a disco movie. I have no fucking clue what to make of this. It's a really well-filmed sequence, danced with more enthusiasm than skill, it is lovingly detailed and it has fuck-all to do with the fact that there's a psycho on the prowl, and it's a sterling momentum-killer at the worst possible moment to kill momentum.
Also, the music is really bad. Not just the disco music (though the original songs are hilariously awful: "Prom night! Everything is alright! Prom night! No more feelin' uptight!"), but even the Paul Zaza/Carl Zittrer score, which feel more like somebody hitting all the bass keys on their synthesizer at once, than actually composing music on it.
All that being said, the movie becomes completely amazing when the last third finally gets going, saving its only big gore scene for the last death, and instead relying on tense cat-and-mouse scenes and the very real incongruity of seeing all this carnage play out in the corridors of a school, back when schoolbound horror movies were incongruous. The film starts cross-cutting in interesting ways, and the sound mix is used in tremendously clever ways to situate the locations relative to each other; the actors' limitations are immaterial when all they're asked to do is scream and react. Honestly, if the film had manage to land the first 60 minutes, and the characters and setting were interesting in more than an abstract way, the last 30 minutes of Prom Night would rank among the best slasher sequences ever. As it is, there's simply no investment in it, no real interest in how this situation plays out, since only an unusually forgiving viewer will still care about the actual content of the movie by this point. Mechanically, it works; emotionally, it's a bit limited.
Even with all that, the film's still got one card up its sleeve: time capsule appeal. This is a movie that could only have been made in 1980: on the one hand there's the music, the hair, the clothes (Why did teen girls in the '80s dress like middle-aged businesswomen? Is there some sociological study explaining this?), and on the other the strange mis-emphasis relative to how slasher movies "ought" to work, the greater interest in plausibility, the unashamed use of dipshit plot contrivances that don't need to be coated in irony to go down. Like I said up top: a special movie. Not by any means a great one; only barely and inconsistently a good one. But I'm tremendously glad it exists, regardless.
Body Count: 8. Not all of those "count": one is off-screen, one is the movie-starting accident, and one is the killer, assuming the killer dies; the editing is a little murky, though the storytelling intent is clear.
Reviews in this series
Prom Night (Lynch, 1980)
Hello, Mary Lou: Prom Night II (Pittman, 1987)
Prom Night III: The Last Kiss (Oliver & Simpson, 1990)
Prom Night IV: Deliver Us from Evil (Borris, 1992)
Prom Night (McCormick, 2008)