05 August 2013

SUMMER OF BLOOD: GOODBYE HEART

Indisputably, Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II is more batshit insane than Prom Night, though whether this inevitably means that it is "better" than Prom Night, or even more fun to watch than Prom Night, is a matter for the learnéd to discuss (for the record, though it is way more fun to watch). That being said, there's really no reason at all to compare the two: other than the title, and the presence of a famous-to-a-certain-audience character actor in the role of a school principal who is first-billed, despite being at best the sixth or seventh most important character in the film. Ultimately, this movie has even less to do with the iconic, but not actually very good 1980 slasher than that film's in-name-only 2008 remake.

We'll get to the actual matter of the movie quickly enough and I am excited to do so, for Hello Mary Lou is tremendously weird, but first let's spend some time with the irresolvable question of why this movie exists as a Prom Night sequel in the first place. There was a large enough span between the two of the films - 1980 and 1987 - that whatever heat the original generated on its initial release had long since dissipated, and the state of the North American slasher film in '87 was such that even one as relatively important as Prom Night would have cachet only amongst a very tiny audience. The most comparable gap I can think of is the twelve years separating The Texas Chainsaw Massacre from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (the latter coming out just one year prior to Hello Mary Lou), and that's different for at least two important reasons: one is that Texas Chainsaw always enjoyed a more impressive and legendary reputation than Prom Night, the other is that TCM 2 continues the plot of the original in a legitimate (if mostly ineffective manner), making its decade-plus gap work on behalf of the narrative. As Hello Mary Lou has sweet fuck-all to do with the plot of its nominal predecessor, there's simply no easily-identifiable reason for it to bother dredging up the brand name after so many years in abeyance.

But dredge it up it does, and so we are here to gawk at the tacky - but deliciously tacky - spectacle of a movie that can be most easily summed up as "Carrie as a ghost". And, unlike many Carrie knock-offs, it's not even solely because the film involves a bloodbath at prom; there's also a vindictive, icily religious mother, and paranormal activity as a representative for teenage sexual maturation, though in the case of Hello Mary Lou, the subtext is not "this paranormal event is a metaphor for the onset of puberty and sexual thoughts" but, "this paranormal event makes the hot girl protagonist want to fuck and also parade around in a shower wearing nothing at all for a length of time that is genuinely startling".

The action opens in 1957, with Mary Lou Maloney (Lisa Schrage) going into confession the morning of prom to tell the priest that she's had sex with every boy. And she's not even a little bit sorry about it, scrawling her number in anachronistically hot pink lipstick on the confessional wall, and whatever else may be true about the movie from here on out, but in her limited role, Schrage is an outstanding bad girl with no conscience, flaunting her enthusiasm for being known as a slut and her total conviction that she really is that much smarter and better than everyone else around her in a manner that is both hammy and totally compelling. She's a fantastic, hypnotic villain, and while there's no way the film could have done much of anything to boost her screentime, it's a damned pity that she put in such a small appearance.

Mary Lou is dating the rich square Billy Nordham (Steve Atkinson), but fooling around with sexy Buddy Cooper (Robert Lewis), and she apparently doesn't care in the least if she gets caught, given how openly she parades off the dance floor to go make out with Buddy. Billy snaps a bit, and after rage-crying himself into a near-psychotic state, he steals a stink bomb planted by the school's resident delinquents, planning to use it to spoil Mary Lou's inauguration as Prom Queen. To be fair, he does spoil it, insofar as he accidentally sets his newly ex-girlfriend's dress on fire, burning her to death.

Apparently, the cops in Everytown, Alberta, USA aren't even a tiny bit good at their jobs, because Billy doesn't apparently get found out for this act of manslaughter; 30 years later, he's the principal at the very same school, having not fled to another time zone out of sheer post-traumatic stress like anybody else would have. He's now being played by Michael Ironside, the single actively recognisable member of the cast, though the nicest way I could describe Ironside's performance is "dead-eyed", not that this thankless of a part would need any more than that.

Nordham's son, Craig (Justin Louis, now working under his birth name Louis Ferreira, and the second-most-recognisable name in the cast, though I don't imagine that was the case in '87) is dating one Vicki Carpenter (Wendy Lyon), a nominee for this year's Prom Queen, and rather conspicuously all the things that Mary Lou was not: virginal, soft-spoken, nice to everybody. Denied money to buy a nice dress by her hideous Puritan of a mother (Judy Mahbey), Vicki kicks off the 1987 leg of the plot by taking the advice of her friend Jess (Beth Gondek), and hunting through the old theater department stuff to find something fun to wear. In doing so, she opens a trunk that we learned, during the opening credits, is holding the angry spirit of Mary Lou, and takes the '57 Prom Queen paraphernalia out, even further angering the ghost; from here the plot pretty much takes care of itself, as the poltergeisty Mary Lou flexes her muscles by killing Jess and making it look like a suicide - this was the moment where I went from "this movie is kind of weird" to "Holy shit, this movie is amazingly weird", incidentally - and then sets herself to the task of getting revenge on everybody even slightly involved with her death, including grown-up Buddy (Richard Monette), now a priest, and several people who just happen to end up in the wrong place. All of this, of course, requiring her to haunt Vicki and then eventually take over the girl's body, turning the sweet innocent into a raunchy pervert, something that Lyon doesn't play as well as Schrage, though she still manages to have quite a bit of fun with it.

The very best parts of Hello Mary Lou are bunched up in the middle, between Jess's death at the 27-minute mark and the start of prom, at about minute 75, with a good 20 minutes of film left to go; it is here that we get the most unapologetically tawdry shit, with the possessed Vicki Lou (as I took to calling her in my notes, and I am pleased to continue doing so) behaving like a particularly randy sailor, whether beating Craig's head against a wall for not having a hard enough erection, making out with her father, or using a crucifix as a dagger (the movie overall is weirdly obsessed with religious imagery, in no consistent or thematically meaningful way), and here that the grace notes are the strangest and I do dare say wackiest. A eulogy that suddenly turns into a harangue about the evils of violent media, *wink* (the wink heavily implied in the film), or the impressively resourceful low-tech visual effects (including the water-as-mirror trick from the Surrealist classic Blood of a Poet, no less), a death scene in which a woman is squished to death in a locker, oozing out like strawberry jam; it's deranged, fever-dream nonsense, as writer Ron Oliver and director Bruce Pittman use the marriage of paranormal shenanigans and slasher narrative structure to more giddy, junk food effect than any movie this side of the more balls-out stupid Nightmare on Elm Street pictures.

I mean, it's dumb. There is absolutely no denying that, as a revenge slasher stealing bodily from Carrie would very nearly have to be either dumb or craven, if not both (Hello Mary Lou, of course, is both). But in the middle, it's so engagingly, zestfully dumb! The problem is the ending and the beginning, in that order: the ending because it very quickly degenerates into tepid assembly-line slashing, in which this person dies then that person dies then that person dies... And the requisite Shrill, Unlikable Bitch character, Kelly (Terri Hawkes), doesn't even get the dignity of a good, high-impact death, thus robbing the rote, mechanical killing of even the worst kind of disreputable thrill. Weirdly, the film saves its most lingering, gruesome deaths for the characters it has worked the hardest to make likable; there's a few scenes of B- or even C-plot in which Vicki's friend Monica (Beverly Hendry) and nerd Josh (Brock Simpson) flirt awkwardly, and it's brazenly naturalistic and sweet and relatable in the face of all this shlock-horror daffiness; when they get such vicious deaths, it ends up feeling honestly unpleasant.

That all makes the final act feel purposeless and grinding, and that's absolutely the worst thing that can happen to a movie whose merits are entirely a function of its warped energy; in comparison, the slow crank-up of the plot, replete with its cliché-saturated prologue and trite "getting to know you" moments with all the main characters (and it's here that we have the hardest time overlooking how bad every single person in the cast is besides Schrage, and how much all of the girls look much too old for high school even by late-'80s slasher standards), is annoying and unlikable, but not film-breaking.

In fact, nothing in Hello Mary Lou is film-breaking, because it is not a broken film. Not compared to the vast majority of contemporaneous horror films, anyway. It's astonishingly uneven, combining one of the loopiest stories in any slasher film in the back half of the '80s with completely paint-by-numbers plot development and characteristation, but even its unevenness has more to do with tone than quality. The film's two registers are so-bad-it's-good and so-adequate-it's-boring, both of which are triumphantly far above-average for '87, though only the former quality leaves the film tremendously enjoyable to watch, and there's simply not enough of that manic strangeness to go around. While I have no doubt that I'd rather revisit Hello Mary Lou than Prom Night, that's not saying much, and if the film ends up being an outlier among late-'80s slashers, it is still part of the late-'80s slashers, and that's just not a very great place to be.

Body Count: Well, that depends entirely on what you count as a "body count" death, and how you parse a very tricky final scene. Tricky only in the sense that it is difficult to count; it's not ambiguous in the A Nightmare on Elm Street sense. Between 6 and 9, and I'm inclined to go with 8 or 9 specifically.

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)

3 comments:

KingKubrick said...

This is far and away one of the loopiest and most memorable (I saw it close to a decade ago and remember most of the details of it) film's i've seen in the many, many slashers I've encountered and it holds a very soft spot in my heart. I can't justify, or even explain in a rational way, why it fills me with a giddy joy to discover it's a film made by my countrymen but it does. Thanks for the great review, Tim. Prom Night 2 is one of the most enjoyable slashers ever (Prom night 3 is also very good times), in my opinion.

javi75 said...

So, what's with naming the character Mary Lou and titling the movie like the Ricky Nelson song? Is it totally random? The director or writer just loved the song, I guess? They thought it would be funny to use it in this context?
I see on the Imdb the movie only features '50s songs.

Tim said...

KingKubrick- Prior to this summer, I hadn't seen any of the PN sequels, so to think that part 3 is anywhere near the same level as this one gives me more to look forward to since... since I was revving up to Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare, actually, but you get my point.

Javi- I truly do not know. It works, certainly, on the level of an easy joke, but the film only plays with the fact that the title character is a '50s ghost haunting an '80s girl one single time, so it's not like keeping chronological signifiers straight is a major priority.

I think they just wanted something that would read, instantly as "this is from the '50s", and giving the protagonist a song-based name really hammered that home. Maybe?