Thursday, April 10, 2008

Dancing In The Moonlight

There's a number of early '80s slasher movies that were initially trashed by both fans and critics that hold up well today as being much better films than they were originally given credit for. Films like Terror Train, Hell Night, House on Sorority Row, The Funhouse, and My Bloody Valentine may not be legitimate 'classics' outside of their sub-genre but they all have some actual merit. And for years - up until this very day, in fact - I always thought director Paul Lynch's Prom Night belonged in that company, too. But a fresh viewing instigated by the current remake has forever cured me of that delusion. As far as I'm concerned, Hamilton High's Class of 1980 has a lot to answer for.

I first saw Prom Night when it premiered on NBC a mere seven months after its theatrical release and I know that at the time I felt like a pretty privileged twelve-year-old. Watching the movie now, it's impossible to remember what it was like to view Prom Night through 1981 eyes as a contemporary thriller before the film's insta-dated fads and fashions took center stage. Apparently I've also forgotten what it was like to view the film through retarded eyes so Prom Night really looks like a completely different movie to me now.

Like many slasher films, Prom Night is a murder mystery with its masked killer's identity meant to be a whopping last-minute reveal but no one must've told screenwriters William Gray and Robert Guza, Jr. that if you're going to introduce multiple red herrings to keep the audience guessing as to who your killer is that you ought to make sure these various characters rate as believable suspects. Instead, Gray and Guza, Jr. introduce red herrings that by their screenplay's own logic can't possibly be the real killer.

For instance, we meet the new school gardener of Hamilton High (played by Cronenberg regular Robert Silverman) who's meant to be a suspicious character apparently because he has thick glasses and looks like he owns a sizable porn collection but the film immediately cuts from his introductory scene on the school grounds to the killer busy at home making taunting phone calls to his victims. So that's it for the gardener, but yet he's still shown creeping around the girl's locker rooms and showers as though he's still in the running as the man behind the mask.

Even more incompetent is a subplot involving a sex offender named Leonard Merch who has just escaped from the state hospital in which he's been institutionalized since being disfigured in a fiery car wreck six years earlier as a result of being pursued by police who had wanted to question him in regards to the death of a young girl named Robin Hammond (whose surviving brother and sister now attend Hamilton High). Police institute a manhunt to get Merch and maintain a presence at the Hamilton High prom just in case he shows.

But while it's meant to create suspense, this entire subplot is just empty wheel-spinning as we already know from the movie's opening scene that this character isn't the film's killer. From the opening, we know that four kids caused Robin's accidental plunge from the window of an abandoned convent so to try to have us care that Leonard Fucking Merch is on the loose is just ridiculous. Maybe if the opening sequence had been taken out and the film had opened in the present day with the cause of Robin's death unrevealed, then having Merch be a false lead would be useful. This actually might have made for an intriguing film - to lead the audience to believe that Robin died at the hands of a child murderer who may now be returning to the scene of the crime only to have it be revealed that Robin in fact died at the hands of a group of kids and that the killer stalking the prom is their fellow classmate, Robin's brother Alex, out to avenge her death. But unfortunately Prom Night doesn't have nearly that much sense.

And honestly, even the killer's motivation is sketchy. Sure, Alex (Michael Tough) saw his sister die at the hands of these four kids and he's looking for some payback but it's unclear why he decided that the best way to deal with this was to keep his mouth shut and wait six years to exact his revenge! The only way this plot point could've worked is if he had been stricken mute after the trauma of seeing Robin's body and was institutionalized for the intervening years. What else could've possibly stopped him from telling his story as soon as he got home? Especially when the guilty parties were all people that he saw everyday? I mean, shit, his sister Kim (Jamie Lee Curtis) is dating one of the people who he knows killed Robin! How fucked up is that?

And on a lingering, albeit trivial sidenote: why does it look like Alex is wearing make-up when he's unmasked at the end? Seriously, is he wearing lipstick or what?

Besides the iconic presence of Jamie Lee Curtis (who actually delivers the least appealing of her horror film performances here) the only good thing about the original Prom Night is that it's notable as one of the last youth culture films to emerge before MTV's 1981 debut. A few years after Prom Night's release it would become impossible for anyone to make a movie involving teenagers (much less one that featured music so prominently) without taking their cues from MTV. That's not a bad thing necessarily but there's an undeniable nostalgic vibe to Prom Night for the fact that it was made in such blissful ignorance of the seismic change in teen (and film) culture that was looming ahead. Oh, and I seriously dig the cheesy ballad "Fade to Black" sung by Gordene Simpson that runs over the end credits. That does kicks ass.

What doesn't kick any ass is that outside of a severed head that slides onto the dance floor (which looks incredibly hokey, by the way - Tom Savini wasn't looking over his shoulder for whoever did the effects for this), there's no gore to be found in the entirety of Prom Night. An early '80s horror movie - a slasher movie, no less! - with zero splatter FX? Sorry, but that's grounds for fraud in my book. Prom Night may have the reputation of being a classic (or at least a classic of its kind) but I believe that's only because so few people have bothered to watch it recently. I know the remake is probably terrible and in light of that it's tempting to give some credit to the original but while I'll grant that the remake likely doesn't have any dialogue as awesomely goofy to offer as "For a guy so fast on the disco floor, you are the slowest!" let's just say that both of 'em suck.


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Bob Ignizio said...

I guess I still have a little nostalgic love for this movie, although I can't defend it too much. Aside from being the last teen culture movie before MTV, this is also the last time Leslie Neilsen could walk onscreen without generating instant laughter.

Jeff Allard said...

Yeah Bob, I have a lot of affection for Prom Night too. Or at least I did until I finally watched it again! And you're right about Neilsen. I this movie and Creepshow were the last two movies that put him in any kind of a dramatic role.