Film Discussion

Screamiversary – Prom Night (1980)

On 6th June 2008, Prom Night hit UK theatres; a remake of one of the most seminal and under-discussed films of the slasher genre. Rather than re-kill myself (and you) in revisiting a far inferior reproduction of one of the genres earliest films, we at Set The Tape decided to simply spike the punch and boogie down with the original dance killer. Enjoy!

Prom Night isn’t a great film by any means, but it is an important one. Sometimes that’s all we really need in a little late night bloodletting, which by the first summer of the 1980s, was just beginning to run from the bodies of hormonal teens. But proms were already a terrifying place outside the pressure to look good, have fresh breath and at the very least not trip over your date’s foot. Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s debut, Carrie, showed years earlier that some people’s first dance could very well be their last.

The titular prom queen – an irreplaceably fragile Sissy Spacek – winds up telekinetically immolating almost her entire graduating class in a fit of rage. And despite the hundreds of deaths at her hands, she’s the films greatest victim. It’s a character trait that fits within Prom Nights ski-masked killer – their preferred method of dispatch is a symbolic shard of glass – who targets four seniors who were the cause of an accidental death years ago.

It’s one that comes from being kids; from playing in the moment and letting a spark of that pack-mentality get the better of you. I’m sure it’s happened to all of us, except this time, a little girl lost her life. None of these kids really grow up to be evil or even mean-spirited, except Eddie Benton as catty Wendy, who plays the films Chris Hargensen. These are just teens, ones who are as complex and flawed as you and me, worrying about boys and scoring over any other of life’s adult worries.

The day begins as Kim (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her brother Alex (Michael Tough) visit the gravestone of their sister – the girl who involved in the fatal accident – and progresses as red herrings are established from ominous phone calls, the gaze from the school’s groundskeeper, and the class bully, which moves the story along at a plodding pace. Prom Night’s first kill doesn’t come till after the hour mark, establishing its surroundings with the minutia of school and party planning.

Though I never found myself bored. Everything feels captured in real time, which gives the film a natural charm that winds up feeling lost in the slasher years to come. And despite the films four potential victims, there’s a like-ability between all but one that might not be necessary, though is certainly crucial to wrapping yourself in the sympathy of their developing demise. Neither teen really fits the high school mould that would eventually be slashed five years later in The Breakfast Club, John Hughes’ seminal film that dissects its stereotypes while in Saturday detention.

Alex is confident yet reserved, while his sister Kim is steadfast and strong, which winds up forming the distinguishing attributes of a Final Girl in the making. Her boyfriend Nick (Casey Stevens) doesn’t wear a letter jacket or carry around defining muscles. Their friends Jude (Joy Thompson) and Kelly (Mary Beth Reubens) aren’t the promiscuous girls that shape the slasher with their sexuality, but rather the ones who want the importance of a prom-night stand; even if it’s their first time. Wendy is that blonde beauty that isn’t overwhelmingly confident and popular – though she yearns to be – but rather the opposite. When she doesn’t get what she wants, enlisting the help of bully Lou (David Mucci, no relation), she feels weaker than any socially defining popularity could. It contributes to the films understated ability to feel simultaneously new and recycled from both Halloween and Carrie, the latter which creates a similar fog filter that would contribute to its dreamy glow.

And perhaps it is all a dream, as Kim walks down vacant school halls encountering the same ominous air that’s as undefinable as an allusive vision. Wendy runs for her life through empty classrooms as an axe wielding killer stalks her. Jude appears to be living her dream-come-true, which unfolds in a van with a guy named Slick (Sheldon Rybowski), though it quickly turns into a nightmare. The films notable dance number glides through the film as if carried on the haze of Kim’s hopes, who might as well be floating across the dance floor on a disco beat. Even the school of Alexander Hamilton High feels like a succession of images and ideas that isn’t quite punctuated by the presence of students, but by the absence of that fateful incident six years ago. Prom Night is just as much about forgetting oneself in the moment of the titular night as it is remembering the nightmare; a day that seems to have been forgotten by most like a bad dream.

Nick recalls that day, wearing the guilt on his sleeve. He’s reminded of it every time he sees Kim’s sister in a small framed photo on the mantel of her parents, and to an extent, is reminded every time he looks at Kim. Her and Alex can’t forget it, though they seemingly know nothing of their friend’s involvement, because they’ve all taken a solemn vow, which would end up being the catalyst for summer slashing in 1997’s I Know What You Did Last Summer. For Wendy, that nightmare is not being able to have Nick anymore, and in not being the prom queen. This restriction defines her and shapes who she is. By rule, this is a film that should be defined, not by its characters, but by its roots.

Which is what makes Prom Night a strange and transgressive slasher film. It builds itself around the typical motions of a school day, only to shatter the genre rule by killing off Kelly; not after she’s slept with temperamental Drew (Jeff Wincott), but after she tells him no. By design, Kelly should have caved to the pressures of her prom date, and further by design, should have paid the price for it in death-dollars, but she doesn’t. Instead, she carries her own agenda, and her throat is slit anyways.

Further tempering the natural order of the slasher, Kim protects Nick in the climactic confrontation between masked killer and Final Girl, twisting the constructs of the masculine stereotype. It’s what makes Jamie Lee Curtis the reigning Scream Queen, despite hardly making a sound. And like a dream, Prom Night seamlessly separates itself from any expectations, telling us that it won’t quite play by any pre-determined rules of the genre.

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