Prom Night (1980)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #406

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Number of Views: Three
Release Date: July 18, 1980
Sub-Genre: Eighties Slasher
Country of Origin: Canada
Budget: $1,500,000 CAD
Box Office: $14,796,236
Running Time: 93 minutes
Director: Paul Lynch
Producers: Peter R. Simpson, Richard Simpson
Screenplay: William Gray, Robert Guza, Jr.
Special Effects: Allan Cotter
Cinematography: Robert C. New
Score: Paul Zaza, Carl Zittrer
Editing: Brian Ravok
Studios: Simcom Limited, Guardian Trust Company, Prom Night Productions
Distributors: Avco Embassy Pictures, Embassy Home Entertainment
Stars: Leslie Nielsen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Casey Stevens, Anne-Marie Martin, Antoinette Bower, Michael Tough, Robert A. Silverman, Pita Oliver, David Mucci, Jeff Wincott, Mary Beth Rubens, George Touliatos, Melanie Morse MacQuarrie, David Gardner, Joy Thompson

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Suggested Audio Candy:

Paul Zaza & Carl Zitter Prom Night

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1980 was something of a vintage year for slasher. Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday The 13th had already clawed in around $60m at the box office and left the barn doors wide open for pretenders to grab their lucrative slice of the pie. Paul Lynch was one such young hopeful and, after discussions with Irwin Yablans (who produced the even more profitable Halloween two years prior) it became clear to the director that a prom theme would serve his feature well. This was considered a vital rite of passage and offered the perfect backdrop for a deranged killer to earn his stripes. However, financing his picture proved to be anything but easy and things were looking decidedly grim until Lynch managed to procure the talents of rising star Jamie Lee Curtis and suddenly he was taken a little more seriously. Avco Embassy Pictures bankrolled the project and, while nowhere near as profitable as Cunningham’s template, it still made a tidy return theatrically.

prom-night-slasher-review (6)“It’s not who you go with, honey. It’s who takes you home”

My first recollection of Prom Night came when I was approaching adolescence. I swiftly became seduced by its cover art, denoting a masked figure grasping a gleaming blade, and wasted no time in introducing it to my shiny new top loader with great expectations. 93 minutes later I was ejected somewhat befuddled by the whole experience. I couldn’t help but feel somewhat cheated by Lynch’s film; the pawns were in place for a decent stalk and slash flick and it certainly wasn’t an outright failure, but neither did it excel as I’d hoped. The presence of Curtis in the leading role certainly didn’t harm the picture but, despite possessing a disco soundtrack evocative of the era and offering the ideal setting for co-ed carnage, it fell a little flat. However, it did enough to spawn three sequels, and is still regarded as one of the more notable early entries in the slasher cycle so the positives outweighed any negatives on this occasion.

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The prologue set the scene relatively well. It featured a group of children playing a variation on the age-old theme of hide and seek, ominously titled The Killer is Coming, in an old dilapidated convent. Kids being kids, it all spiralled out of control, culminating in the untimely demise of hapless Robin as she plummeted from a second-storey window to her death. The horrified witnesses made a pinky swear never to utter a word about the mishap to another soul and police, woefully bereft of leads, put two and two together, came up with six, and badgered a known child molester until which point as he ran his car off the road and perished in the resulting blaze. Case closed right? While the officers headed down to the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts to marvel at their skills of deduction over a glazed Danish, the remaining children were left ruing their extra curricular activities and shouldering the weighty burden of this freak accident indefinitely.

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Enter time, the great healer, and we soon fast forwarded six years to midway through preparation for Alexander Hamilton High School’s annual prom. Over half a decade of guilt had temporary subsided as the group, still friends, set aside any skeletons in their closets in favor of pulling shapes in soft focus under the swirling disco ball. Kim (Curtis) was soon to be crowned queen of the ball and it should have been the happiest day of her young life but the pact was still weighing on her mind and only intensified by a number of dubious prank calls requesting that she, and other members of the Monster Squad, “come out and play.” Who is the one man you want present in such situations?

the-naked-gun“Principal by day, disco king by night!”

Frank Drebin, that’s who. Leslie Nielsen stepped into the slip-ons of campus principal and Hammond patriarch, although he just appeared lost without George Kennedy to assist in his investigation. It could never be all bad when the silver-maned dignitary was involved, as his look of discombobulation was more than a tad endearing, but a dash more Richard Vickers would have served him better here as he was largely a wallflower.

Paul Zaza & Carl Zitter Love Me Till I Die

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Prom Night sat rather uncomfortably between two stools. On one hand it was more than aware of the stellar work of Cunningham and co. over at Paramount and saw its opportunity to split some profit. The slasher elements worked reasonably well although it did take its sweet time getting to the slow dance. On the other, it became tied up in its own red tape as it attempted to take the Giallo path and offered a whodunnit angle which largely muted the tension. Red herrings were flung about with gay abandon, the script by William Gray and Robert Guza Jr. paraded the clichés candidly, and it was hard to shake the feeling that virtually nobody involved could really be bothered. Even the legendary Nielsen, it appeared as though he was still blighted by a bout of food poisoning from selecting fish as his in-flight meal with no Ted Striker on hand to bail him out.

prom-night-slasher-review (11)“There’s a killer loose, a killer loose!”

Mercifully, Lynch did get a few things on the money. This refused to play by the conventions and clinging onto your cherry for dear life was no guarantee of a safe passage in Prom Night. Meanwhile, there was suspense, particularly in one drawn-out chase scene which tantalized and tormented brilliantly. The photography by Robert C. New, when not hushed by overused soft focus, sat well alongside Paul Zaza and Carl Zitter’s sorrowful compositions and the pair even wrote an exclusive sequence of disco-savvy ditties in a five-day period to further infuse the party vibe. As for the dispatches, they were a mixed bunch, but not without their standouts.

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Which brings me back to the ever-reliable Jamie Lee. If her performance as Kim appeared to lack the usual conviction then I would remind you that a disinterested turn from Curtis is still a turn from Curtis. Moreover, on further reappraisal, it becomes evident that she was called upon to exhibit a more thorny range of character traits and idiosyncracies than she had as Laurie Strode and, consummate professional that she is, she was up to every last one of them. Her involvement afforded Prom Night the opportunity to rise above its own folly and kept us invested throughout any of the numerous lulls. That, right there Grueheads, is the mark of true scream royalty.

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Lynch’s film frustrated Keeper on many levels and will never be considered as one of the more dazzling participants in the early eighties slasher love rollercoaster. The Prowler had it beat for both foreboding atmosphere and inventive kills, whereas My Bloody Valentine and The Burning provided us with characters we actually warmed to. Despite coming up decidedly short against fellow revellers, it had just enough moves to dance itself out of a corner. Speaking of which, any movie which affords Nielsen to apply his inimitable groove is deserving of another visitation on that fact alone.

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For The Grue-Guzzlers: Body count was somewhat anemic and there was never quite enough blood on the dance floor for Keeper’s liking. Throats were slit, bodies burned, and heads lopped off for the crowning kill. However, a nod of the disembodied head and fistful of kudos, to Allan Cotter for resisting the urge to drop a pail of pig’s cruor from the rafters, instead providing a most photogenic decapitation for Prom Night’s yearbook shot.

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Read Halloween (1978) Appraisal

Read Friday The 13th (1980) Appraisal

Read My Bloody Valentine (1981) Appraisal

Read The Prowler Appraisal

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