PROM NIGHT AND BREAKING THE SLASHER MOVIE FORMULA
PANIC AT THE DISCO
Synopsis: Recently, I re-watched the 1980 Canadian slasher effort Prom Night on a whim. Upon my first viewing over 15 years ago, I dismissed the movie as a weak addition to the slasher movie frenzy that followed 1978’s Halloween. Perhaps it was my young mind at the time that didn’t appreciate or absorb the elements of horror that I do now. I felt like I was watching Prom Night for the first time, with a fresh pair of eyes that saw how it diverted from the standard tropes that we know and love in slasher cinema. Prom Night can be easily overlooked—and it has been—as just another slasher box-office cash-in, but by taking a second glance at the story, the characters and the overall style of the film, Prom Night stands on its own as an unique attempt to distinguish itself from other slasher movies at the turn of the decade.
PANIC AT THE DISCO: PROM NIGHT AND BREAKING THE SLASHER MOVIE FORMULA— Horror Oasis (@Horror_Oasis) July 27, 2021
"One of the most intriguing things about Prom Night is how the supporting cast isn’t hung out to dry, they’re more than simply kill count fodder." - @ZombiLeeroy https://t.co/Oa6qPwVXOl@jamieleecurtis
Prom Night begins with a prologue set in 1974. It involves the central characters as kids, playing hide and seek in an abandoned building. Twins Alex and Robin Hammond—and their sister Kim—embark on the building on their way home and hear their friends playing inside. Robin goes into the building to investigate as her siblings carry on ahead. Inside, she is teased by her friends who repeat that ‘The killer is coming!’ A scared Robin is backed into a corner by the other four children who continue to tease her despite how scared she becomes. Losing her balance, Robin falls through a window to her death while the other children agree never to speak of the incident again and flee the scene. Wendy, Jude, Kelly and Nick may have agreed to forget, but as a shadow casts over Robin’s dead body we realise that someone else witnessed what happened to her.
Flash forward to 1980, and the four children are now all grown up and getting ready to attend their senior prom. Robin is gone, but not forgotten as the Hammond family visit her grave on the day of the prom. An older Kim Hammond is played by the scream queen herself Jamie Lee Curtis, while her father, and also her high school principal, is played by comedy legend Leslie Nielsen in one of his last serious roles before Aeroplane! Throughout the course of the day, the teenagers are harassed with cryptic phone calls (in a similar fashion to 1974’s Black Christmas) from an unseen stalker who rips their photos out of the yearbook. Their cards are marked for what they did all those years ago, and their prom is about to be a night that they’ll never forget—if they are lucky to survive.
In a 2013 interview featurette titled My Time with Terror from Shout! Factory’s release of The Fog (1980), Curtis discusses her earlier horror roles and scream queen status to an adequate length. Although coy about her feelings towards Prom Night, she mentions how it was her first feature where she made a decent amount of money. At the time of making, her starring role in Halloween (1978) would be an obvious factor, and guess, in her casting as Kim. However, according to director Paul Lynch in Prom Night’s making-of documentary, The Horrors of Hamilton High, the film’s producer Peter Simpson made her really work hard to secure the role. Obviously, she was successful cast in the role and the rest is history. But as much as Jamie Lee Curtis may be the star above the title, her leading role doesn’t overshadow any of the supporting cast.
One of the most intriguing things about Prom Night—if we’re to discuss it in terms of the genre formula—is how the supporting cast isn’t hung out to dry, they’re more than simply kill count fodder. And in fact, I would argue that their subplots serve the general story more purpose. Jude has just met a new guy that she plans on taking to the prom, Kelly is planning to lose her virginity to her boyfriend Drew, while Wendy and Nick have recently broken up and he is now taking Kim Hammond to the prom where they are to be crowned King and Queen. All juvenile issues as a teenager that I’m sure we can all relate to, but their teen dramas are not included as pointless filler backstories. These four characters are the ones who we spend the most amount of time getting to know as we move towards the big night—especially Wendy. Wendy wants revenge for being dumped and lowers herself to taking Hamilton High bad boy Lou Farmer to the prom to cause havoc at Kim and Nick’s coronation. I know, it sounds very familiar to another famous revenge plot set at prom. So, while Wendy plans her revenge, Jude is enjoying the company of her new boyfriend Slick and after they have sex, they are both killed by the masked killer—standard. Our expectation of the formula is met, Meanwhile, Kelly is getting ready to lose her virginity but decides she’s not ready. Phew! She’s safe, right? No, and this is where the film shows some originality and breaks its first rule. Kelly is not only the first of the girls to be killed, but she also dies a virgin. And from that moment on, you realise that none of these characters are safe—including Curtis. They are all fair game.
In the midst of her friends being murdered without her knowledge, Kim decides to show Wendy how strong her and Nick’s bond as a couple really is by showing off their perfectly choreographed disco-dancing skills. This moment was not only a chance for Curtis to show off her dancing ability, but also for roughly three minutes, you forget you’re watching a horror movie. It’s a moment of relief, and one with a very memorable soundtrack that sounds very similar to Star Love by Cheryl Lynn—and wait—that other song … it sounds just like Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive! That’s because, originally, the soundtrack was filled with famous disco songs that to license out would have cost more than the entire production. The solution? The movie’s music composer Paul Zaza created songs in just 5 days that sounded similar—including using some of the same lyrics— to fit the scenes. As you can imagine this brought on a lawsuit after the film’s release. However, it’s difficult to not appreciate the songs in their own right, especially with the catchy lyrics. And yes, I have listened to the soundtrack almost daily since I re-watched Prom Night, but I have yet to attempt the charming choreography of Tonight is Prom Night.
So, Hamilton High’s senior prom is in full swing and a very jealous Wendy goes off on her own to sulk after Kim and Nick’s dance routine. Yet, it also seems that she has a change of heart about destroying Kim and Nick’s big moment. However, her small moment of redemption won’t save her from the black-hooded killer. What follows is an absolutely fantastic—if not one of the best—chase scenes in any slasher movie I have ever witnessed. The mean girl is put through the ringer for her survival, and we follow her every step of the way, and I wonder if this was the possible inspiration for Sarah Michelle Gellar’s similarly drawn-out chase in I Know What You Did Last Summer. Unfortunately, Wendy’s chase comes to a close when she discovers Kelly’s body and it’s curtains for her. So that just leaves one question: who is the killer?
Motive is often something that can either go in the favour of the killer in a slasher movie, or something that just isn’t necessary to the nature of their purpose. Sure, it’s great that Michael Myers is this force of evil that shows no human empathy and doesn’t have any reason to kill other than that. That’s probably why the screenplay refers to Myers as The Shape—he’s an entity that we are not meant to fear for his human appearance. It works for Halloween (1978) and that’s what embodies the terror in Carpenter’s mostly bloodless film. But in Prom Night, it’s all about revenge and making sure the character’s pay for their cruel actions in the past. Although Wendy has disappeared, Lou Farmer still intends to go through with the prank at the coronation and knocks Nick unconscious while stealing his crown so that it is he who is crowned the prom king. Nick is the only one of the four from that terrible incident in 1974 that is left, and the killer is backstage ready to kill him. In the shadows, all the killer sees is the silhouette of someone wearing a crow and wastes no time in decapitating Lou thinking that it was Nick. While the rest of the school flees away from Lou’s severed head, we are left with only the killer, Nick and Kim on the bloody disco floor.
The Killer is dead set on finishing the job and murdering Nick. As the PA system malfunctions all those disco track rip-offs in one montage, the killer attacks Nick with a hatchet. Kim, on her own accord and without being saved by a male hero, is the one who is doing the saving in the finale. She repeatedly tackles the killer head on, but the killer doesn’t fight back with her. She ends up whacking the weight of the hatchet into the killer’s head and when he stands up, she gets a good look into the killer’s eyes. Kim’s face says it all—she knows who it is. What I love about this scene is that Kim has no help from anyone to save her boyfriend from his death, she’s willing to do this herself. Disco dancing aside, this is the true moment where Jamie Lee Curtis gets to shine in the movie. This was not something, even with the strongest and feisty of final girls, that we saw often in conventional slasher movies of the 1980s. Nancy Thompson from A Nightmare on Elm Street comes to mind, of course, as well as Ginny from Friday the 13th: Part II. But unlike those characters, Kim isn’t rescued by anyone in any way, shape, or form and to me that sets the bar high for other final girls. Especially when it turns out that the killer was her brother Alex, who after his blow to the head dies in her arms crying out for his dead twin. And that’s just the cherry on top of this movie ad something else that’s unexpected: an emotional ending and sympathy for the killer.
Prom Night may not be remembered as fondly as the main hitters in the slasher genre, but it’s evident that the producers and Paul Lynch wanted to create a concrete story with an artistic flair that you could argue is just a Halloween (1978) cash-in. And sure, even though it has the same star, that’s always going to bind the two movies together. Of course, Halloween (1978) is the superior film of the two, but for the most part, Prom Night works, and it holds up as a thrilling slasher movie on its own.
The later sequels steered away from the original movie, with Hamilton High School being the only connection between all four movies. The first sequel, Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II gained a cult following of its own, probably more so than the original film, and went in a supernatural direction. A loose remake in 2009 did little to boost the reputation of the 1980 movie, as the remake itself fell into the trap of being a post-2000 slasher remake that was following the box-office trend at the time. It also did what the 1980 version didn’t, it followed the generic formula of the genre and offered nothing new. Nearly 41 years since its original release, Prom Night still has something different to offer and is worth that re-watch.
Leeroy Cross James
Leeroy Cross James is a writer and reviewer of horror fiction whose literary criticism was recently published in Horrified Magazine.