Among the voluminous hair, sexual promiscuity and spectacular bloodletting of the 80’s slasher brigade, one particularly iconic title stood out a little from the pack. While movies like Friday The 13th, The Burning, The Prowler and others were gruesomely laying waste to hapless youths in a grisly teenage holocaust (usually with the help of Tom Savini), 1981’s Prom Night took a slightly subtler route that rounded up all the wide collars and disco lights it could and unleashed a vengeful killer on that, the most American of high school traditions.
Not only did it nail a fertile date to play with, but it also recruited renowned scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis into the fold who was already a living, breathing goddess in the world of the slasher flick thanks to her legendary butting of heads with Michael Myers in the Halloween movies. But does this instance of stalky stalky, slashy slashy manage to weather the test of time – or does it come across as dated as…. virtually every item of clothing and dance move the movie possesses?
A bunch of shitty brats play a more sadistic version of hide and seek in an abandoned convent that requires them to Chant “KILL!” repeatedly at their chosen victim in order to scare the poop out of them. However, when these adorable bunch of cherubs get a little carried away while teasing little Robin Hammond who promptly recoiled from their teasing right out of a window only to fatally crash through a plane of glass a couple of floors below her.
With this slasher version of a 1970’s English public service announcement done with (Look them up, they’re genuinely terrifying) we scoot ahead six years to catch up with the kids involved as their long awaited prom night falls on the anniversary of Robin’s death. As the death was blamed on some sort of roving pervert, no one is aware who the real culprits are, Robin’s sister Kim and her fraternal twin brother Alex have managed to move on with their lives and are even friends with the group responsible. Anxious virgin Kelly frets about losing her virginity while peppy Jude can’t wait to lose hers, but while Nick has the fucking nerve to date Kim (Dating the sister of the girl you killed? That takes some balls, dude.), jealous Wendy just wants to go full Nancy Allen in Carrie and steal Nick back after teaming up with neanderthal looking, mono-browed, no-goodnick, Lou.
As these teen hormones fly about the place like mortar fire, a shadowy figure is phoning the kids responsible for the accident and leaving vague, breathy threats for them to mull on.
The suspects are legion, with a creepy caretaker, an escaped, burnt sex offender, a hulking bully and various other potential lunatics laying in wait for the big night, but once the deaths start, there will be murder on the dance floor – literally.
While as noticably dated as one of Mayor Vaughan’s hideous suits from Jaws, it’s a surprising fact that Paul Lynch’s Prom Night frequently goes against the established grain of 80’s era slashers by exercising something that your Pamela Voorhees’ and your Cropsy’s generally had no time for while unleashing their respective waves of pain: subtlety.
Ok, so with an extended disco dance between Kim and Nick that’s about as sexually charged as that episode of Friends when Ross and Monica Gellar bust out a cringe worthy routine on a TV show, maybe subtlety isn’t exactly the most accurate term, but while other slashers raced to outdo one another in the carnage stakes, Prom Night shows remarkable restraint and doesn’t unleash it’s first actual on-screen murder until the movie is over an hour old. This is because this tale of revenge, that features high schoolers who look old enough to be snowed under by mortgage repayments, is far more interested in going full whodunnit but stacking its deck with more with more red herrings than a fishmongers lit with a scarlet lightbulb. Twinned with the endless teenage fretting and plotting, the result somewhat resembles a funky alternate universe where Agatha Christie was addicted to weed and Sweet Valley High as male, cartoonish, 80’s stereotypes strut around, thinking with their dicks while the girls constantly gossip and re-apply lipstick like their lives depended on it.
The weird thing is, despite a bunch of faults, Prom Night, in some ways, may be one of the most influential slashers of all time with a huge hunk of its DNA showing up in Kevin Williamson’s script for Scream with the high school murder mystery shenanigans bring topped off by some threatening phone calls that sounds awfully reminiscent of Ghostface’s throaty rasp. Even if the killer doesn’t dress as flashy as you’d hope (The black clothes and balaclava combo seems to somehow blend in seamlessly among the suits and party dresses), he still puts everything into a death swing, causing him to sprawl all over the place or nick the odd power cable like his clutzy, post-modern ancestor.
However, while its dedication to to the mystery is admirable, Prom Night still ends up being something of an acquired taste due to some plotting issues that don’t exactly hold up to scrutiny. For example, once it becomes clear what the killer’s motive is and who his targets are, you realise that Jamie Lee Curtis’ Kim is rendered completely safe from the maniac which immediately dilutes a lot of the tension. Also, those salivating for wall to wall kills will no doubt be disappointed by the mere handful of victims even though their patience is eventually rewarded with a cracking decapitation that brings the house down. Plus, the rather bizarre appearance of a pre-Naked Gun Leslie Nielsen as the school principal is disappointingly bland and doesn’t allow the legendary character actor the chance to cut loose like he does in George Romero’s Creepshow.
Still, if you can handle the fashions (both Nick and Alex manage to keep the exact, same hairstyles from six years earlier), the final killer reveal is still well handled even though a lot of the fake-outs are as transparent as Casper the Ghost’s butthole (anyone who actually thought it was the boozy caretaker needs to go to the back of slasher class), this is still a solid entry to Lee Curtis’ horror catalogue and a nicely off-kilter kill-a-thon that tries to use its brain as much as it does sharp, pointy things.
And on that prom-shell….