Sunday, February 12, 2012

Oddball Film Report: PROM NIGHT (1980)

   I've been examining a lot of 60's movies for the Oddball Film Report lately. While that decade and its films may inspire me more than any other period, I felt I needed to offer readers some variety. No, I haven't had complaints, but then I haven't had a lot of readers to my knowledge. At any rate, I wanted to break decade for a while so I'll be examining this weirdly popular flick from the 80's Slasher cycle.

   The Slasher genre was born of a melding of earlier genres. First and foremost (excluding the who-done-it features which have been with us since the beginning of film) would be the Psycho-Thriller genre of the 60's inspired by the grosses of Alfred Hitchcock's immortal PSYCHO. Incubation continued through the 70's, with micro-budget thrillers composed of frank sexuality and madmen on a rampage. The gore films of both decades also helped form the template. Credited for being the "first" slasher (although that is a dubious distinction) was John Carpenter's independent stalker-in-the-neighborhood epic, HALLOWEEN. The die was finally set with FRIDAY THE 13TH, thus creating a template that could be constantly re-used with minimal alteration. The slashers were the dream-come-true of penny-pinching producers, and the nightmare-come-alive for horror movie fans.

   The slashers were easy to make, for one thing. Find a secluded locale, a bunch of aspiring but inexperienced (and thus cheap) actors, women willing to take their clothes off, maybe a make-up man hoping to break into the business, and a minimalist script, and you've got the makings of a big hit. Unrestrained violence was still fairly novel in the early 80's (it wouldn't be by the end of the decade). This form of menace edged the traditional horror film almost over the edge of the cliff. Why spend valuable time and money on make-up for werewolves and vampires when you can just cover a guy's face and have him chase 'teenagers' through the woods?

   What really defines the slasher genre is that the films are so base. Basically, they're pornos with a body count and less nudity. The set-ups usually involve a group of (mostly female) characters who find themselves in secluded areas for carnal activities. These films often revolve around occupations like camp councilors, student nurses, babysitters, teachers and students, etc, etc. The titles could often be switched with skin flicks (APRIL FOOLS DAY, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW, THE BURNING, PROM NIGHT, etc). The major difference, plot-wise, being that someone was stalking and killing the over-sexed idiots.

   Against the odds, though, there would be the occasional gem even in this sorry genre. HALLOWEEN is considered a certified classic. MY BLOODY VALENTINE manged to actually be a good movie by virtue of a decent script, good acting, and likable characters (a real rarity in this genre)! The film is also limited on the sort of gore these films usually put forth as their bread and butter (although that was the distributor's doing, and a more recent edition of the film has restored these scenes). Again beating the odds, the film spawned an actually decent remake, MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3D! Wes Craven, meanwhile, gave us A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, which presented a cerebral take on the kill-a-bunch-of-kids formula.

   The majority of them though, are almost universally written off as trash cinema at its worst. So why does the genre continue to survive? Why does fandom exist for such depraved "entertainment" as can be found in this lifeless, and definitely soul-less, genre? You got me. In my mind, the worst of these films belong in a dumpster with drug comedies. I can see the occasional viewing of a slasher as a 'horror' film, after all there were thousands of these things, but I have yet to understand the cultish fanaticism some audience members have. 

   Oh well, such a topic can be discussed at length elsewhere. On with my report....

   This film, like many in the genre, was made in Canada. SCTV it ain't.

   PROM NIGHT opens with some kids, maybe eleven or so, playing a perverse version of "hide and seek" in an abandoned building. In this version of the game, they pretend to stalk and kill one another. Is this common? Did they invent this for the movie, or do Canadian children really think so morbidly?At any rate, a little girl is "it" and the others surround her near a large window. She ends up falling to her death, and this whole sequence sums up my main problem with the film. This should take only a minute or two to establish, yet it gets drug out well beyond the time required. The moment when the kids begin to circle their target and she falls lasts beyond long enough that one of the kids should have noticed "hey, she's too close to the window, we'd better back off!" At any rate, we open with the accidental death of a little girl.

   The other kids, scared of going to jail, swear each other to secrecy. Okay, I know these kids are scared and everything (although the child actors aren't good enough to convey this and they all come off looking pretty cold), but there are some major problems with this set up. First, you have a half dozen children who are more than likely to spill the beans before the night is over, yet they all apparently are able to keep this secret into adulthood. It just doesn't seem possible, at the least you'd expect one of them to crack over time and confess. Then you get this 'jail' business. Now, again, I understand these are children, but they must not have watched enough television. Children don't go to jail, they go to reform school if they go anywhere at all. What happened here was clearly an accident, and the court is most likely to decide that the kids having to live with this incident is punishment enough. (Granted, things may work a little differently in the Great White North.)

   The police figure the scene to be the work of a murderous pervert, and they have a suspect in mind. Said suspect ends up being injured in a car chase and confined to a hospital bed for years. Meaning the kids get off scot-free and the parents have closure. One of the parents is top-billed Leslie Nielson, who is way too good for this type of thing. What's he doing here? Well, Canadian film production is handled a little differently than it is in the States. Film productions get a tax break if they hire native talent (in some cases the government even makes grants of taxpayer monies to fund locally-shot product!) which leads to the appearance of name talent in cruddy movies like this. None other than Glenn Ford (!) was roped into one of these things, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME. Nielson has very little to do here, and is given about four short scenes, although they remind us that the man had much more talent than his later films would have us realize. I figured I'd be making Police Squad! jokes to myself whenever he was on screen, but his introduction scene shows him grieving over the death of his daughter and it makes such an impact I was taken aback. It's the kind of thing that reminds me why I'm such a fan of Mr. Nielson.

   Also too good for the material is Jamie Lee Curtis, although she was known as Miss Slasher at the time for her starring role in HALLOWEEN, a part she would reprise in the sequel. While talented, and possessing a screen presence the other performers here lack, I remain puzzled by the film having characters note how pretty she's supposed to be. Personally, I've never found her features attractive (she's actually improved with age), placing her somewhere below Karen Black in this respect. This is not to sound disrespectful, you understand, I just don't understand it. When her date for the prom tells her how beautiful she is, the effect is a bit surreal. Making this even more bizarre is that her parents were famed actors Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh! The pair could be considered the pinnacle of Handsome and Beautiful, so you'd expect their offspring to look more like Barbara Eden than Jamie Lee Curtis. Okay, I'll drop it now, I feel I've already been too hard on her. Jamie, if you ever read this, I'd be proud to buy you lunch. You're a wonderful actress and I've never been disappointed by one of your performances. 

   SIX YEARS LATER we catch up to our now teen-age band of friends, who all look to be 30 or above. The youngest gal here might be 26 or 27. These 'kids' are making preparations for the prom, as a shadowy figure with a raspy voice is making harassing phone calls. One of the girls suspects this caller to be Lou, the school jerk/bully/creep/perv. He's another element that makes this exercise farcical in the extreme. He looks like a parody of the type of character he's supposed to be, with his shaggy hair, buck teeth, and Frankenstein monster build.

   Well, no reason to drag this out like the movie does. The kids eventually go to the prom and then find themselves stalked by a masked stranger whenever they break away from the group to have sex. True to form, we're served up a number of suspects who could be the killer. The nutcase from six years ago has escaped from his ward and returns to town to kill his nurse in the same dilapidated building where the kid was killed. The school handyman could be the killer, since he's kinda simple and the girls are nervous around him. It could be one of the grieved parents seeking some belate justice. It might be one of the gang, killing the other kids out of guilt. Don't worry, I won't tell.

   This was before slasher characters went in for iconic (or hopefully iconic) looks like Jason Vorhees and his hockey mask. Our killer wears black slacks, a matching sweater, and a ski mask, so he looks less like a monster than he does a mugger. The film is also terribly under-lit (or else the print I saw was too dark), so there are many scenes where you can't even see the guy. In one ambitious sequence, he menaces the driver of a van at night. Through this whole scene, the driver looks like he's being attacked by an invisible phantom. To be fair, there's a scene where the guy cuts through a power cable and has a realistically confused and frightened reaction to this (it may be the film's best moment, and I wonder if maybe there isn't as much acting in the scene as there is reacting).

   Weirdly, there's not that much violence or nudity on display. The one real nude scene occurs when one of the girls moons the handyman (although they never explain why she'd bait the guy she thinks has a screw loose). The attack scenes tend to be done minus the gore-effect close shots that define the genre, almost like a TV print. One attack, in fact, seems to have been zoomed in on (the face of the victim, we see no blood) and slowed down in post-production. It looks exactly like an edit made for a network showing. Add to this the fact that everything is so dark, and you almost have a TV-style who-done-it of the same period.

   Believe it or not, PROM NIGHT was quite a success. And really, that doesn't make much sense. As slashers go, this one is pretty dull. Half the movie is over before the murder spree begins, and even that is fairly tame. I'm not making a personal complaint about this, but I can't figure why slasher fans would be so keen on this picture. Sporadically, a few sequels got made, and the recent wave of slasher remakes included an update of today's subject (which bore little resemblance to it's parent).


  1. I was 17 in 1980, just as the slasher craze hit. I saw the first round of the "big name" movies as they came out and quickly got bored with the genre. I was and am a fan of Jamie Lee Curtis. She had a very approachable "girl next door" quality about her. I think that's what attracted my generation to her. So I would go out of my way to watch her movies. Trading Places and True Lies are favorites starring Jamie Lee Curtis.

    1. Well, yeah, TRUE LIES is great stuff (although again I think Curtis is being presented as being much sexier than she really is, and it doesn't help that she has to share the screen with the much more exotic and classically beautiful Tia Carrera). The comparison to Karen Black on my part is a pretty good correlation, as I find both enjoyable actresses, but neither are what I'd call a 'dish.' I'm not denying the talent, it's just that I personally don't find them physically attractive.

      An interesting off-shoot of this would be Mary Tyler Moore. In her Dick Van Dyke Show days, she was so scrumptious as to be almost criminal. But the secret was the black and white photography (her quasi bubble cut hairstyle didn't hurt either), as she never looked as adorable in color.