The Film: 4/5
From our hygienic and polite neighbors to the North comes Prom Night, an above-average psycho on the loose thriller that stands as one of the finest entries in the golden age of the slasher movie thirty-five years later.
Six years after the tragic death of young Robin Hammond (Tammy Bourne) her family, including sister Kim (Jamie Lee Curtis) and brother Alex (Michael Tough) are still haunted by the events of that day. At least Kim should be because she was partly responsible for it happening in the first place, along with her friends Jude (Joy Thompson), Kelly (Marybeth Rubens), Nick (Casey Stevens), and Wendi (Anne-Marie Martin, credited here as "Eddie Benton"). It was a harmless children's game that got carried away and the quintet, who swore secrecy from that awful day forward, are now high school seniors preparing for prom night. Several days before the big evening each member of the group receives a mysterious phone call from a raspy-voiced stranger promising that "I'll see you at the prom". Police lieutenant McBride (George Touliatos) is convinced that a pedophile who had been locked away after being unjustly accused and convicted of Robin's death (and that happened right after he had suffered disfiguring burns in a car crash while fleeing from the authorities) will make his way back to the school for some reason never explained. While the teens go about their prom preparations (Kim is trying to get a date - I hear Ben Tramer is interested) and engage in soap opera dramatics over relationships that are either falling apart or barely holding together, a psychopath wearing a black ski mask is waiting in the wings to unleash a bloody reign of slaughter. On this particular prom night there will be a few students who won't be making it to graduation.
I have fond memories of my prom night, even though I didn't actually go to my school's prom. I couldn't care less about those pointless festivities. Some friends and I ended up getting together and hanging out all over town that evening. That has nothing to do with the movie Prom Night but I just thought I would share. In any case, Canadian journeyman director Paul Lynch, working from a screenplay by William Gray (The Changeling), fashioned a gruesomely potent yarn that takes its time building up to the climatic killing spree at a pace that would not have been accepted in the later years of the 1980's. The film's three act structure is very much modeled on the formula established by the original Halloween, whose very existence obviously made the entire slasher genre possible, and by allowing us time to get to know the characters and get a sense of the emotional bonds some of them share it makes the final twenty minutes' worth of stalking and killing that much more effective.
Jamie Lee Curtis made both this and Terror Train the same year and in the process solidified her standing as one of the ultimate "scream queens" of modern horror cinema. Then she walked away from the genre for almost two decades to focus on more challenging roles. You can't blame her for having the ambition to improve her craft and avoid the imminent typecasting that seems to come with getting involved with gory fright flicks, but when it came to playing the requisite final girl a good slasher requires there is no one better than Jamie Lee. She has plenty of vitality and vulnerability of her own to bring to the gutsy characters she plays and she never plays her heroine roles like weak-willed victims. Curtis is definitely the star of this show but it's a status she earns fairly and deservedly. The rest of the cast plays their parts competently, but with the exception of Anne-Marie Martin (the future Mrs. Michael Crichton) few of them are able to rise beyond archetypes. I enjoyed the tenderness Casey Stevens' lovelorn geek Nick exhibits towards Curtis, and David Mucci (as alpha male lout Lou) has one of the greatest and most pronounced uni-brows in motion picture history.
Top-billed Leslie Nielsen, playing Kim's father and the high school principal, doesn't get much to do in the movie but look grief-stricken and make a half-assed attempt to disco dance (he could have taken some lessons from Ted Striker). Most of his best scenes were left on the cutting room floor and restored to a version of the film that played on network television later in the decade. Canadian character acting great Robert A. Silverman, best known for his multiple appearances in the films of David Cronenberg, makes a fine shifty-eyed prime suspect as the weird Mr. Sykes. But his character, much like the unseen sex offender Leonard Murch originally believed to have killed Robin, serves no purpose in the story other than to act as a distraction. The presence of Sykes and the looming return of Murch could have added some mystery and tension had we not already known that Kim and her friends were indirectly responsible for her sister's death. Instead of opening the movie with that event Lynch and Gray would have been wise to hold off revealing it until later as the killing spree starts to escalate.
At least Lynch stages the relentless terror of the finale with attention to atmosphere and suspense rather than pile on the gore effects, though his restraint in the first few kills pays off beautifully with an epic decapitation. When one teen meets their maker while smoking dope in the back of a pathetic rape van owned by creep Slick (Sheldon Rybowski) it really took me by surprise. Cinematographer Robert C. New (Night of the Creeps) lenses these set-pieces with respect to the settings and a healthy eye for unexpected action, honed to an expert pace by editor Brian Ravok (Screwballs). Plus the uncredited stunt performer playing the killer is a terrifying wonder, leaping and bounding about in pursuit of their victims with a physicality Douglas Fairbanks Sr. would envy. Veteran Canadian film composers Paul Zaza and Carl Zittrer (Murder by Decree, Porky's) contributed a highly effective score that hits all the right cues and has its emotionally affecting moments.
Restored in 1080p high-definition from the original 35mm camera negative, Prom Night boasts one of the finest transfers ever overseen by Synapse Films. The 1.78:1 widescreen picture is such an improvement over every muddy VHS and DVD release of the film that if you owned any of them there are no longer worth holding onto (even for sentimental value). Synapse's transfer sports some very pronounced colors and texture and some spectacular-looking night scenes where the action is for once visible and coherent. This edition also comes complete with English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 soundtracks. The 5.1 has impressive range and is properly balanced in the volumes while the 2.0 track that presents the original mono audio lacks distortion and features dialogue that is often easier to hear. Both tracks will work fantastically depending on your home viewing set-up. English subtitles are also included.
Director Lynch and screenwriter Gray hold court on a commentary track moderated by Paul Jankiewicz that is by turns amusing and informative. The participants make for a lively bunch and the track rarely suffers from dead air. Lynch also returns as one of the interviewees for the new retrospective documentary "The Horrors of Hamilton High: The Making of Prom Night" (41 minutes) that brings together several surviving members of the cast and crew for more production tales and fond remembrances. Curtis' professionalism is singled out, but some of the funniest anecdotes to be found here revolve around the late Nielsen and his fondness for punking his cast mates with a fart machine (just wait until you hear the Christopher Plummer story). Lynch goes into detail about how he got the idea for Prom Night from Halloween producer Irwin Yablans and how a short story by William Guza Jr. (Curtains) gave the movie its shocking opening scene. Composer Paul Zaza talks about having to come up with six original disco songs for the dance scenes in five days and how the production nearly got ensnared in litigation over their similarities to disco hits of the time.
The scenes deleted from the film but restored for television broadcast are included here (11 minutes) and offer more Nielsen and a few fleeting moments showing the teens actually attending class. Twenty-three minutes of outtakes from the filming of several key sequences is included here and are accompanied by selections from the film score as the original audio elements have been lost. The supplements are closed out by a full-motion still gallery (6 minutes) featuring production photos and domestic and international posters and lobby cards, a red-band theatrical trailer (2 minutes), six television spots (3 minutes), and a minute's worth of radio spots. Synapse has also included reversible cover art.
Synapse Films' Blu-ray release of the slasher classic Prom Night features vastly improved picture and sound quality, enough new bonus features to crowd a disco dance floor, and is hands down one of the best horror home video releases of 2014. If you love this movie and gory 80's exploitation in general this is the definitive release and the only one to own. Highly recommended.