Out of all the hits produced by horror’s slasher subgenre, Prom Night might have experienced the most interesting trajectory. It was a hit out of the box, smartly capitalizing on the rising slasher trend and Jamie Lee Curtis’ burgeoning stardom. As genre fandom became more hardcore, the film’s simple, decidedly “pop” pleasures fell out of favor (the disco trappings are a common complaint with this set) but it has made a comeback in recent years with the advent of slasher nostalgia amongst horror fans. It even experienced an underwhelming remake, thus cementing its enduring cult status.
Why has Prom Night fandom experienced so many peaks and valleys? To begin with, Prom Night is distinctly a movie of its time and unabashedly commercial in its approach to the genre. The film begins in a classic slasher vein, with a child accidentally falling out of a window to her death during a malicious hide-and-seek game. Her tormentors swear each other to secrecy and they make it all the way to high school with no repercussions.
However, the approach of prom night leads to a series of threatening phone calls to said survivors: queen bee Wendy (Eddie Benton), anxious and virginal Kelly (Mary Beth Rubens), happy-go-lucky Jude (Joy Thompson) and budding prom king Nick (Casey Stevens). The teens unwisely blow off the calls as they are caught up in their own personal dramas – including Nick leaving girlfriend Wendy to date Kim (Jamie Lee Curtis), who happens to be the prom queen and the sister of the little girl who died in the prologue. As the cops chase suspects, the killer focuses on the prom – leading to a string of killings the culminate in the wildest king-and-queen crowning ceremony since Carrie.
An important thing to remember about Prom Night is that it was made in late 1979 and released in 1980 – thus, it was produced at a time before the slasher film’s rules had gelled into a tried-and-true code. Thus, the film breaks the rules in a way that frustrates modern horror fans: you have to wait an hour before any slashings happen, the film has little interest in gore and its highly commercial approach ensures that it devotes time to elements that the film’s detractors could care less about (soap opera romance subplots, disco dancing, etc.).
However, those elements will give Prom Night a certain naive, quirky charm to other viewers. Whether it is dealing in drama, disco or horror, Prom Night approaches its business with a vigorous, non-ironic approach that will be refreshing to viewers tired of eye-rolling irony in modern horror fare. The film’s plotline might shamelessly crib exploitable elements from Carrie, Halloween, Black Christmas and Saturday Night Fever but it does so with a “let’s put on a show” sense of gusto. It also offsets these borrowings with its own inventive bits: for instance, the reveal of the killer is staged in a way that allows the viewer to feel unexpected sympathy for the killer’s motivations.
And it helps that Prom Night is pretty well made: director Paul Lynch directs the film with flair, making excellent use of artful cinematography from Robert New and a surprisingly subtle score by Carl Zittrer and Paul Zaza to create a deliciously creepy atmosphere. Once the killings kick in the final half-hour, Lynch stages them with brio: a scene where one woman is stalked through the deserted parts of the film by the ax-wielding killer is one of the best setpieces in slasher history. More importantly, he choreographs the finale in bravura style, managing to achieve both scares and pathos before the end credits roll.
Lynch also gets solid performances from his cast, who are much more amusing than the usual cannon fodder in a slasher flick: Benton makes an endearingly bitchy queen bee, Leslie Nielsen does professional work in a supporting role as the school’s principal/Kim’s dad and David Mucci offers a slyly witty turn as the school’s resident bully. That said, Curtis earns her scream queen billing here with a standout lead performance. Kim isn’t the most complex role but Curtis invests it with charm and sincerity – and when she realizes who the killer is, her ability to convey complex emotion through facial expressions makes it one of the great slasher movie endings.
Finally, Prom Night has a camp element that will make it irresistable to horror fans whose palate is broad enough to appreciate such things. The bitchy intrigue between Kim and Wendy and the soap operatic romance subplots, particularly the should-I-or-shouldn’t-I travails of poor Kelly, give the film an amusingly melodramatic flair that you don’t always see in slashers.
That said, the element that seals the film’s camp appeal is a sequence in the middle where Kim and Nick show up Wendy with an elaborate display of disco moves on the dance floor. Curtis is actually quite good as a dancer here and Lynch cops every visual trick he can grab from Carrie and Saturday Night Fever as the film’s high-BPM title song bursts out over the speakers. The end result might look goofy and dated to some – but its unselfconscious pursuit of fun gives it a hard-to-define magic that will endear it to lovers of camp cinema.
The latter could be said from Prom Night as a whole. It’s a throwback to an era when commercial horror filmmaking was more innocent and blessedly devoid of hip irony. We could use more fun in the horror genre – and Prom Night offers a gentle retro refresher in how it was once done.