Sometimes you just gotta sit down and watch a slasher film. I did so with Prom Night, starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Leslie Nielsen in beautiful Toronto, circa 1979. That date is important for several reasons: Curtis was only a year out from Halloween but had found considerable success through that movie, which is how she got the role here. Nielsen was still in the dramatic phase of his career before 1980’s Airplane! sent him down the comedy path that we all love and remember him for. And the slasher was poised on the precipice to really take off. While Halloween had helped put this style of film in the public consciousness, 1980 was the big year when the slasher really exploded: Friday the 13th, Prom Night, Silent Scream, The Boogeyman, Don’t Answer the Phone, and Maniac all came out, along with the likes of Schizoid, To All a Goodnight, Terror Train, Funeral Home… I think you get the idea.
Of all of these, Friday the 13th is clearly the big name and was the most successful, but Prom Night could have beaten it to the punch and nearly did. Paramount Pictures offered to distribute it in 300 theaters, but Prom Night‘s production company Avco Embassy Pictures wanted 1200 theaters. Avco ended up releasing the film on its own a few months late, and Paramount instead went with Friday the 13th. But hey, Prom Night still ended up successful, raking in nearly $15 million USD on a budget of $1.5 million Canadian.
Unfortunately for slasher fans, Prom Night is on the slow side. It starts with the death of a little girl from falling out a window after being bullied by several children, and aside from one murder that is done off screen, we don’t see any more mayhem for the next hour. Instead, we get high school drama, Leslie Nielsen keeping kids in line, a creepy repairman, an escaped convict, and red herrings. Oh, and disco. Lots of disco. Jamie Lee Curtis can really move!
Really though, the movie has loads of setup for its final murder spree, which makes things drag for those who like a high body count but gives information on what kind of people all of our children characters have grown up into. I actually think it works, because it makes me care about most of the victims, which makes their deaths seem more tragic. Otherwise, yeah, sure, they killed a girl and lied about it, they deserve to die. It’s like I Know What You Did Last Summer, only I actually feel bad for the kids getting killed. And once the hunt is on, it’s on, with a lot of setup. In particular, Wendy gets hunted for a while and run down by our killer. By the end of it, she’s a sobbing, panicking mess. Sure, her character is a total nightmare, but the long, slow wait she has to deal with for death is horrible as her hiding places repeatedly fail.
If I have one criticism, it’s the killer; he isn’t menacing. It’s a guy in a ski mask, making him about as vicious as your typical home invader but nothing up to snuff with the likes of Michael Myers. He doesn’t slowly stalk, he’s not unstoppable, he’s a normal guy. In the end, it only takes one blow to fell him. However, I appreciate that the film tries to keep the audience guessing about who he could be. Is he the school principal? Is he an escaped convict? Is he the creepy school janitor? Slowly the possibilities fall away, but always with a small setup for another one, until the reveal finally occurs.
Not bad, Prom Night. You’re no Halloween or Friday the 13th, but I liked what I got. Except maybe less disco next time.