Collective guilt resulting from a prank gone awry is a bitch. Jamie Lee Curtis learned this lesson well in 1980, when she starred in two slasher flicks with that theme: Terror Train, which opened in October of that year, and Prom Night, which dropped in July. If you ever find yourself forced to pick between the two films, may I suggest Terror Train?
Certainly Prom Night boasts some idiosyncracies of its own. It’s probably the only horror flick with a disco theme song (“Prom night/Everything is all right”), which plays during the titular festivities and goes on two minutes shy of forever. It has Leslie Nielsen, back when he could still credibly play serious roles, as Jamie Lee’s dad, who also happens to be the principal of her school. (Perhaps not so coincidentally, Jamie Lee has been voted prom queen.) It contains perhaps the most mellow cat-spitting scene in film history between Jamie Lee and fellow student Anne-Marie Martin (Jamie Lee stole her boyfriend). I’m also always amused to see Anne-Marie Martin, billed here as Eddie Benton; she went on to appear in The Boogens and various TV roles (Sledge Hammer) before marrying Michael Crichton, co-writing Twister with him, and taking him for a lot of money in their divorce.
Six years ago, a little girl fell through a window and died, frightened by a pack of kids playing some sort of “Killer” game. Now a psycho seems to be on the loose, perhaps to avenge her death, perhaps for more personal reasons. It takes about an hour for Prom Night to break out the first kill — the first stalker-slasher kill, anyway, not counting the little girl — and since director Paul Lynch (Humongous) isn’t in the same league or sport with John Carpenter when it comes to building suspense, it’s a long hour. We sit and watch as Jamie Lee readies herself for the prom, and Anne-Marie Martin plots with lunkhead David Mucci (who went on to play the prostitute-slasher in Unforgiven) to ruin Jamie Lee’s moment in the spotlight, and David Cronenberg veteran Robert Silverman slouches around acting creepy as one of the movie’s countless red herrings, and a character named “Slick” who today would fit Jonah Hill to a T picks up a girl in his rockin’ late-’70s van and actually scores with her.
After Halloween owned everybody at the box office, I imagine a lot of dusty murder-mystery scripts were wiped off and refitted for the new slasher subgenre. If not for the occasional gore, nudity, hollowed-out history book full of joints, and a severed head that Jamie Lee, in one of her genuinely great moments on film, steps daintily over, Prom Night would work just as well as a Murder, She Wrote episode. The emphasis on the mystery rather than the standard slasher beats (which feel pretty half-assedly tossed in) bears this out. While we wait, there is some amusing patter between Jamie Lee and her boyfriend (Casey Stevens, looking like a young Steven Spielberg); in general, Jamie Lee maintains a healthy self-deprecating vibe, which is useful when you’re playing a prom queen and principal’s daughter, not to mention a character who doesn’t really fit into the storyline. Unlike her character in Terror Train, her character in Prom Night had nothing to do with the prank that sets the plot in motion. In fact, the dead little girl was Jamie Lee’s sister, so whoever’s killing on the dead kid’s behalf isn’t likely to want to kill Jamie Lee, too. She never really seems in danger.
Shot in Canada with a bunch of local actors, Prom Night is predictably cruddy-looking (on the Anchor Bay DVD, that is; if someone puts out a flamboyantly remastered Blu-ray, I promise to eat my words), with an Anne-Marie Martin chase scene that goes on slightly longer than the “Prom Night” disco theme song, and sad attempts at artsiness like nonsensical black-and-white inserts of the killer’s feet and a dissolve from a bloodied face to a bowl of red punch. After a while, the red herrings start getting eliminated (that whole subplot with the cops on the trail of a disfigured schizophrenic? Don’t get too interested in it), and so does our interest. By the time the killer fully emerges from the shadows, clad head to toe in black, leaping around like some Filipino ripoff of Spider-Man 3, the game is pretty much lost.
According to Wikipedia, “Music historians generally refer to July 12, 1979, as the ‘day disco died.’” Regardless, early-’80s movies like Prom Night pretended it was 1977, and we’re treated to a mildly embarrassing disco dance number between Jamie Lee and the Spielberg lookalike. To keep myself entertained, I began to imagine that Jamie Lee’s dance partner really was Spielberg. I suggest you do the same, or something similar, if you find yourself forced to choose between Prom Night and Terror Train and you choose poorly.