Prom Night (1980)

Events-themed horrors were a big deal in the ‘80s, as both Friday The 13th and April Fool’s Day can attest. Coming before either of them, but after the trend-setting Black Christmas and Halloween, was Prom Night, a now-dated slasher flick that honourably attempted to turn a sugary sweet occasion into a bloodbath of terror.

Slasher fans will already know what to expect from Prom Night thanks to more recent horror fare (say, I Know What You Did Last Summer) pilfering great portions of its plot and freshening them up for a turn of the century audience. We begin in 1974, when 10-year-old stutterer Robin Hammond is accidentally killed by four older bullies when a prank goes wrong.

Fast forward six years, and her taunters are now 18-year-old high school seniors. Preparing for their prom, they’ve all but forgotten the incident from their childhood – until they receive threatening phone calls on the anniversary of Robin’s death. One person who definitely hasn’t forgotten is Robin’s sister Kim (Jamie Lee Curtis), whose family is still feeling the loss. Meanwhile, the lunatic who was wrongfully accused of Robin’s murder has escaped incarceration…

There’s a lot going on in Prom Night, with madmen on the loose, inept cops flapping around, and teenagers gripped in complicated relationships. Sadly, the film’s not really that bothered about exploring things like Kim’s boyfriend’s guilt issues (he was one of the kids responsible for Robin’s death), and poor Leslie Nieslen (here playing both Kim’s father and the school’s principal) is robbed of any decent screen time.

Still, relegating many of its stalk ‘n’ slash scenes to its final 30 minutes is a bold decision, suggesting that Prom Night is a slasher with loftier ambitions than many of the horrors that would follow it. Spending its first hour establishing characters and red herrings, Prom wants to be a hard-hitting teen mystery. It’s a shame, then, that when the chase scenes/kills finally arrive, they’re too drawn-out, repetitive and dull to really gather any momentum (even if the mirror shard is an inventive weapon).

The fact of the matter is Prom Night has dated, and is spectacularly rooted in the ‘80s. If it isn’t horrendous dresses, it’s horrendous hair ‘dos. “Let’s show her what we can do,” Jamie Lee Curtis huffs when her beau’s catty ex walks in, then launches into a ridiculously camp, five-minute-long dance routine (on a multi-coloured dance-floor) that would cause even the High School Musical kids to blush.

That frothy moment is actually one of the film’s highlights, though, with much of Prom Night’s running time given over to those silly double bluffs and police officers speaking in voiceover to themselves (a trick that’s straining for film noir gravitas). Shamefully, Eddie Benton’s snippy, bitchy Wendy is basically on a leash throughout, and Curtis’ sort-of heroine is a giggly flirt who doesn’t really get to do much (apart from dance).

Of course, Prom Night probably looks all the weaker now because many of its key elements have been re-done (and better) in a string of contemporary movies. Those learned slasher viewers will spot and dismiss the red herrings no problem, while the identity of the killer is pretty much a slam dunk the second you see the ‘Six Years Later’ cue card.

Any redeeming features, then? Well, there’s some very natty editing that enlivens the film’s pace while giving weight to some of the more dramatic moments, and a rolling-head kill is both Prom Night’s funniest and goriest set-piece. If it’s event horror movies you’re after, though, best stick with Halloween. 2/5