REVIEW: Prom Night [1980]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 92 minutes
    Release Date: July 18th, 1980 (USA)
    Studio: AVCO Embassy Pictures
    Director(s): Paul Lynch
    Writer(s): William Gray / Robert Guza Jr. (story)

The killers are coming.

Built upon a story by a film student (Robert Guza Jr.) that director Paul Lynch knew, Prom Night delivers a grounded slasher focused on revenge. Written by William Gray, the script begins six years in the past as four children play hide and seek in an old, abandoned building without adult supervision. They play rough with chants about killers to try and spook each other into giving up their location—a style that might scare someone unfamiliar with the tone being set like young Robin Hammond. She finds herself climbing the stairs to join them only to end up becoming their communal target to the point where she accidentally falls through a window to her death. The quartet agree to never tell anyone what they did.

That narrows things down a bit when their older selves (Anne-Marie Martin‘s Wendy, Casey Stevens‘ Nick, Joy Thompson‘s Jude, and Mary Beth Rubens‘ Kelly) each receive a menacing phone the morning of the prom. Could it be Robin’s parents (Leslie Nielsen and Antoinete Bower)? They have motive and their other children (Jamie Lee Curtis‘ Kim and Michael Tough‘s Alex) telling them how they saw Nick outside before Robin went in would get some wheels turning. Maybe it’s the man accused of the crime: a schizophrenic badly burned in a chase who fatefully happens to have just escaped the hospital. Or what about the new high school handyman, Mr. Sykes (Robert A. Silverman). He may have no connection to Robin, but today’s students have more than earned his ire.

Lynch and Gray do a wonderful job deflecting suspicion. They home in on the likeliest of possibilities and make it so we find ourselves wondering why they bothered casting doubt on the others. It will all make sense later, though, as the climax arrives to shuffle through each while also adding a few more. These things often end up taking weird turns to reveal some random student was somehow related to what happened without anyone realizing, so we can’t rule out Slick (Sheldon Rybowski) or Lou (David Mucci) either. The former is seemingly a stranger nobody knew before injecting himself into the main friend group and the latter exudes “tough-guy with criminal future vibes” from frame one. There’s no telling who’s actually behind the mask until it’s removed.

What I really liked about Prom Night, however, is that we don’t even see that mask until the end. There’s only one murder before the school becomes this killer’s hunting grounds and we see nothing more than the aftermath (and no body or blood at that). Lynch isn’t interested in focusing on gore. He knows the suspense is effective enough to work on its own and lets the plot progress through its character development instead. We meet these people and understand who harbors regret and who doesn’t. We see how three of the four kids who truly hold a claim to Robin’s death are now very close to Kim despite it. Will they tell her? Will she end up letting the killer do his worst? Both avenues work.

Watching as Wendy seeks to sabotage Kim’s night (Nick broke up with the first to go with the second) by recruiting Lou and his minions means more to the drama than following around an unknown killer as he skulks around town. Learning about Jude and Kelly’s sexuality sets-up where they might end up and with whom to isolate them for a kill. And noticing how often Kim finds Nick talking to Wendy inevitably has us adding intent to someone like Mr. Hammond considering the kids responsible for one daughter’s death are now risking another daughter’s happiness. Lynch keeps Mr. Sykes looking creepy and positions Lt. McBride (George Touliatos) at the school to ensure we know the mental patient is still loose. No hypothesis is ruled out without purpose.

Add a disco flavor (there’s a full-blown, uninterrupted Saturday Night Fever dance number between Kim and Nick that serves as a final reprieve before the blood officially flows) and the whole becomes very much of its era thanks to a willingness to depict these kids’ lives above the peril to which they’ll soon be prey. There’s a real slice of life atmosphere that these sorts of horrors are rarely allowed—especially today in the special effects heavy world of torture porn’s gore Olympics. The kills are subtle (often a stab of a mirror shard) with little exploitative lingering on bodies. All we need to know is that the person is dead because their demise is here to advance the plot rather than entertain. It’s quite the refreshing twist.

The entire movie is for that matter. It’s rough around the edges acting-wise (the teens are either stereotypes or poorly approximating authenticity), but the bright spots (Curtis, Martin, and Thompson) help to tie everything together. The effects are good mostly because they aren’t being asked to do too much (thanks to Lynch’s nuanced style) with a memorable decapitation proving to be a highlight that was supposedly mandated by the producer. I’m honestly shocked that its rating is so low on IMDB considering how much money it made at the time and its cult status as a seminal slasher that set the stage for the genre moving forward. It might be tame on its surface, but it’s no less brutal in its machinations than its contemporaries. I’m a fan.

Watched in conjunction with Season Eight of Buffalo, NY-based horror series Thursday Night Terrors, curated by Peter Vullo. Logo by Josh Flanigan.

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