It doesn’t take long to realize that the Prom Night series isn’t built around a hero, villain/monster, or weapon. It also isn’t built around a high concept or lore. No, the entire series seems to exist because naming films after holidays and events had become a trend ever since producer Irwin Yablans suggested a re-focus of John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s script for The Babysitter Murders to something that could simply be called Halloween. After a meeting with Yablans, director Paul Lynch decided he would follow the example and set his own slasher around… a high school dance.
While there’s no denying this turned into a horror series residing a shelf down from the classics of the genre, that doesn’t mean there isn’t fun to be had. The band is taking a break, so I’ll meet you at the punch bowl and we can discuss.
Prom Night (1980)
A masked killer slashes through a handful of teenagers at prom in a plot of delayed vengeance for the accidental death of a young girl six years earlier. Police suspect an escaped mental patient could be involved with the killings, but the truth of identity is something much closer to the hearts of the people still dealing with the tragedy of the young girl’s death.
Jamie Lee Curtis (The Fog) lends much-needed star power to the film—and financing might not have come through without her involvement. The rest of the cast is fine, but it’s difficult not to acknowledge Leslie Nielsen (Creepshow) isn’t given much to do beyond adding a touch of class to the proceedings. The film works well as a slow-burn proto-slasher that dwells in grief, even as the delayed stalk-and-slash sequences often go on long enough to deflate the tension. Compared to similar films of the early ‘80s, the death scenes are less gory than you might expect, yet still a touch more gruesome than what Carpenter delivered two years earlier with his slasher defining Halloween (1978).
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Hello, Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987)
It’s 1957, and Mary Lou Maloney (Lisa Schrage, Food of the Gods II) is going to be queen of the prom. A bad girl, who enjoys every sin she commits, her actions catch up to her and her coronation goes up in flames—literally—when her jilted date drops a smoke bomb on her, catching her dress on fire. Mary Lou burns to death, and her crown is locked away in a chest that’s inexplicably stored in the school’s basement. Once the mid-eighties roll around, the tragic fire has been mostly forgotten in the town, until a high school student opens the chest and removes the crown, unleashing the angry spirit of Mary Lou in the process.
Hello, Mary Lou turns to the supernatural and becomes the crowning achievement of the series. The kills are varied, and the set pieces are often constructed with playfully nightmarish imagery, such as when a rocking horse with a demonically long tongue comes to wiggly life amidst the caressing fingers of a teenage girl possessed by Mary Lou’s vengeful ghost. The original title of the film was The Haunting of Hamilton High, which is fitting as this was never intended to be a sequel to Prom Night. With overt nods to A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Carrie (1976)—and featuring characters named after horror icons, from Carpenter, Wes Craven, and Frank Henenlotter (shout out to my little brother, Belial, from Basket Case), among others—it’s odd there isn’t much in the way of references to the original Prom Night.
Prom Night III: The Last Kiss (1989)
Mary Lou Maloney (Courtney Taylor, Sins of the Night) is back… in a full-on comedy. It’s been years since she was returned to hell, where she’s been suffering damnation by being chained and forced to dance to disco music. But upon the re-opening of Hamilton High’s renovated gymnasium after the previous film’s fiery conclusion (hello there, continuity), Mary Lou breaks her chains and escapes back up to the halls of her high school, where she finds a new crush and plenty of new victims to tease and torment to death.
The Last Kiss is the only true sequel in the series. It’s too bad that right from the first scene it feels like it’s running on fumes. Death sequences are turned into jokes straight out of a horror parody, fatal punchlines landing with thuds almost every time. While the idea of turning Mary Lou into a spirit spouse and using her otherworldly abilities to guide a struggling student to better grades and popularity (as long as he continues to dispose of the bodies of school faculty and various students) is interesting, it’s too often played without consequence. Characters barely elicit a shrug when anything weird happens, such as a jock being impaled to a goal post with a football that morphs into a razor-sharp sphere straight from the marbled halls of Morningside Cemetery.
Prom Night IV: Deliver Us From Evil (1992)
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: A monk has a problem with the lustful sins of teenagers, so he goes out and kills two teens exploring each other in the backseat of a car on prom night (back in 1957, apparently, before Mary Lou catches fire inside the gymnasium). Then he’s captured by other monks, who put him into a drug-induced coma and hide him away. Years later, with the changing of monk guards, the killer monk awakens from his slumber. And it’s prom night again!
Deliver Us from Evil is a series return to somber horror, but it’s also the biggest departure from what had come before. Outside of the brief opening, the closest we come to a prom scene is when our main characters drive by the school dance on their way to an empty vacation house outside of town. And though a character offers a meta toast to Jamie Lee Curtis, it’s comes across as a feeble nod to the first film of the series and a reminder of how far everything had detoured from its melancholy beginning. What we have this time is a budget-friendly party of four, consisting of two randy dudes, one sexually adventurous Catholic school girl, and the requisite mostly innocent Catholic school girl who teeters back and forth between wanting to go all the way or not. For some reason, there’s a veiled indictment of the controversies that organized religion has faced over charges of abuse, but it comes across as a head-scratching motive for a killer in a slasher series that’s supposed to be centered on a high school dance.
There are good ideas and set pieces scattered throughout these films—well, maybe not so many with the Idris Elba (Luther) starring 2008 remake. What makes the series confounding overall is how it doesn’t really feel like a series at all, outside of its naming convention. By not having much of anything that connects it all together, the Prom Night films each stand alone, just like someone who goes to a dance without a date.