When I was in my mid-teens, the idea of a prom night seemed impossibly cool and glamorous. From my perspective it was the moment one crossed the divide between the folly of youth and the great unknown of impending adulthood. A night of stretch limousines, corsages, of terrible prom bands, adventure in the darkened halls, a punch bowl spiked with an unknown liquor, and the hero (me) getting the girl of his dreams – all set to an eighties staple, usually something from a John Hughes film. It was, in many ways, the most perfect of nights. But this only happened in America.
You see, I was born and raised in England. When I was growing up we didn’t do proms. We didn’t celebrate the end of the school year, or any of that stuff. I simply trotted off into the overcast, late afternoon drizzle, with the school bully sneering in my ear about the enormous chalk penis he’d drawn on the back of my school uniform. I’d stand, humiliated and quietly cursing as the drizzle turned to a downpour, waiting for an eternity to catch the bus home. This was England, and we didn’t do tuxedos. We did ill-fitting school blazers, frightening verse, Friday night fish and chips, and intense periods of staring out the window into the rain.
While I was pondering the drudgery of my teenage years, the United States had been undergoing cultural and political upheaval that I couldn’t even begin to fathom; as is the way when your only worry is whether you’ll ever get a girlfriend. The early 1980s were particularly tricky for the horror genre. A new decade meant a new broom, in the guise of President Ronald Reagan, to sweep clean the United States, bringing with him a new era of political conservatism. By the time Reagan was sworn in the slasher film was enjoying a halcyon period, but it wasn’t the president’s administration that had the most immediately profound effect on horror movies, but the murder of John Lennon in December 1980.
In the wake of Lennon’s death, a tighter grip was placed around the throat of horror movies. My Bloody Valentine remains the starkest example of the desecration of artistic endeavour by self-appointed bastions of good taste. In this case, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) sought to excise so much of George Mihalka’s movie that it was, according to producer John Dunning, “cut to ribbons“.
A full year before, however, another film of Canadian parentage found its way into cinemas and became one of the first in a conveyor belt of slasher movies that despite a number of peaks and troughs has never really gone away. Following Halloween‘s stratospheric rise from small independent horror to the status of slasher film by which all future slasher films will forever be measured a number of enterprising producers and directors were inspired to try their hand at capturing lightning in a bottle, just like John Carpenter, who’d shown that movies could be made cheaply, without the need for expensive special effects or stars (Donald Pleasance notwithstanding) and still strike gold at the box office.
Things started slowly. By the end of 1979 only a handful of movies from the burgeoning slasher sub-genre had been produced. Tourist Trap, When a Stranger Calls and Savage Weekend were three examples that varied wildly in terms of quality and commercial success. Within a year, the number of slasher films in production had more than doubled and the gravy train was in full flow. Among those was Prom Night, which achieved immediate distinction by casting Jamie Lee Curtis, fresh from filming her sophomore movie, The Fog, and well on her way to confirming her position as the ‘scream queen’.
Yet, Prom Night fits somewhat uncomfortably into the slasher pantheon. Part horror movie, part melodrama, it’s closer to The Prowler in tone than Friday the 13th, but lacks the sheer brutality of its contemporaries: a curious decision for a film conceived in the first place to exploit the public’s desire for such fare.
It certainly conforms to classic slasher tropes; threatening phone calls, teens-in-peril, sex equating death, and the sins of the past coming back to haunt the guilty. While a number of films ultimately improved upon the execution of these staples, Prom Night certainly arrived on the scene earlier than most, having only been preceded by Friday the 13th by a couple of months.
But is Prom Night a classic? Does it deserve a place at the slasher movie top table? If not, where does it fit in the pantheon? Well, that would depend entirely upon your point-of-view. If, like me, it represents a more innocent and nostalgic movie-viewing time (if watching a bunch of teens being butchered can be deemed nostalgic) then yes, it sits comfortably in the top 10. To say it’s dated would be a huge understatement; the disco scene alone is worthy of a chuckle or two, as is some of the fashion, but it’s certainly retains some emotional resonance, particularly in the final reveal.
Some movies are rightly regarded as important works of art, which may be due to how they tackle a particular theme or the context within which they exist. What elevates a movie’s importance is the way they work to advance the medium and/or stretch the boundaries of the genre in which they exist. Prom Night does none of these things. But that doesn’t make it any less important to me. Yes, I can watch it now with a more critical, world-weary eye and dismiss certain aspects previously viewed as the height of originality. For example, I now connect the dots from Billy’s intensely unsettling phone calls in Black Christmas to the hoarsely whispered threats in Prom Night, or the clear homage it pays to Carrie, with its prom night denouement, albeit minus the tension that made De Palma’s film so essential.
That’s not to say that Prom Night doesn’t have moments that eschew the more ubiquitous slasher traditions. It’s certainly lacking in the classic final girl department. While Jamie Lee Curtis does survive, so does her boyfriend (albeit due to her handiness with an axe) but she’s more final girl-lite than final girl proper. And then there’s the killer. Homicidal, certainly, but in no way the ostensibly mindless killer of Madman or Hell Night, more a vengeance-seeking, ultimately sympathetic character.
Unsurprisingly it was a critical bomb. Gene Siskel, an outspoken opponent of the slasher movie did demonstrate, while damning with faint praise, the difference between Prom Night and many of its contemporaries: “You would think that Prom Night was another one of those hideous attacks-on-promiscuous-women pictures. It’s not. Gender makes no difference in this routine revenge film.” For the teenage version of me, Prom Night was the perfect fodder as an early entry into the slasher genre, a kind of John Carpenter/John Hughes hybrid murder mystery. Fun, but forgettable.
Prom Night is nothing more or less than a good time (with a downbeat finale). It conforms to most, though not all, slasher conventions and doesn’t presume to be anything more than the sum of its parts. The inclusion of instantly datable fare, from the music to the fashion informs the viewer that Prom Night had no intention of being anything more than a one night stand, a ‘wham, bam, thank you ma’am‘ type of movie, and that’s why it’s a perennial favourite.
The teenage me would watch the credits roll on the movie as the rain outside continued to pour, briefly wondering what was so great about prom nights anyway. Then I’d rewind the film and press play again.