Prom Night (1980)

Prom Night first published by

In an abandoned building first seen reflected in a broken pane of glass, four young children inside – Kelly, Wendy, Jude and Nick – play a game of hide and seek where, in this out-of-bounds arena of danger and transgression, they repeatedly exclaim, “The killer is coming! The killer is coming!”. Ten-year-old Robin Hammond passes by, and wants to join in – but the quartet’s bullying of her leads to a horrific accident. The four swear never to tell anyone what has happened – and police mistakenly arrest and imprison a local sex offender Leonard Murch for the crime. 

Six years later, the four are high school seniors, preparing for prom night at Alexander Hamilton High School – even as Robin’s death is still mourned in different ways by her twin brother Alex (Michael Tough), older sister Kim (Jamie Lee Curtis), mother (Antoinette Bower) and father (Leslie Nielsen, just before Airplane! would make him the king of deadpan comedy). A stranger makes menacing phone calls to Jude (Joy Thompson), Kelly (Mary Beth Rubens), Wendy (Eddie Benton) and Nick (Casey Stevens) – the last now dating Kim. With Murch now escaped and on the run, someone is planning vengeance against the four guilty teens over the course of a long night where they plan to come of age, to lose their virginity, even to take the prom crown.  

Though set in Ohio, Paul Lynch’s Prom Night is a Canadian production. Indeed, while its prom setting (complete with a vicious prank planned against prom queen Kim and king Nick) overtly evokes Brian de Palma’s Carrie (1976), and the casting of Lee Curtis (with a subplot revolving around the return of an institutionalised psychotic) immediately points to John Carpenter’s influential slasher Halloween (1978), Lynch is also, through the creepy nuisance phone calls, alluding to Larry Clark’s 1974 ur-slasher Black Christmas (1974), which was also Canadian. If all this sounds somewhat unoriginal, William Gray’s screenplay and the performance of the cast ensure that these school pupils seem more like real, often very funny people than stock two-dimensional victims. Well over an hour of the film’s ninety-minute duration is spent carefully building character before the vengeful culling kicks in, ensuring that the viewer is fully engaged in these young people’s lives, and that their eventual demise is as unwelcome as it is upsetting. Equally unusual for this genre, the killer, though donning a ski-mask familiar from Sergio Martino’s Torso (1973), has understandable motives beneath the maniacal bloodlust, and so cuts an oddly sympathetic figure even while slicing up the co-ed community.  

“Now! Now! Now!”, exclaims this killer (whose identity you may not guess), whenever attacking a victim. Prom Night was indeed surfing the zeitgeist of the now, not just of its own emerging subgenre (in a year that would also yield slasher greats like Christmas Evil and Maniac, as well as the popular, if not so great, Friday the 13th), but also of the disco scene that was still just about at its peak in the early Eighties. Prolonged, elaborate and set to Paul Zaza’s funkily derivative score, the prom dance-floor sequences here are a key part of the film, allowing it to keep in step with the voguishness of John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever (1977) and, to a lesser extent, of Roland Kleiser’s Grease (1978). “Love me till I die,” runs the chorus of the film’s climactic song. It is all at once danse macabre and memento mori, as the youthful promise of these writhing bodies is cut tragically short by someone who knows what they did six summers ago.

Summary: Though derivative, Paul Lynch’s Canadian revenge slasher ends up dancing to its own tunes

© Anton Bitel