It’s not easy to find a film for Essential Canadian Cinema that fits into the category of guilty pleasure. There tends to be a more serious attitude when it comes to Canadian film and most of them are quite good. A guilty pleasure film needs to be a little bit bad at least, but there’s one genre of film that has almost always had a hushed appreciation, and that’s horror. In the ’80s, if you said you loved horror films, people probably assumed you also had a Satanic altar in your basement, and it wasn’t something you generally shouted to the world. While that has faded a lot from conversations about film, horror is still one genre where you can get some strange looks when you profess your love.
Canada has always made some fantastic horror films, but the ’80s was a time when slasher films ruled the scene. Plot and character development were out the window in favour of attractive teens getting sliced and diced by some typically masked lunatic. The more blood, the better. That’s why Prom Night (1980) manages to stand out. The film stars Jamie Lee Curtis, just a few years out of her role in Halloween, as Kim Hammond. When she was little, Kim’s sister was accidentally killed by a group of kids who swore secrecy about the death. Years later, Kim and her brother Alex (Michael Tough) are getting ready for prom night, unaware that somebody knows what happened that day, and is taking out revenge on Kim’s friends who were actually responsible for her sister’s death.
It doesn’t quite fit into the other films dominating the genre at the time, so Toronto Film Scene writers Andrew Parker and Will Brownridge sat down and watched this unique Canadian offering to decide if Prom Night can be considered Essential Canadian Cinema.
Andrew: 1980 was a seminal year for the horror film. Just two years after John Carpenter’s Halloween ignited interest in the slasher film within the youth market, Friday the 13th was one of the most profitable films of the year. Copycat clones of Halloween had been popping up for a few years after Carpenter’s masterpiece, and a lot of them centred around major holidays or events in people’s lives.
1980 was also a huge year for actress and Halloween star Jamie Lee Curtis. Cementing her status as an early ’80s “scream queen,” Curtis would star in three horror movies in 1980: John Carpenter’s The Fog, the underrated and really smart Terror Train, and the film we’re here to discuss today, the Canadian produced, Toronto shot Prom Night.
Prom Night would go on to become one of the most bizarrely endearing and profitable franchises in Canadian history, with each successive sequel (amounting to four films and a hideous Canadian co-produced remake in total) having less and less to do with the original film.
Now, I remember when I was a teen, I was never into Prom Night as much as I was other horror movies of the 1980s. I was surprised at just how long this film takes to get going, or to even really turn into a traditional horror movie. It has a lot of set-up, and I’m still trying to figure out if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. What do you make of all this?
Will: I saw Prom Night in the late ’80s as we were trying to watch anything and everything horror that the local video stores had to offer. It definitely wasn’t one of our favourites, but there was too much competition from the franchise films for this one-off to stand out.
It is quite slow, taking an hour before the film finally offers up nudity and murder all in one shot with the locker room death of one of the characters, which is a bit much compared to the films we were used to watching at that time. Back then, that wasn’t enough to entertain our tween attention spans. Now I can appreciate all the set-up. Strangely, I find the film moves along quite well until it gets to the slasher elements. The last 30 minutes feels as long as the first 60 minutes. I think it’s because the film is probably more influenced by Carrie than anything else. With Carrie though, you really care about Carrie, so the ending has more impact. With Prom Night, the characters are kind of interchangeable and stock, so watching them get wiped out doesn’t leave an impression.
It feels like there was an attempt to make something beyond a typical horror film, but it never quite works out. It manages to be a little more unique than other films that followed, but it’s a movie that seems to work better now that I’m much older than when I originally watched it. I wonder if you see things the same way here?
Andrew: Well, I mean, it wasn’t a one off for long. By the time it opened in Canada in September of 1980 (in the middle of TIFF and several months after it had already made a bunch of money in the States), it was one of the biggest sleeper hits of the year. Looking back on its three sequels, though, it seems amazing that they all sprang from the first film. It’s the film that put Don Mills Collegiate (here known as Hamilton High) and the Scarborough Bluffs on the map!
But you’re right that it’s a film that strangely works better the older you are, despite the fact that it’s dealing with something that’s already juvenile by definition since it takes place on Prom Night. Those first thirty minutes are absolutely packed with story detail and introductions to characters who won’t get very well developed beyond the film just stating that they’re there and they’re going to pay dearly for ignoring the death of a young child six years earlier.
Director Paul Lynch worked with writer William Gray (who also wrote The Changeling, which might be the best Canadian horror film ever made) at CTV, and while the film definitely has a TV movie vibe at times in terms of the direction and obvious budgetary restraints, there’s definitely a distinct form of ambition here.
What I was most surprised by was how Prom Night actually builds to something quite moving. The big twist and reveal of the killer at the end was something I could see coming from pretty far off (despite at least a dozen cliched red herrings, including an escaped mental patient and a creepy groundskeeper), and yet, I was still kind of shocked by how it all played out. I really like the ending, but do you think Prom Night needed all that set up to get there?
Will: That’s true. I always try to forget about the number of sequels it never really needed. I don’t know about the first 30 minutes being packed with story detail. Character introductions, sure. We’ve got to be reminded of all those crazy highschool kids who won’t be making it until the end of the movie. At the very least, they’re not quite as instantly categorized like most slasher films tend to do. Nobody is extra promiscuous or super virginal and there’s generally not a terribly bad egg in the bunch, although a few of those red herrings tend to be a little more mean than the others.
I never felt like the film was TV movie in any way though. Honestly, I don’t see the difference between this low budget horror flick and others of the time. Friday the 13th didn’t seem to look any better than this and it kicked off one of the longest running franchises. The longer time it takes to get to the slasher aspects of the film may make it seem more suited for television. It’s funny that you mention getting that vibe from it though, as there are plenty of scenes that wound up getting cut from the theatrical release that expanded the story a bit and were used for television. The true joy of revisiting these older films on blu-ray now is getting to see all of that stuff, but I can’t imagine the film taking any longer to get where it was going.
I suppose the more I think about it, the more the ending manages to strike a nerve with me. It’s one of the few times where I want the killer to survive and actually feel like they deserve to have been on this killing spree. It’s not hard to figure out who it is, but it still seems to just come out of nowhere, and you kind of hope that they’ll be okay when the credits roll. The pointless and horribly clichéd red herrings like the escaped mental patient and the groundskeeper (who seems like he’s straight out of a Scooby Doo cartoon) add nothing to the film but more running time. They’re either so ridiculous, like the groundskeeper, or so ignored in regards to the story, like the escaped mental patient, that you simply can’t believe it’s either of them.
Do we need all the set up to get to the ending? Of course not. The characters who are going to be killed have been shown to be awful people. They basically killed a kid when they were younger, even if it was accidental, and never told anybody. Without that set up though, this is just another generic slasher film. The slow build and characters who are a little more realistic (although mainly underdeveloped) make the film something more than what would very soon be getting churned out on a regular basis in the ’80s.
I feel like this is one of the last solid horror films before the slasher genre exploded and flooded the video stores with masked killers and streams of one note characters who exist only to be killed. How do you think this stands in terms of the horror films that followed it so shortly after its release?
Andrew: I think those first thirty minutes are the reason why this one stands up so well against the slasher flicks that would follow in its wake. It’s the third best movie of 1980 to feature Jamie Lee Curtis (who really isn’t even in that much of this movie when you think about it), but definitely one of the better horror films of the year. There isn’t much depth to the characters, but unlike most slasher movie victims, these teens all play an integral part in the story. They aren’t people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time like victims in a Friday the 13th film. I generally prefer horror movies where people get killed for a reason – be it right or wrong – than for just being in a certain place at a certain time.
I think that underdevelopment of the characters was probably someone at a higher level than the writer and director saying that things needed to get sped up or no teens would even bother seeing the film. When the violence ramps up about an hour in, it escalates in a hurry. That’s not really anything new in the slasher genre, but Prom Night at least feels like a mystery. There’s something almost Lynchian in its weirdness (something Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II would go even further with). It sometimes feels like a surreal setting; almost like it knows full well that it’s a horror movie. I think the underdeveloped characters with a sentence of backstory each really underlines that. When I said it has a TV movie feeling to it, I’m thinking more along the lines of a ’70s or ’80s soap opera or movie of the week, which actually fits the tone of the story rather well.
Will: You’re probably right about that underdevelopment being the result of someone higher up because of some scenes being cut for theatrical release. None of those happen to be from any of the violence later in the film. That violence also happens to be impressive for a film in the ’80s. For me, that’s a big reason why it’s so enjoyable. It’s not terribly graphic, resorting more to grotesque sounds instead of images for the most part, although it does have that great decapitation at the end, and that’s got to be a huge part of the ’80s horror scene. There had to be a person getting decapitated.
Is Prom Night Essential Canadian Cinema?
Andrew: Ultimately the motivation of the killer is what makes me want to call this Essential Canadian Cinema. The landscape of Canadian independent productions has always been littered with cheap slasher flicks like this, but there’s an emotional weight to Prom Night that most other slasher films can’t be bothered to approach. It’s a film about consequences all around, for both the victims, the killer, and the family caught at the centre of it all. In comparison to its brethren of the day, I like it quite a bit, and it’s certainly entertaining. What say you?
Will: Despite the lack of character development, they still aren’t obnoxious stereotypes (mostly) and it helps bring the film to a better level than it’s competition of the time. It also ends the way every great horror film should – with some great violence. The reveal of the killer and their motivation, the gory moments that every horror film needs, and a story that, while slightly thinner than it could be, manages to move along at a great pace, all make this film a fantastic piece of Canadian cinema, and something I would definitely call Essential Canadian Cinema. Especially for horror fans.