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Prom Night 1980 ****

Some films are somehow more than their constituent parts. To my shame, I’d never actually seen Paul Lynch’s Prom Night until this week, but it’s already the object of some fascination. Dismissed in 1980 has a cookie-cutter variation on the slasher format that Black Christmas kicked off, this odd, eccentric thriller has a number of elements which have dated well. The brand was popular enough to inspire sequels and remakes, but it would be hard to replicate the off-kilter energy contained within the original film.

We know this story; a group of prankster kids torment another unfortunate tyke into a deadly accident. Six years later, it’s Prom Night, and a sex-offender has escaped from a local hospital. Are the disco-loving teens being picked off by this interloper, or is revenge being taken for past atrocities? To this extent, there’s nothing so smart about Prom Night’s plotting, it’s standard-issue for the period. The setting is the Alexander Hamilton high school; it’ll be no surprise what their next big musical production would be.

Lynch’s film was shot in Canada, and has a great, Gothic look; the buildings, particularly the opening in an abandoned nunnery, look great, if not particularly American. This off-kilter appearance extends to the cast; Jamie Lee Curtis reprises her scream-queen role, but she’s barely the main character and doesn’t have many plot-points to unravel. A film like this needs gravity, but the choice of top-billed star Leslie Nielsen, just back from shooting Airplane!, adds a layer of unintentional comedy instead; he’s a great actor and a strong presence, but his freshly-minted comic reputation works against him here.

As an exploitation movie, Prom Night opens up a whole second front in terms of it’s credentials as a disco-musical; shot with popular tracks on the soundtrack, the producers quickly realised that they couldn’t afford a full Saturday Night Fever livenced soundtrack, and brought in Canadian composer Paul Zaza to fake one up double quick. What’s remarkable is not only that he created a half-dozen songs at short notice, but that pretty much every song is a stone-cold banger that wouldn’t disgrace the eclectic techno-rave at your local hipster nightspot. Fade to Black, Prom Night and Dancing in the Moonlight all sound very familiar, and yet you’ve never heard them before; perhaps they’re pastiche, but they’re arguably better than the real thing. Lawsuits followed, and the whole dispute was settled out of court, but not before the music became a cult-classic.

Throw in Jamie Lee Curtis going full-Travolta in her big, extended dance scene, a rolling severed head in the sub-Carrie finale, and rather more genteel ‘who-dunnit?’ than usual. Like the cooky Jamie Lee Curtis vehicle Terror Train, Prom Night is often ignored in favour of Halloween, but as knock-offs go, this has a style, glitz and energy all of its own. It’s quite literally murder on the dance-floor, and you just can’t kill this kind of groove.

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  1. I thought it was pretty awful. Somehow Curtis didn’t think she was signing on for a slasher film. But it was Canada’s highest-grossing horror film of 1980, It also received Genie Award nominations for editing and for Jamie Lee Curtis’s performance. Go Canada!

  2. It’s like an alternate universe movie. I did wonder if the cast knew what the rest of the film was like. Like Croneberg’s early films, I enjoyed the Canadian-quality here, but I recognise that it’s not for everyone.

  3. I’d add that the second and third entries in the series are both kind of interesting, going for a weird horror-comedy vibe with a Nightmare on Elm Street quality. But if you haven’t seen it yet I’d warn you away from the 2008 remake. For some reason they went for a PG rating, which sort of defeated the whole purpose. It’s terrible.

  4. I’ll check them out. But yes, oddly, I saw the remake, and it’s the nadir of reboots, bereft of ideas, bland, none of the wierdness, all of the dullness.

  5. It is rather funny that Nielson became indelibly marked by his late career comic roles rather than the years of “heavies” he played. In an interview he’d said comedy was always where he’d wanted to be!

  6. Saw him do a very serious theatre production as Clarence Darrow, then walk on stage with bandy legs to bring the house down for an encore! Comedy was natural to him, although he was a good actor too!

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