As much as any film of the late ’Seventies and early ’Eighties, Prom Night has helped shape what has now become the prototypical Slasher. Watching it now, it may seem almost (or completely) clichéd, following as it does, the now well-travelled steps of a Slasher film plot, but Prom Night, to a large degree, actually defined those steps.
Interestingly, even upon its release, Prom Night was often compared to its predecessors, especially Halloween. But, according to its director, Paul Lynch, despite it having been produced just a year after Halloween’s success and with Jamie Lee Curtis as its star, Prom Night was less inspired by John Carpenter’s masterpiece and more so by the works of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian DePalma.
Those Hitchcockian and DePalmanian elements (often the same, given that DePalma was heavily influenced by Hitchcock himself)—the deep-seated psychological trauma that leads to murderous impulses years later, often accompanied by some form of self-transformation or, more specifically, gender confusion—have become a staple of Slasher films but Prom Night, along with the original Friday the 13th, was one of the first to apply them.
The story begins with what should have been a harmless game played by a group of girls and one boy. Three other kids, two sisters and a brother, watch on, with the youngest sister clearly yearning to join in while her siblings dismiss the play and players and walk away. The young girl, though, remains behind and is subjected to the other group’s cruelty, a cruelty that proves fatal. The perpetrators form a quick pact, promising not to divulge their involvement in the mishap, not knowing that someone has witnessed the whole thing.
Six years later, the kids are now teenagers and preoccupied with the upcoming prom. Jamie Lee Curtis plays Kim; it was her sister who died all those years ago. Those responsible for her sister’s death are now her best friends, the lone boy among them is her boyfriend—she, of course, has no idea that her younger sister met her death due to their childish cruelty. But as prom approaches, the friends are killed, one by one, and it becomes clear that something other than friendship unifies them.
Lynch has said that fifty percent of the film’s eventual success was due to Curtis—not just because she was a name star, but because she gave a great performance. There’s no question that Curtis does a great job, playing a similar character to that of Laurie Strode, but stretching a little here. Unlike Laurie, Kim is an unquestioned Alpha, clearly the leader of her pack—with her own (unsuccessful) challenger—and has already been declared Prom Queen. Kim is a great dancer, confident in her abilities. She has a boyfriend, alludes to having slept with him, and even hints at having been the one to initiate the act. Not the typical Final Girl, and miles from the shy Miss Strode.
Prom Night features other memorable characters. Lou, the unibrowed douche bag, would no-doubt make date rape a future hobby, if not for his losing his head two thirds into the film. Leslie Nielson, in one of his last straight roles, appears as the school principal and Kim’s dad. Oh, and there’s Seymour Crane.
Let’s stop here and talk a tad about Seymour. Seymour is a fat, short, bespectacled dude with a level of confidence so bafflingly high that he not only asks one of Kim’s friends to the prom, he also gave himself the nickname Slick. Even more amazing, when “Slick” approaches his target, a girl a good three to four notches above him on the genetic-endowment scale, he does so in what most girls would view as a potential rape mobile: a huge van.
In another twist, the girl says yes and—wait for it—Slick and his girl are the only ones in the whole movie to actually have sex! This is a movie centered on the popular girl and her crowd, but only the chubby nerd in the van gets any! So anyone who says Prom Night isn’t original is full of crap. But do Slick and his girl die? Yes, they do. But, hell, if you’re in a Slasher film and you gotta go, go like Slick.
Prom Night is a key film, its historical importance clear, but it has aged. The kills are fun—especially Lou’s and Slick’s—but the tension is rather low and there’re few real scares. It’s a well constructed film, but it doesn’t stand the test of time and cinematic evolution as well as, say, Halloween, or even Friday the 13th. Despite this, Prom Night remains a must see for the true Slasher fan.
Length: 89 min