Four children playing in an abandoned convent cause the accidental death of a little girl. Promising that they would never tell anyone that they were involved and blaming a paedophile for the crime, the group think that everything will be fine. Six years later and on the day of their high school prom, a masked killer targets them for a horrific revenge.
One of the earliest of the slasher sub-genre to emerge in the wake of Halloween, Prom Night was released at a time when, even by now, the formula had established itself to such an extent that this is almost derivative and it has gone on to establish itself as one of the more famous slasher films of the 80s. It’s like a weird mix between Halloween, Carrie and, bizarrely enough, Saturday Night Fever. Curious bedfellows especially as disco was in its death throws in the late 70s and early 80s!
If Prom Night only had half the energy and pace of any of those aforementioned films, it would have been a lot more enjoyable. It’s dreadfully dull for the first half of its running time as it spends far too long engaging with the teenage characters and their “will she/he go with me to the prom?” nonsense. It’s not interesting in the slightest to watch characters scheme about how they’re going to get someone back on prom night – the only payback I want to see is of the axe to the head variety. There are a few menacing phone calls and some hints of the slaughter to come but Prom Night is a film which loads up its final third at the sacrificial cost of the quality of its opening acts.
The ‘killer looking to avenge a previous wrong from childhood’ plot device became a popular go-to for a lot of slasher films in the years and decades to come but it doesn’t really work here. Prom Night forcefully throws countless red herrings at the screen including a creepy caretaker at the school and an escaped convict in an attempt to keep you guessing as to who the killer is. However they aren’t really needed to propel the plot further on because the killer wears a black mask for the duration of the film, only revealing themselves at the end and so the red herrings and the police investigation sub-plot are a complete waste of time.
Prom Night does kick in when the prom actually begins and the killer comes out of the shadows. There are some decent stalk and chase scenes through the empty part of the school and there are one or two shock moments to jolt you out of your seat. The good thing is that it’s played serious and so there is a suitably ominous and foreboding mood as you know this person will stop at nothing to get back at the four teenagers. Prom Night is hardly a ‘scary’ film but compared to a lot of other slasher films, the atmosphere is good.
There’s a decent kill count too – they’re not paced out evenly enough to keep things ticking over – and the majority of the kills are confined to this final third of the film. Whilst not up to the same level of gore as Friday the 13th or something like The Burning, Prom Night doesn’t hold back with the blood. One particular set piece involving the unveiling of the prom king and queen, a decapitated head and a catwalk, all to the accompaniment of some outrageous disco music, is highly memorable – actually one of the standout kills from the whole 80s slasher craze. Although if there is one thing you’ll quickly learn from this film is that “It’s prom night…and everything is alright” (lyrics from the only cheesy disco song that the DJ at the prom seems to play).
Jamie Lee Curtis would star in Terror Train and The Fog in the same year, making her quite the scream queen pin-up for 1980. This is arguably her worst performance of the three and she almost looks and sounds bored to be appearing though this is largely down to the script which doesn’t place as much focus on her as a main character than it should do. The less said about the lengthy disco dancing segment she has to complete, the better. Leslie Nielsen is the token elder statesman in the cast, adding some credibility amongst the throng of teenagers, though it’s really hard to take him seriously in a dramatic role so close to his amazing comic turns in Airplane! and The Naked Gun films.
Bizarrely, Prom Night inspired a whole batch of unrelated sequels towards the end of the decade which had nothing to do with this and just coast along under the Prom Night moniker. Prom Night was also remade in 2008 with quite possibly one of the worst remakes of all time.
Prom Night is one of the quintessential slashers from the golden age of the sub-genre but I’m not quite sure why it’s classed as one. The standard issue black mask and axe combination means that the killer is hardly the most distinctive slasher going and maybe this is where Prom Night’s problems lie. Everything is perfunctory, just not really memorable give or take one or two moments. Plus the dodgy disco-themed prom dates this film significantly compared to the other big slasher hitters of the year.