A drive-in smash, Prom Night would go on to become Canada’s highest grossing horror film in the summer of 1980. I stress its release date, because Prom Night truly is a film in and of its time. Today the slasher cliches are stale, the disco music dated and the clothing awful, but no other film better encapsulates the essence of 1980 North America. This is a film made before te slasher genre ever had distinct formulas and before ” Disco Sucks” became the 1980s catchphrase. Prom Night is nave and straight-faced it represents a film from the golden age of the slasher film, before it became bogged down in the emptiness of self-awareness.
The film begins, as most slashers do, with a tragic death that would serve as the catalyst for the rest of the carnage to ensue. Little Wendy, Nick, Jude and Kelly have decided to play a little game. In an abandoned building, each one will hide, and one will seek to find all the others. More than just simple hide-and-seek though, the game also involves the seeker yelling out “the killer is coming!” as she searches for her “victims.” Forget TV or video games, it is games like this that are destroying America! Kim and her younger twin siblings Alex and Robin come across the building on their way to school. Kim has to run back and get a book, and Alex keeps going on, but Robin is lured into this deadly game. An outcast with a stutter, Robin is not well-liked by the gang, and they all gang up on her, chanting “kill!” and backing her into a corner. Robin loses her balance and falls to her death on planes of broken glass. Afraid of going to jail (since so many 10-year-olds are incarcerated these days) the gang vows to never tell a soul about the accidental death. But someone was watching somebody saw what they did.
Flash forward six years, and a teenage Kim (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Alex (Michael Tough) mourn the anniversary of their sister’s death, along with their father (Leslie Nielsen). Plot convenience would have it that not only is this the anniversary of Robin’s death, but it also happens to be prom night, the grooviest night of the year! Amidst all the tragedy Kim must worry about graduation, the dance and rejecting gap-toothed unibrows (“Sit on it, ape!”). The drama continues when a grown-up Wendy (Anne-Marie Martin) tries to win Nick (Casey Stephens) back from Kim. Nick may be Kim’s prom date, but as Wendy (and a character in every other Prom Night film) states: ” It isn’t who you go with it’s who takes you home.”
Mr. Hammond must also deal with some conflicts of his own, since as the principal of Hamilton High School, he must maintain face despite his daughter’s death. The unresolved nature of the case has been particularly hard on Principal Hammond, but is daddy hiding something behind his callous demeanor?
As they ready for the prom, each member of the pact receives a phone call. Hissing lines like “do you still like to play games?” the caller harasses each of Robin’s killers. He knows what they did, and prom night will be his eve or retribution. The film makes sure to provide the viewer with a number of possible suspects for the mystery caller. Could it be Principal Hammond, or how about The Escaped Felon Who Rapes Children? Then there is also The Quiet Groundskeeper Who Is Mistreated By The Dispassionate Student Body. In a particularly saddening scene, groundskeeper Mr. Sykes is cruelly mooned by a hot blonde co-edoh, the torture! Whether it is the obvious candidates or not, a stalker lurks thirsty for revenge.
It is now the night of the dance, and the theme is the totally rad ” Disco Madness!” Before any of the killing starts, the audience is treated to a deliciously cheesy disco dance-off that would make Travolta proud. What’s that? Wendy came to the dance with that big ” ape” Lou (David Mucci)? No worry, Kim and Casey will show them up on the dance floor! But with the bright lights glowing and the disco ball spinning, the killer makes his rounds. First Kelly gets her throat slit, then Jude is stabbed, and even big Lou loses his head amidst the disco madness. As the film concludes, old secrets resurface, and what begins as tragedy ends as such.
Prom Night is not a great film, nor is it scary. Despite a few atmospheric phone calls (thank you Black Christmas), the scariest moment in the film remains Leslie Nielsen attempting to disco dance. It is lightning in a bottle, as the cultural divide between young and old is captured in all its essence with each awkward pelvic thrust. The dialogue is nearly just as clumsy. It is no surprise the Regina-born Nielsen ended up making quite a career for himself in deadpan roles in the Naked Gun movies, because he certainly gets enough practice at it in Prom Night. It takes the skill of a true performer to not bust a gut when Jamie Lee utters the line “principal by day, disco king by night!” Lines like “for a guy so fast on the disco floor, you sure are slow” are just as bad.
There is nothing particularly original in Prom Night, but that is precisely its charm it is a film characteristic of its time. It joyously celebrates the disco culture with an unrivaled naivety. No other slasher film presents youth culture as such a joyous amalgamation of age and race upon the lighted dance floor. While Saturday Night Fever may have indoctrinated disco, it presented it as the seed of hedonistic corruption. In a genre usually sheathed in cynicism, Prom Night remains unabashedly celebratory of the culture of its time.
Prom Night is also the fleeting example of the slasher film in its classical phase, before it was aware of the very conventions it was establishing for the genre. The unwritten slasher rule, popularized by Scream, that those who do drugs and have sex are always killed in slasher films was one that only came to play later in the genre’s evolution. John Carpenter has denied many a time that he set out to murder the drug users and the promiscuous in Halloween, instead calling it a coincidence. It is therefore also such in Prom Night, especially considering that the first murder happens to a girl who decides against sex in favor of keeping her virginity.
Cliches like the haunting dark secret (I Know What You Did Last Summer, Valentine), the gender confusion of the killer (Sleepaway Camp), and the traumatic childhood incident (Happy Birthday to Me, The Initiation) were being written by Prom Night. Unaware of its makings, that is precisely what makes this Canadian horror such a delight to see. It takes itself so seriously that even the most absurd scenario, like a disco dance-off or a parade of typical murder suspects is presented with an honest straight face. This is a naivety that would long be lost on the slasher films only a few years later as they became more and more self-aware of their makings. Before Prom Night II started using character names to refer to previous horror directors, before Student Bodies would lampoon the slasher conventions, and before Scream would condescend with its post-modern nudging, Prom Night was happy enough to exist as a simple horror film. While Halloween and Black Christmas were examples of early precursors to the slasher genre, and Scream and Prom Night III were examples of the genre in revision, Prom Night represents that golden age in the slasher development. It is the perfect dictionary definition of the slasher film under slasher is a picture of Jamie Lee Curtis with her prom queen crown.
Although Prom Night may be the perfect representation of the slasher genre, it certainly does not represent the country in which it was made. Like the rest of the Prom Night series, the film tries to pass itself off as unabashedly American. Outside Hamilton High hangs a flag of stars and stripes. Remnants of its Canadian location do manage to sneak into the film, as several of the visible car license plates are from Ontario. That did not stop Canadians from seeing it however, as it broke opening weekend records, from its initial pilot run in Calgary to its expanded runs in Toronto and Winnipeg.
Prom Night may be cheesy and it may seem terribly dated today, but it is the crowning example of the slasher film in its classical stage. Before disco cynicism or post-modern reflexivity, Prom Night is a simple and entertaining piece of 1980 nostalgia. Black Christmas may be more artistic, My Bloody Valentine more frightening and Happy Birthday to Me more surprising, but when it comes to Canadian slashers, no film is more fun Prom Night, because as even the theme song knows, ” At the prom night? everything is alright!”