Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Prom Night (1980)

by Jimmy "Goin' Stag" Callaway

Now, I don’t know about you, but prom night was simply magical for me. I bought the new issues of Cerebus, The Demon, and Starman, and then David Duchovny hosted Saturday Night Live with musical guest Rod Stewart. While the rest of my classmates were at the yearly promenade ball, I listened to The Vindictives a bunch and fell asleep with the TV on. A night I’ll never forget.

As though I didn’t have few enough regrets about missing out on another bullshit rite of passage, along comes this movie, starring Jamie Lee Curtis before she was taken seriously and Leslie Nielsen before he wasn’t. All the grisly murders not withstanding, I was left with a feeling of relief after watching this movie, not just because I missed my prom, but also because I missed the late 1970s. Close call, that one.

Yes, if there’s one thing we can say about knife-kill flicks, it’s that there’s nary a childhood experience full of joy, wonder, and happiness that any halfway capable filmmaker can’t exploit for his or her audience’s bottomless appetite for mindless sex and violence. And we’ve also learned that I’m all for it. The sex and the violence, obviously, but more important is the thwarting of these overblown ideals of innocence.

The innocence of childhood is largely a myth, as far as I’m concerned. Call me cynical if you want, but doesn’t anybody else remember what little bastards kids can be? Sure, they’re cute, but so are leopard cubs until they tear the jugular out of your neck. I remember being a little kid and seeing most of my peers as these horrid little monsters, all teeth and snot and inexplicable brutality (Not to paint myself as an angel, mind you. I’m reasonably sure there’s at least one person out there saying, “Man, remember what a little shit-stain that Callaway kid was?”). It’s no accident that when one of your friends is acting like a tithead, you say to him, “What’re you, a fuckin’ kindergartner?”

Prom Night asks of us much the same thing. The flick opens on one of the best places for small children to play unattended: an abandoned building. Young Nick, Kelly, Jude, and Wendy are playing a rousing game of hide-and-go-seek, only in their depthless naïveté, they’ve re-named it “Killers Are Coming!” Aw, that’s precious.

Along comes young Kim, with her younger siblings, fraternal twins Alex and Robin, but they’re not welcome to join in any reindeer games. Whatever: Kim’s got better stuff to do, and Alex wants to get home so he can change out of the outfit his parents made him wear, the one that matches his twin sister’s (I’m certain many a swirlie was handed out that day). But Robin can’t seem to resist the allure of running around in a darkened ruin with four brats who have already made clear their dislike for her.

So, as kids will do, they kill her. Not on purpose, I guess, but they chase her around, chanting like savages, and Robin takes a header out a second-story window. Oops. Nick, Kelly, Jude, and Wendy instantly make a pact to split out of there and never speak to anybody of what happened. But as the lovable little scamps flee the scene of a fatal accident, they don’t realize there’s been a witness. We, the audience, don’t get to see who this witness is, but we can safely assume, from the title, that he or she is willing to wait until these four snotnoses have almost graduated high school before meting out any sort of justice. Patience is a virtue, after all; only a panicky idiot would do something rash like call a paramedic or report what happened to the police.

Conveniently enough, a perverted psycho killer is on the loose in the neighborhood, so the cops decide to pin Robin’s death on him. Trying to escape, the guy flips his car and ends up in a coma, so it’s case closed as far as anybody else is concerned (At least, this is what I think happens, after two consecutive viewings. Attention, all directors: no flashbacks without visual support, please! Footage of Leslie Nielsen thinking really loud with bad reverb is not sufficient to move the plot forward. Thank you).

Jump to six years later: although the Hammond family still grieves for little Robin, time marches on, and the prom looms large for our little band. Naturally, the anticipation of puking up warm beer in your dad’s car and engaging in awkward and dissatisfying sex is enough to eclipse any such sad memories. And so here’s where we are now: Wendy and Nick used to date, but since she’s even more of a bossy-boots than she was when she was in pigtails, Nick is now courting Kim, which makes sense since most dudes are into chicks whose sisters they’ve accidentally murdered (I know I am). Alex still has a goofy white-boy ‘fro. Kelly is reluctant to go all the way with her beau, no matter how well he wears the dry look. Vicki was not in the first segment of the flick, but she’s got a really very nice ass, so we’ll keep her around.

And Jude has as her prom date my main man Slick, who is instantly in the top 3 most likable characters in film history. Slick is a short, pudgy Jewish kid with glasses, who by all rights shouldn’t be able to get laid in a funeral parlor, but since he’s got a boatload of charisma and balls of solid brass, he of course gets all the ladies. If there’s one guy in this movie to pattern your life after, it’s this guy (now that I think about it, I believe this explains Jonah Hill...).

But life isn’t all pep rallies and spirit ribbons. A menacing pall is spreading over this happy day. Kelly, Jude, Nick, and Wendy each receive a phone call from a raspy-voiced stranger who whispers threats, chilling in their opacity. Who can this be? Is it Leonard Merch, the long-comatose psycho perv, now suddenly up and at ‘em and on the loose? The cops seem to think so, but true to form in these types of movies, the cops couldn’t find north on a compass, much less a killer-at-large. Is it Mr. Sikes, the creepy janitor with the patented tape-around-the-bridge brand creepy-guy glasses? The kids seem to think he’s up to something, all right, although it seems to me the only thing this guy gets up to is Penthouse Forum (and as a glasses-wearer, I always bristle at this sort of characterization. Like tape on my glasses is all I need to make me a creep. Talk to me for five minutes, and you’ll clearly see the myriad other traits that make me a creep).

No, the true villain in this movie is none other than that scourge, Disco Fever. The admittedly intense chase scene, where Wendy is doggedly pursued by the killer, holds no candle to the mind-searingly painful sight of Jamie Lee Curtis and what’s-his-name who plays Nick shaking their well-choreographed booties down to the ground, accompanied by the sizzling sounds of some generic Donna Summers knock-off. How people ever got laid back then is a mystery to me. Or why they’d even want to, given those goofy clothes everybody wore.

Oh yeah, the killings. So, Kelly’s the first to go, ditched by her date when she refuses to help with his blue balls. Sure, she gets gruesomely stabbed to death, but having seen the Leif Garrett look-a-like she had pawing her, I still think she made the right choice.

Jude and Slick are next to go while enjoying a post-coitus joint in Slick’s boogie-van. Obviously, I was sad to see ol’ Slick go (he’ll live on in my heart forever), but what was even more disconcerting here was the lighting. The official DVD release I have was apparently transferred from an old VHS copy. But even allowing for poor picture quality, it still looks like all of the night shots in this movie were lit with a Timex. At one point, Slick tries to escape by jumping behind the wheel and flooring it, but the killer is right behind him, and they wrestle around while Slick is trying to drive. Thing of it is, the killer’s wearing all black, so I couldn’t even pick him out at first, and I spent a good chunk of this sequence thinking Slick was just being a big spaz (which would certainly not be in keeping with his character). Maybe since this was shot in Canada, I dunno, maybe they spent all the lighting budget on Elsinore beer, eh?

Then, as mentioned, Wendy gets hunted down and sliced up. Eddie Benton (better known as Anne-Marie Martin of Sledge Hammer! [one of my favorite shows as a kid] and the former Mrs. Michael Crichton) does a really good job making her character extremely hateful, so I spent the whole movie just itching to see her get an axe in the face. But then, true to that pushy loudmouth character of hers, she perseveres to elude her pursuer to the point where I almost thought she was gonna make it. And, y’know, had she made it, I wouldn’t have felt ripped off. Good job there.

Next, the movie decides to rip Carrie off even more than it already has. Lou, the monobrowed juvie thug, knocks Nick out just before he’s about to be crowned prom king. Lou’s gonna go out there and show ‘em what a real prom king looks like. Thing of it is nobody bothered to explain to Lou that you don’t get to be prom king by defeating the current prom king in combat. This isn’t Richard III here, buddy. But Lou does end up taking Nick’s place as murder-victim king, and as Lou’s severed head rolls out onto the stage, everyone screams and runs. So, disco is fine and dandy, but a severed head is going too far? Whatever you say, late ‘70s.

So, the killer’s revealed, and ooooh, it’s a big surprise. Mainly because there is little to no connection between the identity of the killer and all the clues to which were peppered throughout beforehand. It’s like the filmmakers were so determined not to let anyone figure it out, that any and all hints they dropped were either really vague or just flat out didn’t make sense. A pretty disappointing end to what was shaping up to be a pretty average slasher-flick.

Okay, so I guess Prom Night exploits, but not much else. There aren’t as many layers to be found as there are in the original Sleepaway Camp or Silent Night, Deadly Night. But it still had Slick. So, as soon as my Chevy van is done being custom painted, you know where to find me: cruising the senior parking lot, waiting for cheerleading practice to end.

(God, what a fucking creep I am sometimes. Excuse me while I go put tape on the bridge of my glasses.)