WITH AN AXE
HAS A DATE
FOR THE PROM!!!
Dir. Paul Lynch
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Leslie Nielsen, Antoinette Bower, Robert A. Silverman, George Touliatos, David Gardner, Michael Tough, Anne-Marie Martin (AKA "Eddie Benton"), Joy Thompson, Marybeth Rubens, Casey Stevens, Jeff Wincott, David Mucci
Review By Greg Klymkiw
The slasher film exploded on the scene with a vengeance from the mid-70s to the 80s, "vengeance" being the operative word. Often involving a masked and/or fleetingly-glimpsed stalker with a bone to pick, this sub genre of horror was typified by young babes and hunks receiving their violent comeuppance at the hands of said killer. The scares were mostly rooted in shock cuts and the films' plots were coat hangers with which to hang a series of grotesquely gory killings upon.
Though America ended up popularizing the slasher film to almost ludicrously successful degrees during the reign of Rompin' Ronnie Reagan (the Halloween and Friday the 13th franchises leading the charge), it was, in fact, the Italians (via the gialli and most notably, Mario Bava's Twitch of the Death Nerve) and Canadians (from A Christmas Story director Bob Clark and his viciously viscous yuletide thriller Black Christmas) who hitched their horses to the post first.
Canada's history of transgressive cinema surely begins with horror films whilst working in tandem with a first-rate tax credit during this period and the country was responsible for more than its fair share of slasher epics. Prom Night is one of the very best slasher films ever made. Directed by Paul Lynch, the erudite Liverpool ex-pat in Toronto, Prom Night couldn't have been more far removed (at least on the surface) from his John Grierson/NFB-influenced feature dramas The Hard Part Begins, a gritty dive into tank town country and western bars and Blood & Guts, a journey into the sleazy world of professional wrestling. In many ways, though, Lynch's foray into the slasher oeuvre yielded the kind of anthropological observation of the period and astonishingly iconic images of horror that could only have come from a genuinely visionary filmmaker.
In lieu of hundreds, if not thousands of similar films made since, the simple narrative of Prom Night might suggest something fairly by-rote and even by the standards of the time it might have felt as such, though if truth be told, my own first helping of the picture first-run in 1980 yielded a genuine barrage of gooseflesh upon my then-youthful frame. Watching it again on the sumptuously-transferred Blu-Ray from Synapse Films and VSC, the movie not only sparked fond memories of its almost-religious litany of visual frissons, but astonished me - almost 35 years after first seeing it - by Lynch's phenomenal eye for the details of teen life during that period.
The tale wrought, albeit somewhat familiar now (though being one of the first of its kind, no fault of its own), begins with the accidental death of a little girl at the hands of her peers. It fast forwards six years later to the night of the prom which would have been her first as a junior, if she'd have lived. With enough red herrings to throw us off the scent of the true identity of the revenge-seeker, we follow the rigorously observed preparations, social interactions and mating rituals of teens, parents and teachers alike on the day of the prom. Once the festivities begin proper, we're treated to a chilling check-list of blood-soaked killings until the film's astonishingly choreographed climactic set-piece involving the killer, one of his intended-victims and the ass-kicking gymnastics of 70s/80s scream-queen Jamie Lee Curtis (progeny of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis and star of John Carpenter's Halloween).
The casting is impeccable. Though Jamie Lee Curtis herself is slightly long-in-tooth compared to her fellow High School peers, she delivers a fun, smirking, wise-acre sensibility to the role that sets her far apart as the film's genuine and rightful star. In fact, her performance here is so good, it far exceeds her pre-and-post Prom Night work in Halloween and Terror Train respectively. It's here where we discover the beginnings of her sexy, funny and breezy talents that would best be exemplified years later in A Fish Called Wanda, Trading Places and Perfect.
The youthful cast surrounding Curtis, comprised mostly of burgeoning Canuck thespians, in addition to the formidable presence of Vagina, Saskatchewan-native Leslie Nielsen as the principal of the besieged Hamilton High (to be seen soon-after in the Airplane and Naked Gun franchises) and a stalwart roll-call of Canuck character actors as various teachers, cops and townsfolk, Lynch populates his film with a first-rate cast which blows away most of the assemblages of onscreen talent in other pictures of the slasher genre.
Some of the more outstanding members of the supporting cast include the terrific Canadian character actor and David Cronenberg regular Robert A. Silverman, especially great as the cancer-ridden artist in The Brood, and here playing a creepy school caretaker, an absolutely hilarious David Gardner straight-facedly spouting some of the most ridiculous psychiatric mumbo-jumbo captured on film, David Mucci as an utterly repellent unibrowed teen stud, stalwart Canadian TV and stage actress Antoinette Bower as the unhinged Mom of the little dead girl, plus Jeff Wincott, eventual action hero and Broadway star in one of his earliest movie roles.
Last, but certainly not least, the absolutely ravishing, sexy, blonde ice-princess villainess played by a brilliant Anne-Marie Martin (credited as "Eddie Benton" and years later, fulfilling the real-life role as Mrs. Michael Crichton). Hubba-Hubba defines this morsel of erection-inducing evil.
|Great Canadian Character Actor: ROBERT A. SILVERMAN|
Creepy Caretaker in PROM NIGHT, Cancer Victim in THE BROOD
Given the film's not-so obvious low budget, its look tends to also make mincemeat out of the period's other slasher films. Lynch brings a borderline documentary mise-en-scene to the proceedings which situate us in a time and place that was more than familiar to those who saw the movie in 1980 and astoundingly, brings everyone else back to it via the naturalistic time-machine-like essence of his direction. The varied, somewhat bucolic locations of a long-ago-and-far-away Toronto (albeit adorned with American flags), treat us to the leafy lawns of Canada's first planned suburban environment of Don Mills, actual schools secured by the co-producer who was actually a high school teacher with the Toronto Board of Education and the major setting of the abandoned building of death (a notorious Toronto asylum) from the picture's creepy opening.
Add to this the superb interior details of Rueben Freed's art direction, the perfect-for-and-of-the-period hair (really BIG), the garish makeup (really HORRENDOUS) and teflon costumes (undeniably UGLY) and we know we're in a film made by real filmmakers who know that such details make for a good picture that's also commercial as opposed to jaded market-driven accountants who generate machine-tooled money-grabs bereft of style and artistry.
The choreography on the dance floor, as well as the choreography of the action/suspense sequences is top of the line and most exquisite of all are the makeup and special effects (both sound and picture) which accompany the delectable killings. Given the picture's attention to detail and yes, even character, the body count gets to have its cake and eat it to by being equally thrilling as it is sickeningly horrifying.
And lest we forget that all of this is underscored by the tremendous music from the team of Carl (Black Christmas, Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile) Zittrer and Paul (My Bloody Valentine, Popcorn) Zaza, the former focusing with Zittrer on the virtually Canadian-horror sounds-of-music from the period and the latter solely and astonishingly delivering the remarkable disco score.
Adorning Lynch's miss-en-scene is the piece de resistance of the cinematography by Michael New with its superb compositional qualities, effective lighting and superlative tracking and dolly shots, all without the benefit of today's ubiquitous steadicams. Especially delightful is the film's refusal to be afraid of grain when it rears its beautiful head - as much an effect of the picture's budget as it is the filmmakers clearly anticipating its inevitability and blending those lovely, dancing speckles perfectly within the film's narrative and aesthetic.
The film's iconic imagery, the black snow mask of the killer, the composition involving the slasher gripping his axe in the dark hallways and most indelibly, the never-to-be-forgotten shot of a gorgeous victim-to-be as she raises her head slightly above the top of a black science lab table until we glimpse her terrified eyes as they reflect eerily and murkily upon the surface of the desk, lit only by the exterior street lamps casting their glow upon the lab through the big, smudgy, frost-paned windows.
One of the many great tag lines that accompanied the picture's inspired marketing campaign announced:
"If you're not back by midnight... you won't be coming home."
Don't make the mistake of Hamilton High's victims. Come home, come back to the joy and genius that is Prom Night, the slasher film of a generation, the little engine that could and the one true crowning glory of the entire oeuvre.
THE FILM CORNER RATING:
**** 4-Stars (film)
***** 5-stars (the Synapse Films/VSC Special Edition Blu-Ray)
For both fans of the film and eager students of filmmaking, the Special Edition Blu-Ray of Prom Night from the visionary Synapse Films and released in Canada via the equally visionary VSC, you simply can't go wrong with this mega-keeper of home entertainment packages. The 2K scan of the HD transfer in 16x9/1.78.1 is magnificent - so much so I doubt the film has looked this good since its first 35mm prints in theatrical release (in addition to both the original, gorgeously mixed-mono tracks and a 5.1 surround sound mix created just for the Blu-Ray). The extra features are a fountain of delights: Plenty of trailers, TV-spots, Radio-Spots and stills, all providing a glimpse at truly ingenious motion picture marketing; a good half-hour of never-before-seen outtakes, a short, but fascinating glimpse into the footage added to the TV versions to stretch it out when the shower scenes needed to be trimmed for primetime, including some excellent and genuinely humorous scenes involving Leslie Nielsen, Jamie Lee Curtis and Hamilton High's ditzy temp secretary); a decent feature length commentary track which includes some terrific observations by Lynch and screenwriter Graham. Alas, the pathetic non-moderation of moderator Paul Jankiewicz does little to rein things in properly and given Lynch's observations in interviews over the years as well as his moments in the disc's accompanying making-of documentary, there are many missed opportunities to delve more specifically into more practical and artistic aspects of the filmmaking process. The real cherry on the ice cream sundae here is the aforementioned doc. Entitled "The Horrors of Hamilton High", this 40-minute short film is obviously the work of people who know and love the film and it features anecdotal meanderings only when necessary (like Leslie Nielsen's on-set penchant for utilizing a fart-sound gizmo almost constantly during production) and a whole clutch of superb practical information on the aesthetics of filmmaking and storytelling that should have been on the commentary track if it had been properly moderated. That said, the commentary is worth the price of slogging through if only to hear the seemingly gentle-toned Lynch deride "Terror Train" director Roger Spottiswood for scumbaggishly going against his word to Lynch. Amusingly, Lynch refers to Spottiswood as the director of "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot". I could only have been happier if he'd added his own experience at the hands of turncoat Roger to that of poor Sam Peckinpah's when the Ottawa-born filmmaker ended up playing studio hack during the butchering of the masterpiece "Pat Garret and Billy the Kid". Well, we can dream, can't we? In any event, slight disappointment with the commentary track aside, the Blu-Ray Special Edition of Prom Night is easily one of the best discs of the year!