Review: Prom Night (1980) ★½

Paul Lynch’s Prom Night is not a only disappointment because it is derivative of other superior films (namely Halloween and Friday the 13th), but because it is not even particularly good at being derivative. Generally, if one is going to copy the style or format of an earlier work, it stands to reason that there should be some degree of alteration to improve upon those duplicate qualities, but instead Prom Night is a complete mess; it tries to insert various narrative elements that don’t work coherently with the rest of the story, and this, combined with a low-budget and poor acting, leaves us with an incredibly underwhelming entry in the horror genre.

Prom Night begins with a group of children playing a mildly sadistic version of hide-and-seek in an abandoned building. When a young girl named Robin becomes the prey of the other children, she is backed into a corner and ends up falling to her death out of a second story window. The children swear to never tell a soul, and eventually someone else is blamed for the crime. Six years later, the same children prepare for their high school prom, along with Robin’s older siblings, fraternal twins Kim (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Alex (Michael Tough). The teenagers begin receiving creepy phone calls leading up to the prom, but they generally dismiss them as the work of some random pervert. Meanwhile, police are looking for the man who was convicted of Robin’s death, as he has recently escaped incarceration. As the teenagers convene for prom night, the killer stalks them one by one, bent on enacting revenge for Robin’s death.

It’s tempting to believe that Prom Night would have gotten a better reception if Halloween (also starring Jamie Lee Curtis) had not come out two years prior, but the difference in quality is so stark that there really is no comparison. Halloween, despite its budgetary limitations and simplicity, is an engaging and highly influential slasher film. Prom Night is nothing of the sort. Visually, it is very muddy and unappealing, reflecting an inadequate budget and amateur production team. It tells a story that has been told before, but in a less compelling and believable way.

Prom Night broken mirror scene
Prom Night (1980)

Despite being the heroine, Jamie Lee Curtis’ character is largely unnecessary, which makes any kind of audience identification or concern for her well-being nearly impossible. A good portion of the film is dedicated to her preparation for a disco-style dance routine she is planning to do at the prom, but the routine itself is underwhelming and feels out of place in the larger story. Though there is a twist at the end of the film (which can be seen coming from a mile away) and it does involve Kim to a degree, she is essentially more of an ancillary character without any agency. The same is true of her father (played by Leslie Nielsen), who seems to have been included just for the added bonus of Nielsen’s star power. He appears in only a handful of scenes, and does nothing to improve upon the questionable plot. The police are equally irrelevant and are treated as more of an afterthought, clumsily pursuing the killer while trying not to raise any alarms.

Though some of these problems can be forgiven (with the exception of the dull and completely disjointed story), the most unforgivable issue is that Prom Night is simply not that scary. The “kills” are boring, and there is very little tension built, primarily due to the fact that there are too many half-cocked subplots drawing our attention away from the killer and his prey. Usually, in such derivative slasher films, the filmmakers come up with bizarre, outlandish, and hopefully frightening new ways for their villains to dispatch their victims. This is not the case in Prom Night; the killer gets rid of some teenagers rather quickly, takes a long time with others, but in the end, doesn’t do anything beyond swinging an axe or a knife. Much of the gore that is so common in these films is omitted, probably due to time or budgetary constraints, disappointing those of us who watch these kinds of films for the strange deaths alone.

While Prom Night is not the worst sample of 70’s and 80’s horror, the filmmakers got their wires crossed when trying to put together a competent story. Rather than focusing on scaring the audience, the film puts unnecessary emphasis on disco music and…not much else. Even for horror junkies, there is not a lot to see here.

Rating: ½ out of 5

Prom Night is available to rent or purchase via Amazon here.

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