Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Hubrisween 2015 :: P is for Prom Night (1980)

When a terminally curious Robin Hammond enters an abandoned building to try and join in on a game of 'The Killer is Coming' -- a morbid twist on hide and seek, with some of her grade-school classmates, the other kids quickly gang up on her, teasing and taunting and herding a now terrified Robin up to the top floor, where she is quickly cornered. With nowhere to go, and the other four encroaching children chanting, "Kill! Kill! Kill!", the girl blindly backpedals into a broken window, that gives way, and then plummets to her death.

Once what they've done fully registers, accident or no, Wendy Richards, Jude Cunningham, Kelly Lynch, and Nick McBride panic but, thinking they will go to jail, Wendy bullies them all into a pact and swear to never, ever reveal what happened before fleeing the scene of the crime. But as they scramble away, falsely secure in thinking there were no other witnesses, a shadow falls across Robin's body.

Six years later, on the anniversary of her death, Robin's family visits her grave. Her mother (Bower) appears to still be lost somewhere in the stages of grief, the father (Nielson) does his best to console the inconsolable, while her siblings, elder sister Kim (Curtis) and Robin's twin brother, Alex (Tough), deal with the cloud of survivor's guilt. Both had abandoned Robin on the day she was killed, and the whole family believes she was murdered by a pedophile known to squat in the derelict building, who was later caught, arrested, and sent-up for the crime by an over-eager detective named McBride (Touliatos), also the father of one of the actual culprits.

Speaking of which, now teenagers, Wendy (Martin), Jude (Thompson), Kelly (Rubens) and Nick (Stevens) are spending the day preparing and cementing their dates for the prom. Wendy and Nick are recently splitsville, with Nick now hooking up with Kim (-- which is kinda weird on his part, amIright?), while the conniving Wendy makes another pact with the school's ruffian bad seed, Lou Farmer (Mucci), and his goon squad to torpedo the coming coronation when Nick and Kim are crowned this year's prom royalty. Jude, meantime, is desperate enough for a date she takes the plunge with Seymour (Rybowski), the equally desperate class clown. And Kelly is going with her longtime beau, Drew (Wincott), who is desperately trying to get into her pants but the constant rebuffs might soon have him looking into someone else's. And while all of this high school desperation drama is unfolding, the four conspirators have also been receiving threatening phone calls from some phlegmatic creep, who direly warns they will all soon pay for what they did...

As the 1970s drew to a close, Paul Lynch had directed two films that basically cut a dry-fart at the box-office and generated little buzz. Looking to make a bigger splash, Lynch was fascinated by two independent horror productions: John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) and Charles B. Pierce's The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976); the second mostly for its highly evocative promotional campaign and press materials. With those two films in mind, Lynch created a poster for a proposed horror film called Don't Go to the Doctor and pitched the idea to Irwin Yablans, who had produced Halloween. Yablans felt the idea of a murdering doctor was distasteful but liked Lynch's enthusiasm and encouraged him to try again, focusing on teenagers, and to ground the film around another holiday. And as the legend goes, on the way home after the meeting with Yablans, Lynch passed a hotel marquee touting it was a perfect place to fill the need of any spring formal or prom night and was instantly inspired.

Robert Guza, meanwhile, was a film student at USC who was introduced to Lynch through a mutual friend. Knowing the filmmaker was looking for some story help for a proposed horror movie, seems Guza had written a treatment about a group of children accidentally killing someone while playing an amped-up game of tag. Feeling this would make great fodder for the back-story and motivation for his killer, Lynch incorporated it into the screenplay for Prom Night (1980), which was eventually fleshed out by William Gray, who had just done the screenplay for the uber-creepy ghost-flick, The Changeling (1980). And once Guza's set up is out of the way, the script borrows liberally from other sources, making the film a rather shameless pastiche of Black Christmas (1974) [the crank calls], Carrie (1976) [sabotage at the prom], and Halloween (1978) [a relentless killer]; and while filming certain stalking and killing scenes Lynch copied the 'Bobby' segment from the Dan Curtis TV anthology, Dead of Night (1977), almost shot for shot. But well before that, before Lynch could present his pilfered and retooled ideas to Yablans, the film was essentially hijacked by a foreign party.

Based out of Canada, film producer Peter Simpson and his Simcon Limited was just coming off a box-office hit with The Sea Gypsies (1978), which was then sold to NBC for a good chunk of change. With all that money burning a hole in his pocket, Simpson was looking for a follow up feature and pounced on Lynch's film when they met at a social mixer in Los Angeles and moved the production to Toronto. Unlike today, there weren't a lot of professional film crews in Canada in 1979, so most of the production staff was borrowed from local TV stations -- including several veterans of SCTV, which also provided some of the sets. (I'm almost positive the disco dance floor for the prom is from Mel's Rock Pile.) Simpson's brother and partner, Richard, used to work in the Toronto school system and, through him, they were able to secure two weeks of filming at two different high schools before classes resumed in the fall of 1979.

When it came to casting, Lynch raided several Canadian theater colleges but Simpson wanted a known name to play the lead; a familiar TV name in hope of another big post-release payday from one of the Big Three broadcast stations. And so, the production set there sites on Eve Plumb, who was efforting to shed her role as middle-sister Jan on The Brady Bunch as the lead character in the telefilm Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway (1976). Apparently, the role of Kim was hers until Lynch received a phone call from Jamie Lee Curtis' agent because her client wanted the part. Lynch was ecstatic over the added marquee power of Curtis due to her association with Halloween, but he had to fight hard for her because Simpson felt she wasn't "innocent" enough for the role. But convince him he did, so Plumb was out and Curtis was in. The only other familiar faces in the cast are Leslie Nielson as principal Hammond, who was about to experience a drastic paradigm shift in his acting career from drama to full frontal comedy with the serendipitous release of Airplane (1980), and Anne-Marie Martin, billed (for the last time) as Eddie Benton, who would change her name, star in the criminally under-rated TV comedy, Sledge Hammer, marry author Michael Crichton, and write the screenplay for Twister (1996). Here, she plays the dastardly Wendy, whose manipulations set this cinematic whodunit in motion; an exercise in revenge and mass murder. And SPOILERS AHOY from here on out, Boils and Ghouls.

So who is this mystery caller? Well, the film spends a good chunk of its running time establishing all kinds of suspects in the run up to the prom. (Aside from the prologue, the film takes place during one calendar day.) From the creepy janitor, to any one of the boyfriends, to Mrs. Hammond, to the railroaded pedophile, who recently engineered his escape from the prison hospital and is currently on the loose, all could be the killer. And when night falls and the hour of the prom arrives, the killings begin in earnest.

Thus and so, as Kim and Nick burn up the dance floor, Kelly and Drew slink off and find a deserted locker-room, start to make out, and almost go all the way before Kelly panics again, causing a frustrated Drew to storm off. Alone, as she pulls her dress back on, a masked killer sneaks up behind the girl and slits her throat with a piece of broken glass. The killer then beats feet to a nearby park where he stalks Jude and Seymour, who are sharing a joint in the back of his van before they decide to have sex for a SECOND time that night. But the killer pounces, stabbing Jude to death with the same shard before having a running fight with Seymour, who actually makes a pretty good accounting of himself before he loses control of the van, crashes it over a cliff, and dies in the resulting explosion. (Production note on that van: apparently it was stolen for the shoot and was subsequently left where it landed.)

Meanwhile, back at the high school, Wendy realizes she's made a huge mistake with Lou and, after fighting off his lecherous advances, retreats to the bathroom, where the killer and his axe find her. And after a fairly effective chase sequence through the darkened and abandoned halls of the school (-- again, lifted wholesale from Curtis' telefilm), Wendy hides in the same closet where the killer stashed Kelly's body and her scream of discovery alerts the killer and his axe of her whereabouts, bringing the scene to an end. *thwack* *thwack* And *thwack*.

Missing all of this, the not observant enough McBride receives word that the escaped pedophile has been apprehended over fifty miles away and calls off the stakeout at the prom, leaving the door wide open for Lou who, when Wendy fails to show back up, calls an audible on their plan to derail the coronation. And so, after Kim and Nick head to opposite sides of the stage, Lou sics his goons on Nick, steals his crown, and prepares to take the stage in his place for another shot at molesting Kim. Unfortunately for him, the killer mistakes Lou for Nick and decapitates him. 

Realizing his mistake as the head rolls out on the runway, causing mass panic and a quick evacuation of the dance floor, the killer seeks out Nick, who is defended by Kim. And as the three-way fight escalates, the axe is torn loose and picked up by Kim, who manages to hit the killer in the head. Severely wounded, the killer makes direct eye-contact with Kim, who realizes the masked man's true identity but probably wishes she hadn't as he stumbles outside and collapses. Kim prevents McBride from shooting him, cradles the killer's head, and removes the mask. It's Alex, who had circled back to find Robin the day she was killed and saw what really happened, and then spent the next six years looking for the right opportunity to avenge his sister. He confesses all of this to Kim, who breaks down over the loss of another sibling.

When it was released in the summer of 1980, Prom Night managed to catch lightning in a bottle, the right film at the right time, which thrilled audiences and soaked it up at the box-office. Watching it again the film actually owes more to Agatha Christie than the slasher films it helped to inspire. And though it did help to cement a few rules of the brand new genre -- familial revenge, red herrings, signature look of the killer, Prom Night is very atypical as well. The virginal Kelly refuses sex but is still killed; the murders themselves aren't all that graphic; and our 'final girl' isn't even on the hit list. It is also more about the mystery of whodunit, not the grisly details of howtheydunit – something that was to become the bane of the slasher film’s existence.

Unlike most of its like-minded brethren, the disco music, which is actually pretty good, kinda dates the film quite horribly. While shooting, Lynch had used several popular hits by Donna Summer and Pat Benetar for the extended dancing sequences but then got a harsh lesson in licensing fees during post-production. He turned to composer Paul Zaza to bail him out, with orders to come up with five disco songs in five days. When Zaza asked how close Lynch wanted them to the originals, he was told close enough to get sued but not close enough that the plaintiff would win in court. And that's exactly what happened as the film was sued but the matter was settled for far less, which is why the much coveted soundtrack album was only released in Japan.

When the film was finished it triggered a bidding war between Paramount and AVCO-Embassy, with AVCO winning out. But Paramount would have the last laugh when it went looking for another horror film and wound up with the Friday the 13th (1980) franchise in their lap. Before they would release it, AVCO had a few demands first. Feeling the first half dragged too much, Simpson ordered several re-shoots, including all those phone call scenes and the entire subplot about the escaped pedophile.

I believe I first saw Prom Night when it premiered on NBC as a movie of the week in 1981 and it was all we talked about at school for nearly a week. Around the same time, at a birthday party, I got my first look at Friday the 13th and I've been kinda slasher-addled ever since. I also highly recommend Synapse's brand new BluRay of the film. It looks simply gorgeous and it was nice to finally 'see' some of the night-time chase scenes after all the murk of an ancient VHS tape. The BluRay also has a wonderful making-of featurette, where Lynch cops to everything he stole, and there's also a raucous commentary by Lynch, Gray, and a moderator, who makes a couple of egregious character misidentification, one which pegged Kim as one of the original conspirators. (Uh, no.) Beyond that, I enjoyed this reunion with Prom Night quite immensely, disco globes, the over-abundance of American flags, and the occasional Canadian accents, eh, and all.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd.

Prom Night (1980) Simcom Limited :: Guardian Trust Company :: Prom Night Productions :: AVCO Embassy Pictures / P: Peter R. Simpson / AP: Richard Simpson / D: Paul Lynch / W: William Gray, Robert Guza Jr. / C: Robert C. New / E: Brian Ravok / M: Paul Zaza, Carl Zittrer / S: Jamie Lee Curtis, Leslie Nielsen, Casey Stevens, Anne-Marie Martin, Michael Tough, Jeff Wincott

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