Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Halloween List: Prom Night

Previously: Upgrade and Short Night of Glass Dolls

I put off watching Prom Night for years because it was lumped in with those misogynistic punishment Slashers. How good could it really be if the prom scene in Carrie is more famous than this entire movie dedicated to proms? I imagined Jamie Lee Curtis would lead a cast of girls getting massacred for flirting. But that’s not what happens here.

The premise is standard issue: a masked killer stalks a high school on Prom Night. Even in 1980, this wasn’t breaking a lot of ground. The funny thing about Slasher films is they weren’t originally Conservative punishment fantasies. Prom Night is about a small group of friends who, when they were very young, accidentally killed a classmate and ran to hide from the consequences. Someone witnessed the death but never spoke about it. He’s only returned on the eponymous night of their prom for revenge. The killer is attempting to punish these teens for the thing they buried in their pasts.

Already that’s more than the average Slasher. John Carpenter’s classic Halloween sees Laurie Strode traumatized for life just because she dropped a key off at the killer’s house. There’s an awkward responsibility the characters never quite get over. The movie is still contemplating how tragic it all is even in its final frame. It’s way more transgressive Giallo in its motivations for violence.

But in pursuing this revenge, the killer intrudes on the kind of “bad” behavior we associate with a punishment fantasy. The second and third victims are having a sex romp in public and are smoking weed. The funny thing is that the actors have good chemistry and are actually charming in how they’re getting on together. The cuts from them to the killer have tonal shifts that establish that they’re okay having consensual fun, and he’s the intruder doing something wrong.

Then something really unexpected happens: the killer strikes, and he blows it. They drive off and he has to chase them, showing a lack of coordination and logic. He’s dangerous, but he’s not the all-capable type of killer from later Slasher films. There is no empowerment fantasy to this guy.

He’s an intruder in a mask, attacking people we probably like. The teens aren’t being punished by this movie. They’re people we were supposed to sympathize with and hope will get away.

By the time our survivors fight the killer (in a rare show of multiple people actually cooperating to fight a Slasher killer), it’s clear that this isn’t a punishment narrative. This is a violent intrusion and even if they’re guilty of an old crime, we should root for them to avoid unjust slaughter. Jamie Lee Curtis gets to throw down way more powerfully than she did against Michael Myers in Halloween, almost because she’s treated as righteous this time.

There is a lot of this in early Friday the 13ths, Halloweens, and Nightmare on Elm Streets. The Slasher genre was founded on the tension of seeing tweens who were supposed to be more sympathetic because they were breaking the petty rules of their parents. Prom Night’s deviation from this mold is that the teens are guilty of something in their past. For next year I’m thinking of digging into some of the films where Horror started to sell out to punishment narratives, and see how it happened. Would folks be interested in reading about that? 

Coming tomorrow: Blumhouse's Halloween (2018)


  1. I'd forgotten Jamie Lee Curtis was in this.
    Premise is similar to I Know What You Did Last Summer except in that lame film, you really do want the kids dead.

  2. Prom night is a particularly American concept I think. Like band (and guns), it is not something we have taken from your culture.


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