The Savage Stack - PROM NIGHT (1980)

Jamie Lee Curtis' return to being a slasher heroine helped produce a Canuxploitation drive-in hit.

There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.

The eighty-second entry into this unbroken backlog is early Cnuxploitation slasher staple Prom Night...

Prom Night is a key entry into the slasher era that began almost immediately after the massive independent success of John Carpenter's Halloween. Really, there's only about a year's time in-between that movie's atom bomb arrival at the box office and the birth of horror’s new boom, with Carol Kane's own terrified babysitter opus When A Stranger Calls – which, like Carpenter's film, owes a massive debt to Bob Clark's '74 sorority house massacre masterpiece, Black Christmas – being the main placeholder in '79. Sean Cunningham and Victor Miller piled camp counselors to the ceiling with Friday the 13th, and Tom Hanks waxed meta-textual in He Knows You're Alone, before Prom Night arrived at Canadian drive-ins in July ‘80, crowning Laurie Strode queen of the titular teen celebration of disco, booze and losing your virginity to some brutish boy.

In fairness, English director Paul Lynch – who had two films under his belt by the late '70s in The Hard Part Begins ('73) and Blood & Guts ('78) – was actually inspired by another lo-fi earner that came out of nowhere (yet still owns quite the connection to the slasher granddaddy): Charles B. Pierce's The Town That Dreaded Sundown ('76). A graphic designer by trade, Lynch loved the iconic, bagged-head look of the killer that Pierce had slathered all over one sheets for his true crime campfire tale of Texarkana death and destruction. Lynch mocked up a poster for a fake horror movie about a killer physician (titled Don't See The Doctor) and took it to Halloween producer Irwin Yablans. Yablans actually found the idea somewhat distasteful, but told Lynch to return with a concept built around (wait for it) a holiday of the filmmaker’s choosing.

On the drive back from his meeting, Lynch spotted a sign on top of a motel, marketing the establishment as being available for any post high school formal festivities. So, he combined the idea of a horror movie set at the prom with a short story about a childhood prank coming back to haunt those who pulled it, written by former USC student-cum-screenwriter Bob Guza Jr. That weekend, Lynch met producer Peter Simpson at a Los Angeles party thrown by Telefilm Canada, and described what he was going to pitch to Yablans once the Halloween backer returned to Hollywood from a long weekend. However, Simpson saw dollar signs and pounced, signing a deal with the director to make Prom Night, the first in a string of Canuxploitation shockers (including the frigid, strange stalk and slash weird out, Curtains ['83]) that would cement the financier as a regular maple syrup slathered Roger Corman clone. 

Lynch was originally set to cast a recurring actress from The Brady Bunch as Prom Night's central protagonist before he received a call from Jamie Lee Curtis' manager. The Halloween star (and Final Girl prototype) desperately desired to audition for the lead, and Simpson actually made the budding marquee idol jump through several hoops in order to obtain the part, ensuring that she could not only scream, but dance and act as well. Naturally, Curtis blew them all the fuck away, and was a shoo-in for Kim, the morally conflicted center of a circle of friends who accidentally kill a girl one year younger than them during an otherwise harmless variation on “hide and seek” (called “Killer’s Coming”) they play in an abandoned school.

Surrounding Curtis is a legion of fresh faces, dropping their "ohs" straight out of Canadian drama school. Wendy (Anne-Marie Martin) is Kim's "mean girl" rival, partnering with dopey bad boy Travolta wannabe Lou (David Mucci), who gets practically thrown out of school for picking on the queen's moody, meek half-brother Alex (Michael Tough). Kelly (Mary Beth Rubens) is the shy girl who's unsure about popping her cherry on the titular night with confident hunk Drew (Jeff Wincott). Jude (Joy Thompson) is the silly one, picked up by lovable nerd "Slick" (Sheldon Rybowski), a portly, bespectacled goof driving a shaggin’ wagon. Together, they transform the Senior Class of Hamilton High into a colorful collective of hornballs that owe more to Brian De Palma (whose Carrie ['76] practically plays as the film's older American cousin) than Debra Hill's slightly autobiographical Haddonfield babysitters. 

The few-and-far-between adults who work at or around this otherwise ordinary Toronto institution of higher learning lend Lynch’s picture a rather stately charm (as former SCTV cinematographer Robert C. New captures everything with an almost satirical level of soft focus). The same year he'd make comedy history with the ZAZ team in Airplane! ('80), Leslie Nielsen plays Kim and Alex's principal father, while keeping a totally straight face the entire time (his late-in-the-game attempt at disco dancing might actually be Prom Night's most horrific moment). Veteran character actor George Touliatos plays Lieutenant McBride, a cop haunted by the fact that he conspired with a local doctor (David Garnder) to pin the young girl's accidental death on the wrong man all those years ago. Meanwhile, regular David Cronenberg comb-over superstar Robert Silverman is the convenient red herring, a creepy, mentally deficient Hamilton groundskeeper who always seems to be hovering (power tool in tow) wherever the girls are.

Honestly, Prom Night might actually work better as a teen melodrama (think: '70s Degrassi High) as opposed to an actual slasher movie, as the killer doesn't exactly own a memorable mask (though his ski cap is practically coated in glitter), the kills are all back-loaded in the movie's final twenty minutes and, outside of a solid decapitation, aren't inventive at all. However, the story structure – revolving around a wronged individual returning years later to take revenge on a group of now-grown kids who hurt them – became a subgenre staple throughout the wave that overtook the '80s. Perhaps this is what helped propel Prom Night to become such a success on the drive-in circuit: it was a product of pure simplicity, as final screenwriter William Gray keeps the characters likable throughout, before Lynch choreographs a show-stopping disco number set to Paul Zaza and Highstreet's thumping high-hat theme

Despite the Molson on its breath, and rather concise, workmanlike construction (which keeps the film incredibly watchable throughout), Prom Night is obviously most memorable for delivering one of two ‘80 Laurie Strode follow-ups from Jamie Lee Curtis. Along with Terror Train ('80) – which would be released three months after Lynch's low budget smash – Curtis cemented herself as the Final Girl du jour, and proved that she wasn't done with horror after Halloween. With this trio of memorable body count movies, Curtis became innocence personified, the consummate girl in peril who we always wanted to see survive. So many heroines would be modeled after the performances she gave, yet almost none could replicate her indelible screen presence. The babysitter became the prom queen, and still reigns supreme. 

Prom Night is available to stream on Shudder, as well as out on Blu-ray, courtesy of Synapse Films.