Monday, November 29, 2010

Prom Night (1980)

Leslie Nielsen died yesterday in Florida at the age of 84. You can read his New York Times obituary here. His split careers as a dramatic and a comedic actor are well documented. From his U.S. television debut on STUDIO ONE through 1980, Nielsen was strictly known for drama, mainly in episodic television, though he also starred in the science fiction classic FORBIDDEN PLANET and played the ill-fated ship's captain in the disaster film THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE.

His life changed, however, in 1980, when writer/directors Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker hired him, along with other drama stalwarts like Peter Graves (who also died in 2010), Robert Stack, and Lloyd Bridges, to act in AIRPLANE! The conceit that Nielsen could be hilarious while doing exactly the same style of acting he had been doing his whole career was brilliant, and led to his second career spoofing himself in generally crummy comedies: SPY HARD, SCARY MOVIE 4, STAN HELSING, REPOSSESSED, THE CREATURE WASN'T NICE, MR. MAGOO...

Of course, ABC's shortlived POLICE SQUAD, which earned Nielsen his first Emmy nomination, spawned THE NAKED GUN and its two sequels, which, along with AIRPLANE!, led his obituaries.

But did you know that Nielsen co-starred in two features released theatrically in July of 1980? One was AIRPLANE! The other was a dumb Canadian slasher flick that has endured just as long, spawning three sequels and a 2008 remake.

PROM NIGHT’s following is more likely due to its catchy title and star turn by Jamie Lee Curtis, rather than its own worth as a horror movie. Just 20 years old during filming, Curtis had already starred in HALLOWEEN and THE FOG and would do TERROR TRAIN next.

Ten-year-old Robin Hammond is teased to death by four schoolmates, who panic and allow a local sex offender to be convicted for her murder. Six years later, the day of Alexander Hamilton High School’s prom, he escapes from custody and returns to town. That night, the four witnesses to Robin’s death, now teenagers, are harassed and stalked by an athletic masked killer dressed in black. Is there a connection?

Probably, though you’ll be kept guessing by the hilarious number of red herrings in the screenplay by William Gray and Robert Guza Jr., who also separately wrote other Canadian horror movies like CURTAINS, HUMONGOUS, and THE CHANGELING. David Cronenberg repertory player Robert Silverman (RABID) plays the school’s demented handyman. Curtis and Michael Tough play Robin’s teen siblings, and top-billed Nielsen is their father, the school principal. You may also recognize a blond Jeff Wincott (LAST MAN STANDING) and Anne-Marie Martin, billed as Eddie Benton, who went on to co-star in SLEDGE HAMMER! and co-write TWISTER with her late husband Michael Crichton.

An obvious ripoff of CARRIE, PROM NIGHT, for all its success, doesn’t really deliver the goods. No on-camera murders occur for the first hour, director Paul Lynch (BULLIES) stages the killings in a relatively bloodless manner (aside from a neat decapitation), there’s only a flash of nudity (the girls wear towels in the locker room), and the disco-filled soundtrack by Paul Zaza and Carl Zittrer earns snickers today.

Avco Embassy released PROM NIGHT in the U.S. to very good box office receipts of more than $14 million. Its popularity, along with that of FRIDAY THE 13TH, which was also released in the summer of 1980, played an enormous part in spurring the slasher genre that dominated the early 1980s.

Check out a pair of TV spots for PROM NIGHT, which misspell Nielsen's name, below:

No comments: