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Prom Night Review

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by Chris McEneany Oct 2, 2008

    Prom Night Review
    “Now, you've got to stop being scared ... 'cause there's nothing left to be scared of, ok?”

    He's obviously seen Prom Night, then.

    Having just reviewed the BD's for Texas Chainsaw and The Thing and casting my eyes over the other notable horror releases for this month - The Amityville Horror, The Omen collection, Poltergeist, Carrie, Interview With The Vampire and, ahem, Young Frankenstein - and drooling with anticipation, it is, perhaps, inevitable that someone's going to slip a clunker in there too. And here is comes ...

    About as welcome as a turd in a swimming pool, is Nelson McCormick's lame updating of the already lacklustre 1980 slasher Prom Night, featuring then Scream-Queen extraordinaire Jamie Lee Curtis and Leslie Nielson going completely against type as a dangerous, as opposed to merely dim-witted, lunatic. With its PG-13 rated thrills and chills and devotion to the MTV crowd, the movie fits snugly into the teen-acceptable bodycount flick category. Think Bogeyman, One Missed Call and I Know What You Did Last Summer and you are barking up the right tree. Then again, if you are a devout horror fan - like me - and you falsely cling to the hope that this sanitised and by-the-numbers clagfest is going to provide you with anything resembling a shock, a frisson or, at the very least, something moderately entertaining, then I'm afraid you are just plain barking. Prom Night, 2008-style, is nothing more than cute high schoolers creeping about luxurious homes and hotel rooms during long, attention-sapping, suspense-bereft sequences of watered-down escape-and-evasion. It has a killer who is more likely to send to sleep than keep you awake for fear of nightmares, and victims who don't die soon enough or violently enough.

    Donna (Brittany Snow) is only barely getting over the flash-cut, dream-exposed murder of her family from three years before - the horrific by-product of an obsessed biology teacher's homicidal infatuation with her - when, in time-honoured fashion, the high school prom looms. With her aunt and uncle - who now look after her - insisting that it will be both the true test of her recovery from the ordeal and the reward for all her efforts to reclaim her life, and a doting jock of a boyfriend waiting to escort her to the gala event to be staged at the mega-plush Pacific Grand Hotel, she gears up for a night of coming-of-age excitement. However, a couple of thousand miles away, that same deranged former educator, Richard Fenton (the scratchily-stubbled Jonathon Schaech), is breaking out of the maximum security prison in which he had been incarcerated since that vicious knife massacre, with some serious intentions of having a little reunion with his reluctant love.

    With romance, booze, a top DJ and swanky hotel suites taking their minds off future careers, Donna, her feller Bobby (Scott Porter, who looks too old for the part) and their buddies Mike (Kelly Blatz), Claire (Jessica Stroup), busty Lisa (Dana Davis) and Ronnie (Collins Pennie) leave themselves vulnerable to the determined advances of Fenton's kill-crazy nutjob who has gotten there just a moment before them. And, believe me, no contrivance is spared by the risible script from J. S. Cardonne that manages to ensure every character is alone with the murderer at some point. With only the perpetually constipated-looking rozzer who dealt with the initial investigation that put Fenton behind bars, Idris Elba's awkward-gaited Det. Winn, on the lookout, Sam Loomis-style, for his crazed nemesis, things don't look so good for our six glittering teen celebs as they each do the scream-and-stumble routine with what becomes monotonous regularity. Mind you, if they just stayed at the party and stopped meandering about the posh hotel, they'd probably get off scot-free.

    “That guy .... he looks so familiar. Those eyes ...”

    You've seen all this before, much too often, but the challenge with this type of movie is not necessarily how intelligent the writing, how inspired the direction or how likeable the leads are. Sometimes the slasher-pic needs only enough splashing claret to distract us from whatever inadequacies are cropping up elsewhere in the production. It doesn't make it a “good” film, of course, but, in this game, it definitely makes it a better one. But the compromise that far too many makers of these movies seem willing to concede to in order to satisfy nervous studios and guarantee at least some box office takings these days, is to do away with the gore. The late seventies and early eighties were the province of these Americanised gialli and things like The Burning, Toolbox Murders, Terror Train, My Bloody Valentine and a half dozen or more Friday 13ths got by because of the effects that propelled them. Tom Savini made his name by blowing chunks out of zombies' heads, but he, along with fellow makeup FX wizards Dick Smith, Tom Burman and Carl Fullerton were responsible for the very things that took the slasher genre into the realms of cult phenomenon. These days, however, it's pretty faces, currently hot dance tracks and glossy, MTV camerawork that dominate the genre, making the exercise into little more than a music video. And it is too easy to claim that these movies are now aimed at a younger audience. The biggest market for their earlier incarnations was the kids - it was always the kids - so why do the makers of these insipid charlatans, in their desire to be hip and sassy, neglect to give the kids exactly what they want?

    Which is, of course, sex and violence.

    The stalk 'n' slash genre is nothing without them.

    You can be down and dirty like Nightmares In A Damaged Brain or Maniac, or arty-farty and pretentious like Dressed To Kill or Tenebrae, but they all boil down to one thing - the exploitation of bloody killings and nudity. Yep, it's a grubby sideline of the Horror Film but one that rarely works without some of those Scream-style ground-rules helping to steer the way. This whole PG-13 thing (and, yep, Prom Night is a 15 here) wreaks havoc with the tone, feel and sheer execution of such a film.

    Towering ineptitude behind the camera reduces the entire film to a series of poor runarounds. People hide under beds and in closets and continually do the most stupid of things. It is like McCormack is extracting the urine out of the genre, except for one thing - he's taking it seriously and thinks that he is coming up with something that we haven't seen before. In his commentary and in the making-of on this disc, he tells of his desire to create suspense - but endless scenes of characters either unwittingly dawdling in the company of a deranged killer or simply trying to hide from him are drained of that precious commodity because of his cack-handed and “obvious” direction and the damning fact that his psycho just isn't scary. With his killer on-screen for an unbelievable amount of time, any and all mystery is left to run down the plughole. Fenton's perpetual loitering - spying through doorways, peering around columns, stalking leisurely after incredibly dumb victims - very soon grates on the nerves. With so much exposure, how can we possibly fear him? Plus, how on earth does he manage to manhandle a corpse out of sight so quietly and quickly behind his next victim's back? We're used to killers moving from one location in the shadows to another with almost supernatural swiftness, but Fenton keeps making such bizarre switch-a-rounds from place to place with seemingly no purpose at all. In reality, if he was this good at dodging around corners, doorways and hotel rooms commando-style, he'd be in a circus. Or else, the heroine - or the cops, if they actually opened their eyes - would find him out-of-breath behind the sofa, having first scampered over the bed and swung silently from the lampshade to get there. Seriously, he does so much needless gadding-about it is as though he is actively clocking-up psycho-points for mileage.

    Incredibly poor set-ups and mini-episodes dog the narrative almost constantly. The clichéd couple disputes that send one member to their lonely, sulking doom followed by the other one who is merely looking for them are part of the territory, perhaps. I mentioned this very aspect in my review for Texas Chainsaw, but there, at least, the separations, stray wanderings and nasty pay-offs were all realistically designed and believable in the context of the story. Here, the filmic lunacy reaches sky-high levels when Donna, the prime target for our bad boy, actually goes against the crowd who are surging out of the hotel after the buffoonish cops trigger the fire alarm to get everybody out of the nutter's way and heads back upstairs to his killing ground to retrieve her mother's shawl. Whilst her chums have been going missing at a hectic rate all evening, this simply beggars belief. And exactly why is the escaped con whittling down the staff of the hotel and all these other innocent party-people anyway? Oh, yes, because he's mad. That's right. Erm, no, actually. This still doesn't make any sense. Vintage horrors often had escaped maniacs on the prowl who seemingly lived just to carve-up passersby or the occupants of lonely mansions. But they often got by because they didn't even attempt to provide a rationale or a possible explanation for their killers' actions. The mistake that McCormack makes is in giving Fenton a motive for his murderous quest because that motif just doesn't add up. He's going to escape and spark a nationwide hunt for himself and then he's going to kill anybody and everybody who happens to be in the vicinity of the object of his affections? Why? He's a freakin' school teacher for God's sake, not Michael Myers or Jason Vorhees! And how did be become so good with a knife and so teasing with his victims - cutting up frogs for the class and setting difficult assignments are hardly the training for a mass murderer who can leave prisons, wear disguises and take out cops on guard duty like some off-kilter Jason Bourne.

    No, the scenario stinks.

    And this is because it is merely a device - and one of the most neon-signposted - to allow McCormack the opportunity to put his cast of no-hopers in harm's way. Sure, none of the old variety of slashers were any more cunning in their scene-setting hooks, but they made certain that they supplied the goods at the end of the day. Even the relatively bloodless ones - step forward the undisputed Royalty of Psycho and Halloween - had enormous propensity for shock delivery and atmospheres that you could cut, ahem, with a knife. But Prom Night has none of this. Instead we get an unending succession of no-marks searing the screen with their banality and steadfastly refusing to die bloodily or even quickly enough.

    Slicing-up nubile young flesh ain't what it used to be, it seems.

    Detective Winn is rendered utterly ridiculous due the sheer amount of instances when poor Elba is left with nothing to do but stand around gawping at kids and hotel guests milling about, or spout the requisite pleas for “Back-up!” And if his lumbering copper is short-changed by a script that is merely ticking the boxes in lieu of attempting anything original, then his right-hand man, Nash, played by James Ransone, looks just like his mummy left him behind at the school gates. McCormack even gives himself the indulgence of employing a full-on SWAT team to lay siege to the hotel, but his riff on The Silence Of The Lambs is both excruciatingly obvious and right royally dumbed-down when Winn suddenly joins the dots and takes off, alone, in a last ditch rescue attempt, seemingly forgetting that he has a veritable army of very heavily armed men at his disposal that may just come in handy.

    McCormack likes to inject little stylistic flourishes here and there, which I think is commendable. The genre is formula-driven, but the opportunity to flash some inspiration along the way should never be overlooked. However, I have to admit to being slightly bemused as the exact meaning and point of the odd little dream-spiked moment of deja-vu at the end. Visually, it almost works because it brings us into play at the same time as Donna, prompting us to second-guess the actions seen onscreen. But, on reflection, it sticks out like a sore thumb and possesses absolutely no internal logic - once again, ladling on the MTV ethic of nonsensical imagery for the sake of it. Or, in this case, for the sake of a cheap trick at our expense. And, if you've just cut the boyfriend's throat and left him to scare the bejeezus out of the girl, why would you then go and hide in the wardrobe instead of just looming out at her? I mean, she could just take one look at the messy pillow and then run out screaming, leaving you looking like a right lemon squatting there amongst the shoes with nothing left to kill but time.

    So, the upshot is - avoid Prom Night. If you really need to see a high school dance end in tears and death, watch Carrie ... thrills, chills, great characters, a good story and an electrifying atmosphere - everything that McCormack forgot to pack into his film. Every review of this movie that I have seen has given it an extremely poor 1 out of 5. Now, I tend to be a lot more forgiving than most people, but this film does absolutely nothing new, fresh or even remotely interesting to warrant such charity. It is filled with unlikeable fools, it jerks every cliché in the book without the decency to smother them with either a sense of irony or satire and it singularly fails to deliver any thrills or spills. And if you can't supply the basic ingredients for a slasher film, then what is the point of making it in the first place.

    Don't waste your time with this, folks. 3 out of 10 - and I am being generous.