Slightly lost to horror film history is the fact that the slasher boom proper was largely instigated by the box office success of two films and, surprisingly, Halloween (1978) is not a part of this conversation.
In actual fact, the John Carpenter classic – as a low budget independent shocker with comparably thin distribution – took its time to roll out nationally in the United States (a campaign that was gradually bolstered by excellent critical notice). This is the reason why it was the best part of two years before fans began to see any comparable austerity horror aimed at a teenage audience and featuring a knife-wielding psychopath.
As such, it would be a pair of plasma-packed pot-boilers that set the much-loved slice and dice craze into first gear as the Eighties kicked off. The first, of course, was the opening instalment of the Voorhees family saga, Friday The 13th, which on a budget of just over $500,000 made almost $60 million, and the second was Prom Night, a cheap and cheerful Canadian-produced creeper that notched up $15 million on a slightly higher production budget. The two films also played within just a few weeks of one another.
Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Prom Night indicated that the market was rife for masked-maniacs and sudden, surprise set-pieces – and it was shortly afterwards that fans began to get an influx of small-town massacres on the big screen as a result…
“We shot Prom Night in Toronto during the summer of 1979 and in a real high school,” remembers William Gray, the film’s screenwriter whose genre credits also include the supernatural classic The Changeling (1980). “Jamie Lee Curtis is a great person and she really wanted to do this – she saw that it was going to be a hit, even though I was really sceptical. She was big news at the time because of Halloween but that was not even in my mind when I did Prom Night. I was actually ripping off Carrie – that is where most of my ideas came from [laughs]. It is interesting because we thought we were doing something very different from Halloween – mainly due to the fact our killer was a mystery until the end – but then Friday The 13th came out and beat us to it…”
Although Curtis is commonly pegged as the ultimate, virginal ‘final girl’ thanks to her portrayal of Laurie Strode in the first Halloween, her part in Prom Night sees her as the most coveted teenager in high school – and she is also clearly and unashamedly sexually active. In addition, she gets her very own disco-dancing scene (which has aged terribly). In the meantime, however, her friends are being picked-off one by one via a balaclava-wearing wacko, whose motives are hinted at during an opening prologue which takes place six years before the events of the main narrative…
“The director of Prom Night is a great guy called Paul Lynch, who had worked as an art director out in Toronto and who I think is still really underrated,” continues Gray. “Paul wanted to make a horror movie and he had this idea for a story that involved a murderer who ends up at a high school prom. And he had been developing it for a while when he hit on the idea of a fake newspaper cover to get interest. He mocked one up and it basically said: ‘Mass murder at a prom! Masked man arrested!’ and it looked genuine – it looked as if this was a real newspaper and this was before people could just Google to find out if it was kosher [laughs]. I remember that he showed it to a couple of producers and one of them, Peter Simpson, really went for it – although he thought he was buying a true story [laughs]. It was only after we got the deal, and everything was signed, that Paul had to reveal that this was all made up.”
The confusing nature of motion picture tax laws, meanwhile, meant that everyone who worked on Prom Night had to be Canadian – with a sole exception permitted for an actor or actress who could be seen to guarantee worldwide sales.
Lynch, therefore, was able to get Curtis involved – and her deal also enabled her to appear in Terror Train (1980), another Canadian mystery-slasher that went into production at the same time (eagle-eyed fans will notice that the actress’s hairstyle and hair length barely changes between the two…).
“I was actually put in the hotel room next to Jamie, so we became quite good friends,” mentions Gray. “Paul knew Halloween, but I had not actually seen it and Jamie would tease me about that. So I remember one night in Toronto there was this repertoire theatre that was showing a late night double-bill of Halloween and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Jamie found out and she said ‘let’s go, you need to see this movie’ – she really wanted me to see what the fuss was all about. And I am glad she did because I thought Halloween was amazing and the crowd reaction to it was great as well.
“Coming out of the cinema, and seeing Jamie mobbed, with me next to her, was brilliant too [laughs]. I was saying to people: ‘Hey, I am writing her new film’ and that made me feel quite proud actually. Before that I was worried this might be just a cheap and easily forgotten horror movie. I did not even want to write it, I did it as a favour to Paul because he needed a Canadian [laughs].”
Also featuring a supporting role for the late Leslie Nielsen (before his iconic comedy turn in Airplane! and The Naked Gun), Prom Night draws some inspiration from Saturday Night Fever (1977) with its copious sequences of disco dancing as well as a frustratingly catchy pop soundtrack…
“Disco was actually pretty dead by the time this came out – so we sort of missed the boat,” laughs Gray. “However, in the summer of 1979 we never anticipated that would happen and we all wanted to get the dancing scenes right. Jamie took it very seriously – she was a brilliant dancer, actually, and she had a big fight with Paul at one point because she was concerned he was not taking the choreography seriously enough. In the final film there is maybe more dancing than violence – although our big showdown effect was someone being decapitated at the prom. Again, Friday The 13th beat us to that [laughs]. Unfortunately, the actor who got decapitated had to put his head through a hole in the floor and he was epileptic. Being in a very enclosed space caused him to have a seizure and Paul had some medical training and rushed to help him. That was really scary. I actually cannot watch that scene when I revisit the movie because of the memories it brings back…”
A commercial success, and distributed by the independent genre house AVCO Embassy (who had also hit pay-dirt with The Howling and who would later distribute the likes of The Fog and Escape From New York), Prom Night would also lead to no fewer than three sequels and a 2008 remake.
Whilst the original motion picture might not have been quite as successful as Halloween or Friday The 13th it was nonetheless one of the few Eighties slasher knock-offs to inspire a series of its own…
“When AVCO Embassy saw it, they thought the identity of the killer was too obvious,” admits Gray. “I told them I did what I could and added as many red herrings as I thought were plausible. In the end, they saw how the critics destroyed Friday The 13th so they decided to just put it into the theatres during the summer and target the youth market. They thought that the Friday The 13th crowd would pay money to see this and they were generally correct. However, if you wanted to review Prom Night, you had to buy a ticket because there were no preview screenings. I know Roger Ebert did that and he called us ‘inept’ [laughs]. He said that the people who watched this stuff offended him. However, we made a lot of money with it – it was a very successful film considering its budget.”
Indeed, it was to little surprise when, in 2008, a glossy, big budget, PG-13 rated rehash hit theatres – to both critical and commercial derision. Featuring picture-perfect young performers and restrained violence, the movie flopped with both fans and critics. However, Gray had reason to be especially frustrated with the millennial redux of an old fear-favourite…
“We had the Writer’s Guild go after the Prom Night remake but they could not get a case in the end,” he sighs. “The producer of the 2008 film successfully argued that it was not actually based on our script because no one gets killed at the prom. They moved the action to a hotel, just after the prom [laughs]. I saw it and thought it was the same film – but I also think I Know What You Did Last Summer redid Prom Night. It is a very similar story. The good thing is that people looked at the Prom Night remake and hated it – but then they wanted to see what the original was like and now our movie actually has some pretty good notices. I never could have expected that back in 1980 [laughs]. It is strange how something that was once seen as the lowest form of entertainment eventually becomes regarded as a classic…”
The Prom Night collection is available on DVD from Network.