Color, 1980, 93m.
Directed by Paul Lynch
Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Leslie Nielsen, Casey Stevens, Eddie Benton, Antoinette Bower, Michael Tough, Mary Beth Rubens, Joy Thompson, Jeff Wincott
Synapse (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9) / DTS-HD 5.1, Anchor Bay, Echo Bridge (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)
One of the key entries in the slasher cycle of the early '80s, Prom Night was often lumped in at the time with American peers like Halloween and Friday the 13th. The presence of the former film's star, Jamie Lee Curtis, was a large factor in that as well, especially since she was rapidly becoming the subgenre's biggest superstar thanks to to follow-up roles in another 1980 film, Terror Train, with Halloween II waiting in the wings. Of course, it quickly became obvious that Prom Night (along with Terror Train) belonged more snugly in the lineage of Canadian horror films, an icier and stranger variation that had really hit its stride even earlier with Black Christmas in 1974. Thanks to savvy promotion, Prom Night turned out to be a major success and played a part in ushering more slashers from the Great White North to movie screens including Happy Birthday to Me and My Bloody Valentine.
The plot is textbook slasher material as we open with a childhood trauma, in this case five kids playing a creepy game called "killer" in an abandoned building. Another girl named Robin accidentally wanders into their activity and, terrified, ends up falling backwards from a second-story window onto a pane of broken glass, killing her instantly. The children vow a pact of silence to avoid blame, but of course, somebody else saw what they did. Flash forward six years and they're all students at Hamilton High, along with Robin's sister Kim (Curtis) and brother Alex (Tough). Prom night is rapidly approaching, and it also happens to be the anniversary of Robin's death. Soon sinister phone calls are turning up, the school principal (Nielsen) -- who also happens to be Kim's dad -- is warming up his disco moves, and there seems to be a hit list for the four culprits: Wendy (Benton), Kelly (Rubens), Nick (Stevens), and Jude (Thompson). Could the killer be the creepy school janitor (David Cronenberg regular Robert Silverman)? Or the escaped mental patient, Leonard Murch, who has the cops on their guard? Or maybe it's someone just a little bit closer to home?
Even the filmmakers make no secret of the fact that Prom Night was inspired by more than a few recent box office hits, with Carrie and Saturday Night Fever being the most obvious (apart from Halloween, of course). Fortunately it's so much fun you won't care as it ticks off each of the boxes on its way to a riotously insane dance floor climax that has since become the stuff of hack-and-slash legend. Curtis actually gives a strong, committed performance here, with a surprisingly potent moment near the end that proved her dramatic chops way before the mainstream took any notice. The top-billed Nielsen has a lot less to do, but he handles his material like a pro and a perfectly straight face. Those attributes served him well the same year in Airplane!, which opened two weeks before this film and featured a disco scene with a few shots remarkably close to the bordering-on-parody moments seen here.
Primarily thanks to its iconic poster art (which has been weirdly thrown aside for many of its home video releases), Prom Night also earned quite a bit of mystique at the time among viewers who were too young to see it in the theater; that was remedied when it showed up on network TV with a slew of extra scenes added back in, a fairly common practice at the time. (Weirdly, Halloween took it one step further by shooting new scenes for broadcast television.) This was mainly necessitated to keep the film over an hour and a half after the violence, (mild) nudity, and drug use had been removed, but it also indicated that something odd happened in the film's development along the way. Later clarification from the filmmakers proved this to be the case, as the film was originally intended to be a slow-burn thriller with nothing overtly menacing occurring for most of the opening 45 minutes. However, the distributors insisted the sensationalism be dialed up a bit so additional scenes with the cops looking for the escaped inmate (a ridiculous red herring if there ever was one) and the sinister phone calls were added in to make it clearer that this film was supposed to be scary. In turn, several scenes with Nielsen and some cute bits with Curtis at school hit the cutting room floor, only to turn up again on that aforementioned TV cut.
Despite the great potential for a special edition here, it took many years for Prom Night to get the treatment it deserved. The initial laserdisc from Elite Entertainment and DVD from Anchor Bay featured a watchable but drab-looking 4:3 transfer with mild letterboxing; still, it was better than the lousy VHS versions ranging from MCA/Universal to budget bin outfits like Starmaker. Then it fell into the hands of another budget company, Echo Bridge, whose single and multi-film DVD presentations were far more dispiriting and didn't bode well for the film's future. Fortunately the license was snapped up by Synapse, who gave the red carpet treatment to this and another undervalued Canadian slasher favorite in the Echo Bridge library, Curtains.
It shouldn't come as much surprise that the Synapse Blu-ray looks really spectacular and easily blows away any past version of the film, including the 35mm prints floating around. Colors look absolutely fantastic (especially the dance scenes, of course), the original grain structure still has that wonderful early '80s sheen, and the detail is miles ahead of anything we've seen before on home video. It's really a beauty from start to finish, and anyone who derided the film's cinematography in the past should found plenty of room for reappraisal here. The original mono track is presented here in two-channel DTS-HD, but if you really want to have fun, check out the disco-rific 5.1 DTS-HD mix, which is nicely handled and should have fans shaking their booties. A separate DVD version is also available, but considering the sheer joy of watching Prom Night in HD, why would you want to compromise? On top of that the Blu-ray tosses in a couple of extra exclusive goodies, but more on that in a second.
The biggest of the extras is the 41-minute "The Horrors of Hamilton High," a featurette with director Paul Lynch (who went on to do Humongous), prosthetics creator Warren Keillor (who shows off a pivotal fake head), composer Paul Zaza (who mentions some popular hits closely aped by the soundtrack and offers a hilarious anecdote about music rights), and cheerful actors Tough, Rubens, Thompson, and Wincott, with a few great stories and even some other surprise props along the way. There's also an audio commentary with Lynch and screenwriter William Gray, who go into more depth about the casting process and discuss the distributor-imposed evolution of the story along the way. Then you get the great theatrical trailer, over three minutes of TV spots, one minute of radio spots, and only on the Blu-ray, a six-minute stills gallery of international lobby cards, posters, and promotional photos. Thankfully the deleted material added back for the network TV broadcast is also here, clocking in at 11 minutes with a foreward by the editor of that version, Michael MacLaverty. This footage is also newly transferred and looks great, too. Finally, a second exclusive to the Blu-ray is a whopping 23 minutes of outtakes from the production including some pretty gruesome extended looks at the opening window death, a lot of disco dancing, and much longer takes of the bloody body discovery near the end and that scene on the dance floor. If you want to see the "dead" bodies in the movie breaking character, look no further! Needless to say, it's a must own for any '80s horror fan.