• Gabe Powers

Prom Night Blu-ray Review (originally published 2014)

Four Hamilton High seniors are hiding a terrible secret. What happened to Robin Hammond six years ago was a game that turned into a horrible tragedy and someone saw what they did… someone waiting for gruesome revenge! Wearing a black hood and wielding an axe, a killer brutally slaughters the teenagers one by one at their high school prom. As the spotlight falls on the newly crowned prom king and queen, the psychopath will show everyone his new favorite game to play… (From Synapse Film’s official synopsis)



Whether our neighbors to the north would like to admit it or not, Canada played a key role in the proliferation of the slasher genre. Marking the genre’s official starting point is difficult, considering the sometimes vague guidelines that define it, but some fans consider Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) as the first film in the cycle. Following the surprise popularity of American-made prototypes, namely John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), Canadian filmmakers happily stepped up to the plate to create a litany of ‘80s era classics, including George Mihalka’s My Bloody Valentine and J. Lee Thompson’s Happy Birthday to Me (both 1981). Though not the best of its kind, Paul Lynch’s Prom Night (which was actually almost released by Paramount instead of Friday the 13th) remains the most enduring and beloved Canadian slasher from the era.


When Prom Night was made, Friday the 13th wasn’t yet a hit and thus not a film worth mimicking. Because the slasher field hadn’t quite found its standard blueprint, Lynch and screenwriters William Gray (The Changeling, 1980) & Robert Guza Jr. (co-head writer on General Hospital) gathered inspiration from other formulas left over from the fading ‘70s. Halloween is the main ingredient, but Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) and John Badham’s non-horror Saturday Night Fever (1977) are also key components, especially in the construction of the climatic prom sequence (David Mucci is one of the funnier John Travolta stand-ins I’ve ever seen). By not aping Friday the 13th’s ‘kill a teenager every 15 minutes’ structure, Prom Night is free to explore characters and build a proper story – albeit with a slightly dumb soap opera twist (per Guza Jr.’s General Hospital tenure, probably). This unfortunately means that, while perhaps a better movie, Prom Night is a pretty anemic slasher. Minus elaborate murder set-pieces and sleazy T&A, it tends to flounder. Still, viewers who are prepared to wait for their stalk & kill revenge tale to take hold could do much worse, considering the competent storytelling and good performances.


Director Paul Lynch plugged along making B-movies throughout the ‘80s, ‘90s, and even the early ‘00s, including other horror movies (Humongous, 1982), a gymnastic-themed melodrama (Flying, 1986), a street crime-themed adaptation of Romeo and Juliet (Bullies, 1986), and a pair of popular Shannon Tweed action movies (No Contest and No Contest II: Face of Evil; 1995 and 1997). Prom Night is inventive enough to afford him some chances to show off as a director. The dialogue-driven sequences look like old Sears ads, thanks to excess soft focus, but Lynch keeps the camera moving and takes some chances with montage editing techniques. This is best exemplified in the first act, during dreamy, exposition-laden flashbacks and scenes of the killer prank calling victims (the phone motif was possibly borrowed from Dario Argento movies and later adopted by Kevin Williamson when he wrote Scream, 1996). The disco saturated dance sequences often feel like bargain basement impressions of their Saturday Night Fever counterparts, but the dizzying enthusiasm actually works as a bridge between droning high school politics and voyeuristic murder scenes.


Prom Night’s popularity is tied to the then-rising star of a very young Jamie Lee Curtis, who had just made her feature debut in Halloween. Unable to extend her popularity beyond horror at the time, Curtis made one more non-slasher John Carpenter movie (The Fog, 1980) before signing on to make a pair of Canadian releases that would ape Carpenter’s formula – Prom Night and Roger Spottiswoode’s Terror Train (1989). Terror Train is the better thriller and a more impressively constructed movie overall, but Curtis’ presence isn’t exactly indelible, nor is her performance a stand-out. Prom Night is definitely the better Jamie Lee Curtis movie and Kim Hammond is the better Jamie Lee Curtis role. In fact, it’s arguable that Kim better defines Curtis’ “scream queen” persona than Laurie Strode, since she never played another shrinking violet outside of Halloween and its sequel (noting that she does step up and get the better of Michael Myers in both films).



Video

Prom Night was readily available on VHS for decades, but has had a somewhat spotty life on DVD, especially in the US. First, Anchor Bay Entertainment released a non-anamorphic version that went out of print. Then, the film ended up in some kind of rights limbo that landed it on a couple of budget releases from Echo Bridge Entertainment and Platinum Disc Corporation. The Echo Bridge version (released in several different collections) was anamorphically enhanced, but was sourced from a PAL transfer (probably without permission) and suffered the usual PAL to NTSC frame rate issues and audio speed-up. The Platinum Disc version included an open-matte, 1.33:1 version that was likely sourced from a VHS release. Obviously, fans had limited choices. Synapse Film’s Blu-ray is not only the first HD version of the film, but it (and the DVD version that will accompany it into stores) represents the first correct aspect ratio and frame-rate on American home video (as far as I know).


Synapse has remastered and restored Prom Night from a 2K scan of an original 35mm camera negative and the results match the fantastic expectation the studio has set for itself. Lynch and cinematographer Robert C. New don’t make the upgrade to HD easy, either. Like many films of its era (DePalma’s Carrie, in particular), Prom Night is shot using a lot of over-amped and diffused light and soft focus. This, of course, leads to a lot of grain, pillowed details, and big, blooming edges that wreak havoc with the overall clarity. The people at Synapse do a great job cleaning up the image without losing essential grain texture of the purposefully foggy look intended by the filmmakers (DVD versions appeared downright blurry during the foggiest sequences and wiggled with Bayer effects). At times, the grain structure is cakey and discoloration occurs, but not at the risk of basic dynamic range and the finest patterns. The colors are vastly more vivid than their SD counterparts while still appearing natural. Some of the outdoor sequences seem a little cool and some of the skin tones lean orange during darker shots, but the slightly hyperactive hues fit the film’s disco-chic style and are presented without any notable banding or muddy edges.



Audio

Following their release of Curtains, Synapse has once again taken the effort to remix an original mono track into a home theater friendly 5.1. The remix is, once again, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio. For authenticity’s sake, the original mono track has also been included and is presented in uncompressed, DTS-HD MA, 2.0 sound as well (both tracks are also 96khz). I flipped between the two tracks to compare the audio field and, while I was impressed by some of the subtle differences in the new mix’s aural depth (the ambient noises occasionally bleed out into the stereo channels), I didn’t notice too many differences in effects or dialogue. A subtle revamp seems the best choice, though, since it maintains the filmmaker’s original intent. The wider sound field is mostly used in support of the film’s music, provided by Paul Zaza (Black Christmas) and Carl Zittrer, who co-wrote the score and the bouncing disco anthems that fill out the prom sequences. Again, the enhancements are subtle, mostly pertaining to the stereo separation already mixed into the music for soundtrack release (I assume there was one, especially since there’s a title song) and a light rear channel echo.



Extras

  • Commentary with director Paul Lynch and screenwriter William Gray, moderated by writer Pat Jankiewicz – Between Lynch’s speedy delivery and enthusiasm, Gray’s attempts to recall the experience, and Jankiewicz’ ability to aim discussion, this is a very lively, full-bodied track. The focus is sometimes scattershot, but there’s a lot of information to absorb and surprisingly little of it is repeated in the retrospective featurette.

  • The Horrors of Hamilton High: The Making of Prom Night (41:00, HD) – A new behind-the-scenes featurette that traces the production from its origins to completion. It includes B-roll footage and brand new interviews with the cast & crew that cover early inspirations, casting Jamie Lee Curtis (who wasn’t the initial choice), production design, gore effects, music, and the film’s cult status.

  • Additional scenes from the television broadcast with editor introduction (11:10, HD)

  • Never-before-seen outtakes from the original shoot (23:20, HD) – This raw, uncut leader footage is presented without set sound (the film’s music takes its place) and is exclusive to the Blu-ray release.

  • Motion still gallery (6:20, HD)

  • Theatrical trailer, television spots, and radio spots



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