The Movie Masochist

Deranged killers for all occasions

by James Franklin

McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

18 April 2008


Rated PG-13 for profanity, violence and heralding a new crop of crummy slasher movies. 2 stars: Horrible

Things may come and go, but some, like bell bottoms and herpes, just keep coming back. Such is the case with the horror movie “Prom Night,” a disturbing sign that cruddy slasher movies have returned in the form of remakes.

The 1970s saw several horror film trends, and for a while the dangerous animal movie was the most prominent. This sub-genre had frogs, alligators, bears, rats, bugs, spiders, ants, worms and even rabbits turning faded actors such as Ray Milland and Ralph Meeker into lunchmeat. These productions were strictly B-grade - sometimes Z-grade - and often turned up on drive-in double bills before slipping quietly to TV.

That changed with 1978’s “Halloween,” a well-made, low-budget film that scored big profits and paved the way for a decade’s worth of blood-soaked rip-offs. Dangerous animals were replaced by crazies wielding sharp objects, usually at teenagers. Hack producers somehow got the idea that holidays and special occasions were part of the “Halloween” success formula. Before long many notable dates on the calendar got their own slasher movies.

This trend brought us “Friday the 13th” as well as “Mother’s Day” (1980), “Christmas Evil” (1980), “New Year’s Evil” (1980), “Happy Birthday to Me” (1980), “My Bloody Valentine” (1981), “Graduation Day” (1981), “Sweet Sixteen” (1983), “Silent Night, Deadly Night” (1985) and “April Fool’s Day” (1986), not to mention all the sequels. And, of course, the original “Prom Night” (1980).

The first “Prom Night” starred Jamie Lee Curtis, who appeared so frequently in horror films that for a time she was known as the “Scream Queen.” Curtis played a wholesome high-school girl terrorized on her prom night by a knife-wielding maniac from her past. The story is firmly in the slasher film template: a maniac kills the main character’s friends, often just before or after they’ve had sex, until finally confronting her. After a protracted showdown that includes lots of screaming and running, she turns the tables and kills him. Roll credits.

In the new “Prom Night,” a high school student named Donna Keppel (Brittany Snow) witnesses the murder of her mother by an ex-teacher named Fenton (Johnathon Schaech) who’s obsessed with her. Fenton also killed the rest of her family, leaving their bodies strewn around the house like dirty laundry. He’s a sweaty nut who sports a scraggly Charles Manson haircut and beard so that no one mistakenly thinks he’s sane.

Donna runs outside to safety. Fenton is caught and thrown in the slammer. Cut to three years later. Donna, somewhat recovered, is getting ready to attend her senior prom. As she climbs into a limo with her boyfriend and girl pals, all of whom look about 30, she’s unaware that crazy Fenton has escaped from prison and is bent on ruining all the fun.

Fenton, going incognito with a clean-shaven face and a baseball cap, arrives at the hotel where the senior prom is held. He’s sly, this killer - he’ll resort to good grooming in order to blend in. At the prom downstairs the unsuspecting Donna and her friends babble ad nauseam about how their lives are going to change forever. In a better movie this might pass for irony.

Donna’s friends drift up to their hotel suite so they can start getting killed off one by one. Mercifully, because the movie is rated PG-13, they don’t have sex beforehand - they just talk about it. In today’s slasher movie that’s enough to get you killed.

A detective (Idris Elba) with a perpetually knotted brow has heard of Fenton’s escape. He and a bunch of cops search the hotel. Fenton catches up with Donna and is killed by police. In the original film, Jamie Lee Curtis’s character gets to kill the bad guy herself which, in a perverse way, suggests some sort of empowerment. In the remake Donna must wait for police to blow away the villain. So much for progress.

Maybe progress is too much to hope for. “Halloween” has already been remade, and a revamping of the first “Friday the 13th” film is planned. The new “Prom Night” beat the box-office competition on its opening weekend, so it’s time to accept the grim reality that more slasher remakes are coming. And like Michael Myers, the masked killer in “Halloween,” or the seemingly indestructible Jason Voorhees of “Friday the 13th,” nothing seems to kill them - for long, at least.

The rating system:
1 star: Lousy
2 stars: Horrible
3 stars: Painful
4 stars: Traumatic

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