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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Prom Night

Anyone who’s already lived through their high school prom can speak from experience (if the memories haven’t been emotionally repressed) and tell their own tales of woe about what this monumental event evokes in them. Whether broken hearts, broken hymens, broken noses, or broken laws, at least half of all attendees are guaranteed a miserable time at this rite of passage from high school to young adulthood. Cars are inevitably wrapped around trees, partygoers are busted for underage drinking, and, whether on purpose or not, individual parents’ blood pressure is tested to see if their numbers can come anywhere close to their offspring’s SAT scores.

This why I’m convinced that the only reason anyone would make a movie called
Prom Night would be as a warning to the generation that hasn’t had theirs yet. And, moviemakers being moviemakers, they know that today’s generation, brought up on “The Hills” and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians”, illicit sex, drugs, and an occasional car accident are only considered ‘teases’ before something really exciting happens when adulthood kicks in. These kids grew up watching Carrie get a bloodbath at her prom on tv reruns. To them, a bucketful of blood on the head of a faux prom queen is practically retro~chic. If anyone is going to make this generation’s Prom Night memorable, then there damned well better be at least one psycho-killer stalking the dating couples, otherwise the whole thing would be a complete yawn. Sure, death at every turn may seem déclassé to a Hilton sister or a Manson babe, but for the rest of us blood must be more than just a promise. In a cinematic Prom Night like this, it’s a requirement for everybody but the princess at the center of the story (and maybe, just maybe, one or two of her BFFs) to end up sliced and diced like an amateur night at Benihana’s.

At this point it doesn’t matter that there was a similarly blood-drenched Prom Night released bac
k in 1980 starring Jamie Lee Curtis, riding high as Hollywood’s newly-crowned “scream queen” following her then recent hits Halloween and The Fog. Okay, so I know that nobody going to see this Prom Night was even born back in what they consider the last Ice Age before the dinosaurs arrived, but I remember it, and it wasn’t half bad. Nowadays, if you ask anyone under 25 who Jamie Lee is they’ll tell you she’s “that old chick on tv who’s always talking about yogurt with ‘biffidus rectal-hairs-sus’ in it.” Sigh.

Okay, okay, so this
Prom Night isn’t so much a remake as a re-imagining of the original, which is to say that writer J.S. Cardone (The Covenant) poached the title and the general idea, but then pretty much created an entirely new back-story and a new set of victims. In the Jamie Lee version, for example, her character, and the other main victims-to-be, were being stalked in revenge for a crime the killer believed they were responsible for as children. In this update, Brittany Snow (Hairspray) plays Donna Keppel, an unhappy orphan (well, who wouldn’t be, under the circumstances) thanks to her obsessed teacher, Mr. Fenton (Johnathon Schaech; Living Hell), who killed her parents and little brother while looking for Donna in her home. Apparently when she said she’d love to work on an extra credit project, she didn’t realize just how seriously he was going to take this.

Cut to three years later, and Donna is still at the same high school and Fenton is locked up 2500
miles away in a maximum security mental institution. Now Donna is living with her Aunt Karen (Jessalyn Gilsig; tv’s “Nip/Tuck”) and Uncle Jack (Linden Ashby; Resident Evil: Extinction) and other than popping pills with the finesse of a Courtney Love, you’d never guess she was anything but a happy senior planning for her graduation. She’s got the condoms ready for the hotel the night of prom and along with her girlfriends Claire (Jessica Stroup; The Hills Have Eyes II) and Lisa (Dana Davis; tv’s “Heroes”) aka shrimps to be thrown on the barbie at this little bloodlust luau, they are ready to be spread like warm butter on toast the night of the big dance. What they don’t know, natch, is that Dick Fenton has managed to escape from the hospital and nobody’s contacted the local police for days, thus giving the lecherous lecturer plenty of time to get back to his old stomping grounds and find the object of his desire, Donna.

The girls’ dates, Bobby (Scott Porter; tv’s “Friday Night Lights”), Michael (Kelly Blatz; Simon Says), and Ronnie (Collins Pennie; Half Nelson) are charming, smarmy, and ultimately disposable, which is exactly what their roles amount to, as in any formulaic slasher film the only one who really matters is the focal beauty versus the beast, and that is where
Prom Night eventually leads.

Ensuring a gentle PG-13 rating, director Nelson McCormick (tv’s “Nip/Tuck” and “ER”) spills less blood than in his television operating rooms. How anybody can manage so many murders so bloodlessly is miraculous in and of itself, but why anyone would want to ease up on the gore in order to make a tamer version of a horror movie so that kids could see it is beyond me. What McCormick does is end up creating a weaker and less impressive product. I’m not advocating for shoveling blood and guts at the camera, but horror movies are a last bastion of adult entertainment (other than porn) that ought to remain true to their very nature. Turning them into kiddie fodder does a disservice not just to the movies but also to the people who watch them. The “purists” from way-back expect legitimate tension, fear, and a sense of revulsion at what the killer has done. The original Friday the 13th is a perfect example of this, but Prom Night’s biggest tension comes in finding out what the girls are actually going to be wearing to the dance (squeal, jump up and down) or who is actually going to be named King and Queen (“Oh My God!” Squeal some more. Tears, some happy, some not). This movie has taken the time which would usually be spent stretched in heart-thumping moments of genuine anxiety before a kill and replaced it with way-too-much padding about preparing for the prom itself. It turns into ‘tween girl pornography, the stuff of 13 year old girls’ dreams, and this is not the audience that usually goes to see horror movies, and shouldn’t anyway.

The most “horror-ible” thing about
Prom Night is seeing how grungy Johnathon Schaech has become. Once the beautiful young man who starred in That Thing You Do! it is a terrible let down to see how his career (and looks) have taken such a downward spiral. I’m not sure he’s particularly threatening as the villain here, but being cast in Prom Night definitely makes him a victim. Watching it is the only thing worse.

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