Thursday, September 4, 2008

Movie Review: Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987)

Hey Superfans!

Every once in a while a Fantasmo comes along, seemingly out of the blue, that is one of those “special” sorts of nights. Well, I’ve got a feeling this Friday is going to be one of those. Rob and I were digging deep to find some theme to be our prelude to Monster Fest, and so focused were we on that event that ideas were not forthcoming. I don’t remember which one of us pulled Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II out of the ether, but once the words were uttered everything sort of fell into place. We’ve never done prom horror before, and it just lends itself to creating a zany atmosphere in the humble surroundings of Theatre du Fantasmo. And the present back to school frenzy made it seem all the more perfect. This Friday you’ll get to relive those fond high school memories in the form of cheesy prom décor, sugary fruit punch, and yes even prom photos (plus a few surprises)! Oh yes, and two of the best prom horror films of all time, Prom Night II and Carrie (which incredibly was nominated for two Oscars . . . a Fantasmo first)! In honor of the film that served as our inspiration, I thought I’d do a quick review to give you an idea of what to expect from this 80’s horror gem.

To be perfectly honest, despite the fact that it was one of the early slashers and featured THE scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis I never really cared much for the original Prom Night. To me it was a little run of the mill in terms of the premise, and the execution somewhat boring. And outside of Forbidden Planet, Airplane!, and his delirious performance in Day of the Animals I’m not a big fan of Leslie Nielsen (sorry Naked Gun die hards). So when the sequel came out 7 years later in 1987 I wasn’t all that excited about it. The thing is it had a really cool poster, and I’m a sucker for cool posters! Now sometimes cool posters do not make for a great film (e.g. H. R. Giger’s poster for Future Kill . . . man what letdown), but in this case everything works out pretty nicely. I recently sat down to watch Prom Night II for the first time in 20 years (the last time was in my local mall cinema), and I was amazed at how well it has held up. It’s not a masterpiece of 80’s horror (e.g. The Funhouse), but it’s a really fun amalgam of several 80’s trends.

Something to realize before entering the world of Prom Night II is that it’s not a true sequel to the first film, rather it just adopts the name . . . sort of like Halloween III (minus the welcome presence of Tom Atkins and an evil Druid toymaker). The only thread tying the two films together is that they take place at presumably the same high school (sure would hate to be a student there). Again for me this is not really a problem as I thought the first one was pretty blah. This time around instead of a slasher formula we get something more in line with A Nightmare on Elm Street (which makes sense given that so many horror films post-1984 were influenced greatly by its dream logic). The film kicks off with a flashback sequence set in 1957 in which Prom Queen Mary Lou Maloney is accidentally set on fire by her jealous boyfriend Bill Nordham in the midst of her acceptance ceremony. After the grisly set piece is over we jump forward to 1987 at which time Nordham (Michael Ironside) is now the principal and the spirit of Mary Lou returns for revenge by possessing Prom Queen to be Vicki Carpenter. Through the course of the film Carpenter proceeds to dispatch her high school foes via some telekinetic carnage, culminating in the wildest prom this side of De Palma’s Carrie.

I’ll grant you that Prom Night II is just as derivative as its predecessor given that it borrows from Elm Street, Carrie, and even a dash of The Exorcist, but it is successful because the filmmakers have a blast with the concept. The film has great pacing (there’s never a dull moment) and it travels the familiar ground with energy. Truly just about every stock high school horror cliché is in play, but they are enjoyable due to the execution. From the fussy rival Prom Queen to the computer geek with a heart of gold, the characters are written to remind you of familiar archetypes, but in a way that allows you to still empathize with them. The young actors also do a fine job with the material, with standouts being Mary Lou (Lisa Schrage) and Wendy Lyon's Vicki, who goes from squeaky clean to gleefully diabolical without missing a beat. Also I must mention the always reliable (save for Highlander 2) Michael Ironside, who for once plays a good guy here and does so nicely. Kudos also to the casting folks who found a doppelganger for Ironside in his teenage flashback counterpart Steve Atkinson (if they had made a prequel to the original Scanners this guy would have been perfect).

There are also other areas in which Prom Night II acquits itself well. One important area it manages to excel in is that of effects. Sometimes low budgets can bring out amazingly creative work from effects teams, and that is certainly the case here. Prom Night II could have settled for straight gore effects like the first entry, but here we get evil rocking horses, Apple computers attacking their owners, and people sucked into chalkboards. And then there’s the big finale when Mary Lou literally sheds her new skin. You can tell it’s all fake, but it’s the good kind of fake where you can admire the ingenuity that went into accomplishing the effects with no money. In addition to the effects, I particularly enjoyed the soundtrack. I remember at the time of Prom Night II’s release that the publicity made a big deal about the music (I think they even listed titles on some versions of the poster), as this one features both 50’s classics and 80’s pop. Many times during the 80’s when this gimmick was employed the music turned out to be the best thing about the film, but fortunately for Prom Night II it works as an enhancement as it should. Consequently there’s a great nostalgia vibe for the 50’s generation, and now Generation X (i.e. me).

Prom Night II may not be an epic, but it is that rare example where the sequel outdoes its predecessor . . . it’s unfortunate that it doesn't receive much credit. Fun story, energetic performances, kitchen sink effects, and plentiful 80’s music – how could you go wrong? Our second feature Carrie may be the more cerebral film of our double-feature, but Prom Night II is definitely the little engine that could of prom horror. Give it a chance and we promise you won’t be disappointed. Oh, and if you’d like to come in full prom dress we strongly encourage it as your chances of being crowned the King/Queen of the Fantasmo Prom will be greatly increased! Of course when seeing how things worked out for Mary Lou, Vicky, and Carrie that may not be such a great thing : ) See you Friday at 8:00!

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