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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)

 Prom Night
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 many fans mark Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) as the first ‘official’ film in the cycle. Following the surprise popularity of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980) American-made prototypes, Canadian filmmakers became happy progenitors of the genre and created a litany of ‘80s era classics, like 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) is likely the most enduring of the series.

When Prom Night was made, Friday the 13th wasn’t yet a film worth mimicking. Because the slasher field hadn’t quite found its standard blueprint, Lynch and screenwriters William Gray ( The Changeling) & Robert Guza Jr. (co-head writer on General Hospital) gather inspirations from a number of other formulas 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’s filmmakers are free to explore characters and build a proper story – albeit with a slightly insipid soap opera twist (as per Guza Jr.’s General Hospital tenure). The unfortunate side effect is that Prom Night is a distinctly anemic slasher and without the elaborate murder set-pieces and sleazy T&A most slashers tend to flounder. Viewers prepared to wait for their stalk and kill revenge tale could do much worse than this as far as competent storytelling and naturalistic performances are concerned, but it still feels like an awfully slow lead-up to an underwhelming climax (aside from the show-stopping beheading, most of the gore is left to our imaginations).

 Prom Night
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 affords him some chances to show off. The dialogue-driven sequences look a bit like ads for Sears clothing, thanks to an excess of soft focus, but Lynch keeps the camera moving and takes some chances with montage editing techniques, specifically during the first act. Here, the killer prank calls his/her (no spoilers) victims and the older characters recall expositional material via dreamy flashbacks (the phone motif was likely borrowed from Dario Argento movies and later adopted by Kevin Williamson when he wrote Scream). 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 the voyeuristic murder scenes. Lynch doesn’t embrace gore, but he shoots an effective chase sequence – a skill that obviously led him to a more comfortable place as a B-action director.

Prom Night’s popularity is easily 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) before signing on to make a pair of Canadian releases that would ape Carpenter’s formula – Prom Night and Roger Spottiswoode’s Terror Train. 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.

 Prom Night

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 available, 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 discolouration occurs, but not at the risk of basic dynamic range and the finest patterns. The colours 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.

 Prom Night

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.

 Prom Night

Extras


  • Audio 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


 Prom Night

Overall


Prom Night doesn’t really work for me, but is still an admirable and well-made early entry in the short-lived Canadian slasher cycle. More important than my opinion is my assurance to fans that Synapse has done a bang-up job with the film. This disc is, essentially, the final word on the subject. The picture restoration is head and shoulders above a number of faulty and ugly DVD versions, the remixed sound is subtle and clear (and not a necessity, because the original mono is included), and the extras are quite extensive, include a solid commentary, an entertaining retrospective featurette, extra scenes, and Blu-ray exclusive outtakes.

 Prom Night

 Prom Night
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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