In this special episode of “Night Terrors”, I picked two 1980 titles that were produced/distributed by Avco Embassy; an independent studio that had a hand in several genre titles in the turn of the 70’s/80’s. I won’t go into the entire history of the studio here, as we will delve further into that matter in an upcoming podcast. Instead, I picked two titles of the Avco-catalogue; one of them is Avco at it’s best, while the other is what could be considered….flawed, but entertaining nevertheless. Funnily enough, both titles also star Jamie Lee Curtis. Coincidence – or not…?
PROM NIGHT (1980)
Directed by: Paul Lynch
Written by: William Gray and Robert Guza jr.
“Prom Night”‘s life began, funnily enough, a bit similarly as “Halloween” did. Canadian Director Paul Lynch had a meeting with producer legend Irwin Yablans(producer of “Halloween” and many other famous horror films), as he was trying to develop a horror film. Yablans suggested utilizing a holiday as the films basis – that Yablans did love his special holidays, didn’t he? – and armed with this idea, Lynch decided on a Prom night. This writer is not entirely accustomed to American traditions, but I don’t think Prom night is exactly an official holiday marked on a calendar, is it? (correct me if I’m wrong) Anyways – a friend of Lynch’s, Rober Guza jr., had at the same time been writing a thriller script about a group of teenagers whose involvement in a tragic event as children came back to haunt them(a trope in the making, for sure). The two agreed to work on the project together, and the Prom night-aspect was incorporated in the story. Approaching producer Peter Simpson with the idea, Lynch and Simpson signed a deal to make the picture within a few days. Securing financing was a bit of a rocky road at first, but after Jamie Lee Curtis – the scream queen in the rise – was signed, the picture was ready to go. Filming took place in Toronto for 24 days.
“Prom Night” begins in 1974, as a group of children are playing hide and seek in an abandoned building. Of course in their version, the seeker is in fact “The Killer”, who is hunting for victims. There’s something seriously wrong with these kids, I’ll tell ‘ya. As the kids continue their game, three other children – a brother and two sisters – are walking past the building. We are told that these three are teacher’s children who are very much rejected by the others. Nevertheless, Robin – a bit bolder than the other two, decides to join in as her brother and sister continue their way home. But inside the building, she is surrounded by the four in the top floor and they begin taunting her, chanting “Kill! Kill! Kill!“(it’s very reminiscent of the “Boogieman’s gonna get you!” from “Halloween”, but it’s not the only recycled element in this movie – I’ll talk about those later on). As she’s backing away, she accidentally falls through a window, onto a pane of glass and dies. The four make a pact not to ever talk about this and escape. Cut to “SIX YEARS LATER“; Robin’s sister Kim(Jamie Lee Curtis) and her brother Alex(Michael Tough) are preparing for the prom, while also dealing with their sisters memorial on the 6th anniversary of her death. We also learn, that a local sex offender was actually fingered as a suspect for the death, and was horribly burned when his car crashed while escaping from the police. He has escaped from the burn ward of the prison hospital. The four, really responsible for the crime; Nick, Jude, Kelly and Wendy, all receive strange phone calls from an unseen person, who is also seen taring their prom pictures off the yearbook. Later on the day, a mirror on the girl’s locker room is broken, and some threatening messages are put in Jude & Kelly’s lockers. As the big night arrives, Wendy has orchestrated a plan with the school bully Lou to embarrass Kim – the principal’s daughter and prom queen – as a last, desperate “F.U.” before school’s out. At the same time a masked killer armed with an axe, begins to go through original foursome like the Angel of Death.
You know, “Prom Night” is one of those slashers that could be called “greatest hits”, as there is not much here in the terms of originality. I mentioned one thing earlier, but let’s go through the entire checklist of the “something borrowed”-tropes/plot elements here:
– The Deadly Prank; Robin gets killed because the four kids are evil assholes
– The Dark Secret; the four make a pact, in essence sealing their own fate
– The scapegoat; the known sex offender living nearby
– The anniversary of death; which VERY conveniently happens to also be the Prom night
– The escaped killer; VERY reminiscent of Michael Myers escaping exactly on the EXACT DATE
– The Red Herring; in this case a creepy janitor at the High School called Mr.Sykes(Canadian actor Robert Silverman, a regular in David Cronenberg’s films)
– The public embarrasment; ipso facto from “Carrie” – the school bully could’ve basically been played by John Travolta. And speaking of that:
– Saturday Night Fever; as that movie had just come out just a few years before, the whole prom is basically like a reproduction of a club from that movie – and the entire ending is scored by basically a Disco soundtrack
– Sex equals death; yes – two of the victims are killed either after having sex or after almost having it.
– The Final Twist; OF COURSE the killer is not that poor sod who escaped the hospital!
Sooooo……pretty much a collection of cliches and recycled plot elements, right? Well, there ARE some good bits here too. Lynch actually shows very efficient craftmanship, especially with the horror aspects of the story. There is an atmosphere of genuine menace, whenever we see the killers’ side of the events, and the few killing sequences that are actually seen on screen, are done very efficiently. Which seems to be the case in ALL of these Canadian slasher films like this, “Black Christmas”, “My Bloody Valentine” and others. What is it about those bloodthirsty Canadian directors, lol? Jamie Lee Curtis was a pro in the world of horror films at this point, after doing “Halloween” and “The Fog” already at this point, and gearing up for “Terror Train”, “Roadgames” and “Halloween 2” in the following year. She does her best with the part, which is nothing really demanding or even terribly original. It’s pretty much Laurie Strode from “Halloween” again, only this time she’s a bit more active at the end – even engaging the masked killer with an AXE(kinda echoing “Halloween H20” there…). Special mention has to go to Leslie Nielsen, playing her father the Principal. It’s odd nowadays to see Nielsen in a serious role. But he WAS a serious actor until this very same year that “Prom Night” came out, as the Zucker brothers film “Airplane!” premiered during the same summer. Might’ve been quite a surprise for those people who saw both films. There is one humorous moment though, as Nielsen tries to pull off some disco moves while dancing with Curtis. Anne-Marie Martin(credited in this film as “Eddie Benton”), best remembered at least to me as Dori Doreau in the TV-comedy series “Sledge Hammer!”, is also very good as the snobby “queen bitch” Wendy. She seriously gives Nancy Allen a run for her money as the “uber bitch” of horror movies.
The biggest gripe I have with this film is not the patchwork plot with all the usual tropes and borrowed element though. Lynch does a good effort in making the film work in spite of those. No – my biggest gripe is the GOD DAMN continuous Disco soundtrack, that plays as an underscore for basically the entire third act. It gets annoying, and it also seriously dates the movie. I guess one has to aknowledge the effort of the filmmakers and composer Paul Zaza, that they actually didn’t license songs from other artists, but instead wrote their own ones. But seriously – no one could probably spot the difference anyways. I just don’t feel that Disco music and horror work together. I any way or form.Give me a Pino Donaggio or John Carpenter-style score, please. The disco is a definite suspense-killer. And my last word on that is that it works as a source of amusement – or curiosity – for the first viewing. But on a repeat viewing, it is just plain annoying.
(A little fun piece of trivia: the Finnish video release was cut by 14 min. 48 sec. in 1983 and still got K18(the highest) rating. Not because of the disco songs, though)
THE FOG (1980)
Directed by: John Carpenter
Written by: John Carpenter and Debra Hill
So – in the late 1970’s John Carpenter was a few year off “Halloween”; the slasher classic that became the highest.grossing independent film of all time – until “Blair Witch Project” – and pretty much cemented him as the genre’s biggest filmmaking stars. He had done a few projects for television: “Someone’s Watching Me!” – a voyeristic thriller starring Lauren Hutton and “Elvis” – a biographical film starring Kurt Russell(in the first of many collaborations with Carpenter), but was looking for ideas to make another major genre feature – something outside the slasher-genre. The first inspiration came during an “Assault on Precint 13” promotional tour in England. Carpenter and his co-producer/co-writer/life partner at the time Debra Hill visited Stonehenge on a free day and saw an eerie fog in the distance. The idea of “what if there was something IN the fog?” came up. Another inspiration was a 1958 British film called “The Trollenberg Terror”, which deals with monster hiding inside clouds. Further elements were gathered from real incidents of shipwrecks that occurred in the coasts of North America. Carpenter secured a deal(actually a two-picture deal, the latter being “Escape From New York”) with Avco Embassy, and with a $1 000.000 budget, the production began in the spring of 1979, filming in studios and various coastal locations in California.
“The Fog” opens in Antonio Bay – a fictional coastal California town – which is about to celebrate it’s centennial anniversary on April 21st, 1980. As an old captain, Mr.Machen, is telling a campfire tale to young children about a shipwreck called “Elizabeth Dane” which crashed into the rocks near town and that the crew is still believed to haunt the seas, the clock strikes midnight. All of a sudden, as we cut into the sleeping town, all hell breaks loose as various objects begin to move by themselves, machines turn themselves on, and all the payphones(remember those?) start ringing all at once. In the local church, a hidden chamber crashes open and father Malone(Hal Holbrook) finds an old journal written by his grandfather – a century ago. Meanwhile a trawler at sea sails inside a glowing, almost impenetrable mass of fog that appears almost from out of nowhere. The fishermen see the “Elizabeth Dane” sailing in it, and they are murdered by unseen assailants. A town resident Nick Castle(Tom Atkins) is driving with a hitchhiker he picked up, Elizabeth(Jamie Lee Curtis) as all the car windows suddenly explode, almost making them drive off the road. The next morning, radio DJ Stevie Wayne’s(Adrienne Barbeau) son finds a piece of an old wooden ship from the beach(with the word “Dane” carved in it, guess where it’s from?). Stevie takes this to her radio station – operating in a lighthouse – where it suddenly makes all the equipment go crazy and an ominous message coming out of the speakers and the words “Six Must Die” momentarily appearing in the place of the “Dane”-carving. Nick – who’s some sort of a harbor master – goes out to sea to find the missing trawler with Elizabeth; they find it, with only the body of one crewman present. Later, in the morgue, the crewman’s corpse suddenly reanimates and almost attacks Elizabeth. In the church, Kathy Williams(Janet Leigh), who is the organizer of the centennial celebration, visits Father Malone. Malone reveals the content of his grandfathers diary; basically the six founders of the town(including Malone’s grandfather) deliberately caused the “Elizabeth Dane”‘s crash into the cliffs so they could plunder the wreck from it’s gold and founded the town with it. So the celebration is in fact a travesty. At night, the fog rolls into town and the ghosts of the crew of Elizabeth Dane”, led by Captain Blake, begin to deliver justice on the townsfolk…
There is a lot I’ve said about “The Fog” before on out John Carpenter-podcast, so I’ll keep this short. It’s my favorite film of his. It’s not as nail-biting or relentlessly paced as “Halloween”, for sure, but what it is it’s an elegant, atmospheric and for the lack of a better word; classically filmed ghost story. And it almost wasn’t. Here, one must give immense credit to Carpenter and Hill. And also to Avco Embassy for backing them up. As the story goes, Carpenter finished his first cut of the film with a rough version of the music already in place, and his first reaction was: “It was terrible. I had a movie that didn’t work, and I knew it in my heart“. So, after a momentary panic attack, he and Hill made notes of everything that was not working, everything that had to be changed and what needed to be added, and the studio gave them the go-ahead to do whatever they could to fix the film. So in a few weeks they filmed new scenes(like the opening ghost story epilogue and the reanimated corpse in the hospital morgue), re-shot some earlier ones, did a complete re-edit of the movie with approximately a third of new footage. And Carpenter also composed an entirely new music score. NOW they had a picture that worked. Just as a curious fan, I do sometimes wish that that original cut would surface. Just as a curiosity.
There’s a helluva cast in “The Fog”, too; Adrienne Barbeau, Janet Leigh, Hal Holbrook, Tom Atkins, Jamie Lee Curtis(along with a few other “Halloween”-alumni as Nancy Loomis and Charles Cyphers) all do damn solid work here. Barbeau was of course Carpenter’s wife at the time, but she is also a helluva good actress and she really has the perfect voice for a night-time radio show host. Tom Atkins, in his first of several appearances in Carpenter productions(the other ones would be in “Escape From New York” and “Halloween III: Season of the Witch”) must have had a helluva time in the films, basically playing the “hunk” as here he beds Jamie Lee Curtis(it’s strange, the responses to some exploding car windows) and in “Halloween III”, Stacey Nelkin. The man’s living the life, lol. Of course this was the first time Curtis was in a film together with her mother, Janet Leigh(although they do not share a scene here – that would have to wait until “Halloween H20”). Leigh is the first of SEVERAL Hitchcock-connections to the film; the other would be the odd mirroring of Curtis’ character – quaintly named Elizabeth – arriving to town just as all the hell breaks loose: in many ways like in “The Birds” when Tippi Hedren arrives to town just as the birds begin to act all crazy. And that was a coastal town as well. And of course there is Carpenter’s Hitchcockian cameo as Father Malone’s aid(which Carpenter calls “the worst acting in the film”). Hal Holbrook does pretty damn solid work as the alcoholic priest.
Technically the film is top-notch, with several of Carpenter’s key position/or future-collaborators in place; Dean Cundey as cinematographer, Tommy Lee Wallace as editor, Rob Bottin as make-up effects man and also playing the ghastly Blake. The film looks damn good. Cundey’s trademark blue shades work exceedingly well with the shadowy fog scenes. Almost all the fog effects on location were done with smoke machines – often filmed in reverse so the fog would move in an impossible manner – a few optical effects had to be done for wider shots of the fog moving over the sea. And honestly: almost no one can compose the Panavision anamorphic 2.35:1 frame in the way that Carpenter at his finest did. The makeup on the rotting corpses of the Dane crew are used sparingly, mostly shot in silhouettes – probably due to budget limitations. One very memorable Bottin effect is a ghost(ghoul?) labeled “worm-face”, glimpsed in a few shots as he terrorizes Stevie on the roof of the lighthouse. Spooky stuff. Haunted me forever. And of course there is the music composed by Carpenter himself, as usual – moody, minimalistic but yet effective, haunting….
I may sound like a broken record, but I urge anyone who hasn’t seen this film to check it out. Avoid the godawful 2005 remake at all costs.