Prom Night (2008) Revisited – Horror Movie Review

Prom Night (2008) Revisited – Horror Movie Review

It’s prom night 2008 and Donna Keppel is planning to wear a champagne-colored dress. Corseted, with pink and gold beads. Unfortunately, it might also get splattered with blood and tears, because the teacher who’s obsessed with her has broken out of the mental hospital, tracked her down to the prom venue, and is ready to make sure she’ll be his forever. Even if that means having to slaughter her friends first. That’s the story of the 2008 version of Prom Night (watch it HERE) – and if you haven’t seen this one, it might be the Best Horror Movie You Never Saw.

The Prom Night franchise began with the release of a 1980 slasher movie which starred scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis as a young woman who has to deal with a ski mask-wearing maniac crashing her prom. People are stabbed and hacked, knocked off a cliff, decapitated, throats are slit, and there’s a show-stopping disco dance to a song that tells us everything is alright on prom night. Just like Halloween, this was a Jamie Lee Curtis slasher that became popular enough to launch a franchise. But Prom Night told a contained story – so the filmmakers took an anthology approach to the three sequels that followed. Each has connections to Hamilton High School, but their stories have nothing to do with what Curtis’s character went through. The most popular of the sequels was Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night 2… which was developed as an original story called The Haunting of Hamilton High before getting the Prom Night 2 title dropped on it. Its story of the vengeful spirit of a long-dead prom queen, Mary Lou Maloney, went over so well, Prom Night 3: The Last Kiss was a direct follow-up. Then the Mary Lou story was ditched for Prom Night 4: Deliver Us from Evil, which was about an insane Catholic priest wiping out sinful teenagers.

The franchise sat dormant for over a decade… Until October of 2004, when Screen Gems announced they were moving forward with a new Prom Night. This was just two months after they announced their remake of When a Stranger Calls, which we covered in a previous episode. At that time, the Prom Night reboot had Stephen Susco attached to write, fresh off writing The Grudge, the English-language remake of the Japanese film Ju-on. But Susco was quickly replaced on the project by J.S. Cardone, who might not have been the most obvious choice to write a story about teenagers, since he was about sixty years old. But he did have genre experience, having written and directed the 1982 slasher The Slayer. He also contributed to some Full Moon productions, including Puppet Master, wrote and directed the vampire film The Forsaken, and was collaborating with Screen Gems on the supernatural Renny Harlin movie The Covenant. So he knew how this stuff worked.

Although Cardone was also a director, he didn’t take the directing gig on this one. Instead, the job went to prolific TV director Nelson McCormick. And the studio gave the writer and director a hurdle to clear: it was a mandate from the start that the finished film had to get a PG-13 rating. How do you reboot an R-rated slasher as a PG-13 movie? For Cardone, the answer was to approach it like it wasn’t a slasher. As he told Fangoria magazine, “What we’re trying to do with this is to go back to the thrillers from the ‘70s that were youth-oriented but more character-driven. My influences in writing this were films like Klute, the original When a Stranger Calls, and Wait Until Dark. The killings in this movie really jump out at you, like in Wait Until Dark, and we wanted an antagonist who was not a slasher or a monster.”

Prom Night Best Horror Movie You Never Saw

That antagonist is high school biology teacher Richard Fenton, who becomes obsessed with one his students, Donna Keppel. At the start of the film, Donna comes home to find that Richard is in her house. He has already killed her dad and her little brother. Then he kills her mom right in front of her. He’s caught by the police and sent to a mental institution… but three years later, he escapes. And goes after Donna again, on prom night. This movie distances itself from the other films in the franchise by the fact that its characters aren’t Hamilton High students. Instead, they attend Bridgeport High. But the prom isn’t being held at the school anyway. The venue is a large hotel – and the filmmakers wanted to go way over-the-top with how big this party is. They wanted it to be a dream prom that could only exist in a Hollywood production. So they include a line where it’s said that a rich girl on the prom committee went one hundred thousand dollars over budget and her dad had to pay for it out of his own pocket.

During the prom, Richard keeps an eye on Donna, building up to the moment when he plans to sweep her off her feet and carry her off to their happily ever after. In the meantime, he murders any of her friends that might stand in his way and also kills off some of the hotel staff when they have something he needs, like a master key card, or if they get suspicious of him. While Donna parties and Richard stalks and slashes, detectives named Winn and Nash lead the search for the escaped murderer.

Cardone and McCormick saw Richard as a Ted Bundy type. Someone who could be outwardly charming, but that’s just a facade hiding the fact that they’re a homicidal madman. So when Johnathon Schaech was cast as Richard Fenton, he did his research by reading books about Bundy and also watching a bunch of thrillers. The role of Donna Keppel went to Brittany Snow – who had a lead role on the TV show American Dreams, but this was her first chance to be the lead in a feature film. Snow was enthusiastic about the project because she was a fan of horror movies and thrillers and because she was given the opportunity to have a more hands-on role in the filmmaking process. Her opinion was taken into account in several areas, from script ideas to casting and music choices. The soundtrack she had a say in features songs by Silversun Pickups, Plain White T’s, Tokio Hotel, This Will Destroy You, and Rock Kills Kid, among others. Starting with a cover of “Time of the Season” by Ben Taylor, who was on several episodes of American Dreams.

Snow’s co-stars include Scott Porter as Donna’s boyfriend Bobby, Jessica Stroup and Dana Davis as her friends Claire and Lisa, Collins Pennie and Kelly Blatz as their boyfriends Ronnie and Michael, Brianne Davis as rich girl Crissy, who is obsessed with becoming prom queen, Kellan Lutz as her boyfriend Rick, Mary Mara as teacher Mrs. Waters, and Jessalyn Gilsig and Linden Ashby as Donna’s aunt and uncle, who take her in after the murder of her parents. James Ransone, who would go on to appear in It Chapter Two, The Black Phone, and the Sinister movies, got his horror career started by playing Detective Nash. Joshua Leonard of The Blair Witch Project shows up briefly as an ill-fated bellhop. Ming-Na Wen has a scene as Donna’s therapist. And playing Detective Winn, this movie’s version of Donald Pleasence’s Loomis character from the Halloween movies, is Idris Elba. He got a song on the soundtrack, too. Elba is also known as Mr. Me Innit and contributed the hip-hop track called “All That We Know.”

Prom Night remake Best Horror Movie You Never Saw

The movie starts with a sequence that was shot in Newport, Oregon, but most of the filming took place in Los Angeles. The majority of the running time is set within the Pacific Grand Hotel, and two different hotels were used to bring this fictional location to the screen. Fittingly, McCormick drew some inspiration from The Shining when it came to the set design. And when it was time for Paul Haslinger of Tangerine Dream to compose the score, McCormick wanted him to follow the example of High Tension. He didn’t want there to be too much music. Just enough to foreshadow or telegraph what was going to happen. Sudden, effective sounds.

This Prom Night was produced on a budget of twenty million. And it made that back on opening weekend, when it opened at number one with a haul of twenty-point-eight million. It would go on to pull in a worldwide total of around fifty-seven million. A pretty good number. It wasn’t enough to get Screen Gems to greenlight a sequel… but this appears to be a rare case where the filmmakers weren’t thinking franchise. This was seen as a one-and-done deal with a definitive ending. Screen Gems was happy enough with the result that they sent the team of Cardone and McCormick right back to work on another update of an ‘80s classic. Their remake of The Stepfather reached theatres the following year.

Given that this was the fifth Prom Night movie, it’s a shame that the series hasn’t continued in some way. We should have gotten one or two more of these, at least, in the years since this movie was released. But it’s understandable that no one else has wanted to touch the franchise since then. To say that Prom Night 2008 was not warmly received would be an understatement. According to Rotten Tomatoes, only nine percent of the critic reviews were positive. The audience score wasn’t much better, coming in at just thirty-eight percent positive.

A lot of horror fans were put off by that studio-mandated rating. When MovieWeb asked Brittany Snow if she thought horror fans might be let down by a PG-13 version of Prom Night, she said, “The misconception is that everyone thinks it’s a remake. It’s not, so I hope people don’t get disappointed going in thinking they’re going to see the same sort of storyline as the original. It’s just the same name. This is a totally different take on what the whole Prom Night story is. It has veered off into being more of a psychological cat and mouse game, diving into the anticipation factor. Feeling for the characters and being scared for them.” Still, it was marketed as a remake, causing it to be directly compared to the original film. And fans just weren’t on board with seeing Prom Night get watered down for a PG-13 rating.

The movie does pale in comparison to the original… but when you take into account the three sequels that came in between the films, it starts to look a lot better. If this had simply been sold as another sequel, it probably would have been met with more positivity. Because even though the filmmakers distanced themselves from the idea of it being a slasher, describing it as a psychological thriller… it’s actually a pretty good slasher movie. Sure, we don’t see as much of the kills as we should have. The movie would have benefited from an R rating that would have allowed us to see some gore. Richard Fenton does a whole lot of stabbing people and slitting throats, but we only see some blood and plunging blades. If they had Tom Savini level FX work in here, it would have a lot more fans. But even though the kills aren’t as satisfying as they could have been, there’s a respectable body count. There could have been more kills – there are characters who slip through unscathed here but would have been knocked off in most other movies, but it has a good amount of murder and mayhem nonetheless. By the time we reach the end credits, Richard’s victim count is in the double digits. So there are plenty of death scenes to keep things interesting.

Prom Night Best Horror Movie You Never Saw

The most elaborate chase sequences are often reserved for the final girl, but in this case, the honor goes to Lisa. Richard chases her to a floor of the hotel that’s undergoing renovations. And for a few minutes, he stalks her through the empty rooms, searching for her among the exposed beams and hanging plastic. At one point, Ronnie arrives on the elevator and calls out for Lisa… but she can’t respond, because Richard is standing right beside her with his knife. It’s a great suspense sequence.

Between the kills, there’s some decent character work. Donna has a strong support system around her. Claire and Lisa are given their own side plots to deal with, but it’s also clear that they care about Donna and what she’s going through. The characters have deeper friendships and tighter bonds than we usually see in movies like this. Bobby is also one of the best and most supportive boyfriends ever seen in a horror movie, which makes the viewer more concerned for him. He’s so nice, he’s probably going to die. Brittany Snow was a great choice for the heroine role. And Johnathon Schaech delivers a creepy performance as the homicidal man who’s after her heart.

The Prom Night remake or reboot or just another Prom Night movie… whatever you want to call it… isn’t an overlooked classic, but if you set aside any expectations based on previous entries in the franchise, it does make for an entertaining viewing experience. It’s a fun thriller with some nice character work and several slashings. Then it all wraps up in just eighty-nine minutes. So, no more feeling uptight. This prom night, follow Donna Keppel and Richard Fenton to the Pacific Grand Hotel. You won’t see any disco dancing, but everything is still alright.

A couple previous episodes of the Best Horror Movie You Never Saw series can be seen below. To see more, and to check out some of our other shows, head over to the JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!

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