4 out of 5
Directed by: Bruce Pittman
While the original Prom Night certainly has a cult following, it didn’t do very much for me at all, so a sequel-in-name only (excepting a shared setting and Prom theme…) has a pretty good chance of besting it. But what I wouldn’t have expected from a horror sequel – and especially a made-to-fit-a-franchise one – would be something legitimately good, no qualifiers necessary, juggling a lot of inobtrusive genre nods with a surprisingly artful presentation.
Thus: Prom Night II, which takes place at the same high school as PN I, but apparently that film’s events rated about as unmemorable for the students as they did for me, given that everyone skips every any mention of them and instead discusses the 50s murder of would-be prom queen Mary Lou, who we see burned to death in a prank-gone-wrong during the flick’s opening. And yet, even from that start, director Bruce Pittman establishes this as a step outside of a typical revenge movie, giving Mary Lou (Lisa Schrage) and the setting a surprising amount of personality, suggesting the possibility – and not an unwelcome one – that the entire film might take place in the past. Mary Lou’s also an interesting “target:” while, on the one hand, she represents the “have sex must die” paradigm of horror, she does so with a lot of confidence, spurning one boyfriend for another on prom night, but with a kind of directness that makes her rather unique – plainly taking what she wants without compunction. There’s also not the usual coverup that accompanies her death; the culprit mourns, her suitor mourns, and we get one of our first nods to another flick – Carrie – as Mary Lou goes up in visually impressive flames. Flash forward to the present of the late 80s, and a locked trunk in the high school’s basement, suggesting some form of Mary Lou is kept, or trapped, inside…
I’m normally very critical of the circle jerk of horror referencing, but they way Prom Night II rather liberally applies them, they either make complete sense for the scene, or they’re just fun Easter eggs, with characters with last names like Carpenter, King, Henenlotter, etc. I never feel winked at, and I never feel like we’re going out of our way for something unnecessary and obvious. They’re just fun, as such things should be.
As things proceed – with the spirit of Mary Lou possessing good girl Vicki (Wendy Lyon) – there’s also a massive amount of style buttressing these references; again – it’s its own movie first, and then it has extras sprinkled atop. (Compare to most slashers / sequels, which are often wholly retreads and fan service.) Pittman, cinematographer John Herzog, and returning composer Paul Zaza create a wonderfully dreamy and ominous atmosphere, allowing for the movie to transition into and out of surreality – and some really inventive gore / scare gags – as the possession deepens. And once Vicki is Mary Lou, it syncs with Mary’s personality: she’s not limited to just going after the now-adults who were involved with her death (Michael Ironside, the school’s principal; Richard Monette, a pastor), rather attacking anyone who gets in her way of what she wants – to be prom queen. There’s no proper comeuppance, or clear line of right and wrong: just an angry ass ghost. This actually allows the characters to feel a little deeper in their own rights, not tied to some last minute twist of who-killed-whom or buried secrets.
…Some aspects of the flick are definitely clunky, though. Pittman, subverting so many genre expectations, still has some requisite beats to hit – although according to wikipedia, these beats might’ve been handled by producer Peter Simpson, who reshot parts of the film when it was retrofitted to be a Prom Night sequel. As such, the movie becomes clunkier during its first, somewhat senseless kill, or when it dips in to nudity, or when the phantasmagoric climax peters down to a dull chase. And then there’s the lamentable sexual-assault-as-a-punchline trend that 80s and 90s movies seemed to love.
A lot of horror franchises are, admittedly, littered with gems that standout better than expected, but I feel these standouts often come with caveats. Prom Night II’s original script (‘The Haunting of Hamilton High,’ by Ron Oliver) might’ve been just another spook flick, but the way it ended up being visualized turned it in to something quite original and impressive, and though saddled with a sequel’s title, was thankfully only tied to its precursor in the loosest sense, allowing it to stand on its own merits as a deserved horror classic.