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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review
Prom Night  (2008)
2 Stars
Directed by Nelson McCormick
Cast: Brittany Snow, Scott Porter, Johnathon Schaech, Dana Davis, Idris Elba, Jessica Stroup, Collins Pennie, Kelly Blatz, James Ransone, Brianne Davis, Kellan Lutz, Mary Mara, Jessalyn Gilsig, Linden Ashby, Jana Kramer, Rachel Specter, Ming Wen, Lori Heuring, Valeri Ross, Joshua Leonard.
2008 – 88 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence and terror, some sexual material, underage drinking, and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, April 12, 2008.
A stalk-and-slash horror movie with precious few slashes, the PG-13-rated "Prom Night" seems to have forgotten one of the key ingredients of the slasher genre. True, not every film of this nature requires blood and guts galore, but if you're making one without it you better be damned sure you've got enough style, ingenuity and substance to even out the equation. Director Nelson McCormick (making his feature debut) does not. He is glaringly unimaginative and ineffective in his bid to raise pulses, figuring that it makes no difference if his script is threadbare and his characters are generally one-note twits just as long as he tosses in a poorly-executed jump scare or faux moment of tension-building every three minutes. Number of times he succeeds in startling the viewer: zero.

Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though. First thing's first. "Prom Night" is a looser-than-loose remake of the minor cult classic from 1980 that starred a disco-dancing Jamie Lee Curtis and concerned a revenge plot taking place at the namesake dance. As far as slashers of that era go, the film is not on the same level as something like 1978's "Halloween," but it is capably made, involving, and takes its time setting up an actual story and characters. This modern retooling cashes in on the title and concerns a killer lowering the population at the prom, but otherwise is its own entity. Instead of the original's slow-burn pace, prom night arrives here by the ten-minute mark and before the audience has gotten a chance to be properly introduced to the characters. By the time most of them are dead an hour later, they still are no more than pretty, empty faces whose only purpose is to be knife fodder.

Three years ago, Donna Keppel (Brittany Snow) saw her entire family murdered at the hands of Richard Fenton (Johnathon Schaech), a psychotic high school teacher who took his obsession for her too far. Believing that all of that is finally behind her, Donna anxiously preps for her senior prom. When she and boyfriend Bobby (Scott Porter) arrive at the luxurious hotel hosting the event, they are ready and set for a night they'll never forget. While this may technically hold true, Donna is sure to remember it for some very different reasons than expected. Unbeknownst to her, Richard has escaped from the psychiatric hospital and is headed her way. Before the evening is over, more than a couple of Donna's friends will be slain and she herself will be fighting for her life.

To suck any enjoyment out of "Prom Night," one must know ahead of time what he or she is getting into. The film leaves serious horror fans in the dust—for them, the actually scary "The Ruins" should be playing a few theaters down—and has been exclusively targeted toward prattle-voiced teenyboppers who like to blather on mindlessly to friends while shouting back at the screen and intermittently playing with their cell phones. Taken on the basis by which it has been made, "Prom Night" really isn't so bad. Sure, it's got the personality of a bag of common rocks and director Nelson McCormick wouldn't know how to build genuine suspense if someone was holding a gun to his head, but the film is so shamelessly clichéd and innocuous that it's difficult to actively hate it.

The screenplay by J.S. Cardone (2006's "The Covenant") is sprinkled with dialogue howlers—when one of his officers comments from afar on how pretty Donna looks, brain-deficient Detective Winn (Idris Elba) replies in all seriousness, "Let's hope she stays that way"—and before long, the picture becomes little more than a series of scenes where characters walk around alone, call out their friends' names, and wait for the mentally unhinged Richard to pop out and kill them. This may be derivative, but it's at least more diverting than the tedious police procedural subplot that should have been entirely excised to make room for the character development sorely lacking between Donna and her classmates.

On another note about the death scenes, scarcely ever before have onscreen wounds been less plausible. Stabbings leave only the cutest, petitest dabs of red behind on the victims' clothing, and slit throats result in bloodless incisions and scant traces of ketchup around the collar. Are these human beings we're supposed to be dealing with or robots? The one thing "Prom Night" does sort of get right is the bittersweet quality of the prom; sure, it's a happy occasion, but it's a sad one, too, for teenagers on the verge of saying good-bye to their friends and childhoods as they move toward the next phase of their lives. When Donna experiences this epiphany, it rings true and is as authentic as the film gets.

Brittany Snow (2007's "Hairspray") commits herself to the role of Donna, though all that is required of her is to look petrified while tearing up. She cries well. Proving that actors are nothing without good scripts and direction, Scott Porter (2007's "Music and Lyrics"), so natural on TV's "Friday Night Lights," performs here as if he's never stepped in front of a camera before. His Bobby is supposed to be a sweet dream guy, but instead he just looks daft and lunkish. Showing the most spunk among the cast is Dana Davis (2004's "Raise Your Voice"). As Donna's ill-fated best friend Lisa, Davis is sassy and sweet, down-to-earth and likable. She gets the best chase scene in the movie, and also the most unintentionally funny one. For reasons unknown, Lisa becomes a hazard to herself the second Richard goes after her. Before he's even harmed a hair on her head, she breaks a heel and falls down a flight of stairs, awkwardly ends up trapped in an abandoned construction area of the hotel, nearly cracks her head when she stumbles over a pile of paint cans, and then decides it wise to run backwards so she can cluelessly back into Richard's clutches. It's so stupid and silly it approaches parody.

"Prom Night" is not—I repeat, not—a good horror film. It's a tame, by-the-numbers affair without surprises or a point of any kind. Older kids will likely go for it since it's glossy, breezy and tailor-made for them, but that doesn't make it any less insulting for real genre fans who know a cheap money-grab when they see it. Coincidentally, the most potent moments of the picture are the first and the last. The opening titles sequence, scored to Ben Taylor's haunting cover version of The Zombies' "Time of the Season," moodily and indelibly compliments sweeping aerial shots of the seaside landscape. The end credits, meanwhile, occur as footage is shown of the now-dead characters happily dancing the night away moments before their deaths. It's unsuspectingly subversive, morbid and creepy in a way that the previous 80 minutes have not been. The amusing irony is that, finally, director Nelson McCormick earns a chill up the viewer's spine at the precise point where such a reaction is completely inadvertent on his part.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman