Friday, May 3, 2013

Worth Mentioning - Perils of Being a Teenage Girl

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

It's high school prom season, and Cody discusses a few examples of how things can go wrong for girls of that age.


Tragedy struck at the Hamilton High School prom in 1957. Mary Lou "Hot Stuff" Maloney, a rebellious, gleefully promiscuous hellraiser of a seventeen-year-old girl, was elected Prom Queen, and as she took the stage to be crowned in front of the cheering crowd, a jilted lover tossed a stink bomb onto the stage in a simple, childish act of revenge. Unfortunately, the material of the dress she was wearing was highly/insanely flammable, and when the fabric brushed against the burning fuse, Mary Lou immediately burst into flames. She burned to death on that stage with the whole prom watching in horror.

Thirty years later, Vicki Carpenter is enrolled at Hamilton High and getting ready to attend the senior prom with her boyfriend Craig, to the disapproval of her strict and frigid mother, who considers Craig too low class because he drives a motorcycle. Vicki's mom won't let her get a new dress for the prom, so she goes looking for something nice among the costumes in the drama department's prop room. When she opens a trunk containing items related to the 1957 prom, she unwittingly unleashes the vengeful spirit of Mary Lou Maloney.

Soon this evil supernatural force is knocking people off and Vicki starts having nightmarish hallucinations, going through a change in demeanor, developing a 1950s style and a Mary Lou type of attitude. All these strange events catch the attention of two of Mary Lou's former lovers, one of whom has become a Catholic priest while the other, the prematurely balding teen who caused Mary Lou's death, has aged into Michael Ironside and is now the school principal. These men realize that past sins have come back to haunt them...

Vicki is fully possessed by Mary Lou for the second half of the film and of course this is all building up to her making the 1987 prom one hell of an experience for the attendees, but the standout scene of the film for many viewers is set in the girls locker room, where actress Wendy Lyons, playing the Mary Lou-infused Vicki, carries out a stalk and attack sequence while fully nude.

When you stop to think that the characters don't realize that they're in a horror movie, the stalking sequence does play a little differently. Vicki Lou is after a friend who has noticed she's been acting strangely. The friend confronted her about her behavior, words were exchanged, the friend went to shower. Vicki joins her in the shower, the friend apologizes, Vicki forgives her and moves in close, putting her hands on the girl's upper arms, and then starts giving her multiple light kisses on the face. Too many pecks are what the girl runs away from. She runs, hides, and fearfully cowers in a locker because her friend tried to seduce her in the shower... Anyway, when Vicki/Mary Lou catches up to her again, she does much worse than kiss her.

As you can determine from this write-up, Prom Night II has nothing to do with the story or characters from the straightforward black-gloved slasher flick that was the first film. The sequel took the anthology series approach, taking the title and setting of prom night and crafting a different story around it. Not that it's entirely original - there are shades of Carrie and The Exorcist, and the hallucinations Vicki has were clearly inspired by the success of the Nightmare on Elm Street films. But the filmmakers acknowledge their horror forefathers, there are references to the story's influences in the dialogue and character names - Vicki Carpenter is named after John Carpenter, and there's also Craven, Henenlotter, Waters, Romero, Browning, Dante, O'Bannon, even an Eddie Wood in there.

The "Hello Mary Lou" part of the title comes from a 1960 song that was co-written by Gene Pitney and most famously recorded by Ricky Nelson in 1961. That song is on the soundtrack, as well as another "Mary Lou". The other "Mary Lou" was first recorded by Young Jessie in 1955, but the version that gets played a couple times in the movie, including when Mary Lou is taking the stage at the 1957 prom, is a 1959 cover by Ronnie Hawkins. Despite being anachronistic, the choice to go with the Hawkins recording makes sense because this is a Canadian production, filmed in Alberta and Ontario, and Hawkins had his greatest success in Ontario.

Prom Night II is actually a very well made and well written film with a good sense of humor, some funny dialogue, and a couple characters who are given a bit more substance than they might usually have in a movie of this sort. Of all the Prom Night movies, part 2 is my favorite. It's also the one that I've been most familiar with since childhood, because in those days of the late '80s and early '90s when TV networks would still show movies in the afternoons, Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II got quite a good amount of play in my area.

Prom Night II and the character of Mary Lou proved to be so successful that rather than sticking with the anthology idea for part 3, the filmmakers made that one a direct sequel.

THE SPELL (1977)

The Spell is, like the following year's The Initiation of Sarah, a TV movie that likely wouldn't have existed if it weren't for the box office success of Stephen King/Brian De Palma's Carrie in 1976.

This time, the put-upon and telekinetically gifted lead character is a fifteen-year-old girl named Rita, who gets a lot of grief in her life because her eating habits have made her overweight. She's just a bit chubby, it should be no big deal, but her peers at school bully her and act like she's the fattest person they've ever seen, calling her names like "tubbo" and "Moby Dick". She doesn't get a respite from this treatment at home either, because her father is similarly appalled by her size as well as being generally mistrusting of her and baffled by her.

Rita uses her special mental abilities to get revenge on those who do her wrong, but unlike Carrie she doesn't keep things bottled up until the climax. She uses her power throughout the film to mess with people, whether it be sending disturbing images to her father's mind or teaching her younger sister a lesson by nearly causing her to drown. A woman who believes she's been hexed by someone has a hellacious experience. Even within the first five minutes of the movie, one of Rita's bullies is killed in a gym class accident that we suspect Rita was responsible for.

Rita's attitude and demeanor change as the film goes on and she sinks further into the dark side, going from a girl who has our sympathies to a potentially indiscriminately violent creep. Rita was the first role for actress Susan Myers, who delivers a great performance. I was so impressed by her, I was surprised that she wasn't a familiar name. She worked steadily through the late '70s into the early '80s, but unfortunately largely disappeared from the acting scene after that. Her last onscreen role was in Revenge of the Nerds.

More recognizable was the actress playing her little sister, Helen Hunt (Trancers). Also great in The Spell is Lee Grant as Rita's concerned mother, who sets out to get to the bottom of what's going on with her firstborn daughter... and there was more going on with her than I expected.

LISA (1990)

The titular Lisa is a fourteen-year-old girl who is desperate to get into the dating scene. She's especially interested in older men, the singer George Michael being one of her big crushes, and she and her best friend Wendy have this routine where, at the end of the school day, they switch their uniforms out for dresses, high heels and makeup, then hit the streets and photobomb older men who are going about their day, so in the picture it looks like the girls and the men are out together. These pictures get kept in a scrapbook the girls are assembling, but then they take things even further, calling the DMV and making up stories so they can use the men's license plate numbers to find out the names and phone numbers that go with their imagined paramours.

These questionable fun and games are the closest Lisa can get to having a boyfriend because her mother has forbidden her from dating until she's sixteen. Lisa's mother knows very well the troubles a young girl can get into, because she gave birth to her daughter when she was a teenager herself. Lisa doesn't feel it's fair that her mother doesn't trust her not to repeat her mistakes. She has to wait two more years to start dating?! Her friend Wendy warns her that if she really does have to wait so long, "everybody's gonna think you're weird".

One night, Lisa bumps into a particularly appealing older man named Richard, and as Wendy lands a boyfriend in their own age range that starts taking up more of her time, Lisa uses their old tricks to pursue Richard on her own. She starts calling him at night, sultrying up her voice and pretending to be someone he knows. Richard is very intrigued.

But Richard has a very peculiar way of romancing the women he's interested in. He likes to sneak into their homes while they're away, set out some candles and a couple glasses of wine, and leave a message on their answering machine for them to listen to when they arrive: "Hi (woman's name), this is Richard. I'm in your apartment and I'm going to kill you." Then he attacks, forcing them to change into lingerie before he strangles them to death.

Richard is in fact the "Candlelight Killer", who has been terrorizing the city and racking up quite a bodycount recently. As Lisa gets deeper and deeper into the game she's playing with him, she's basically unknowingly stalking a serial killer. As you can imagine, this puts herself and those around her in mortal danger as the climax nears.

I watched Lisa several times when it reached VHS and cable in 1990/'91, and revisiting it again on Netflix before it expired from my Instant queue, I understood why. The film was directed by Gary Sherman, the man behind the cult British film Raw Meat and the underrated/underseen Dead & Buried, and he added a really good little thriller to his filmography with this one. In different hands the subject matter could've made for something with a Lifetime sort of feeling to it, but Sherman keeps it from going cornball and manages a good, dark atmosphere for some scenes.

The characters are likeable and watchable, with the actors doing well in their roles. In addition to the psycho killer aspect playing into my viewing preferences, another reason why this movie appealed so much to me when I was around seven years old is because Lisa is played by Staci Keanan, who I thought was very cute. (She was 8 years older than me, so it wasn't creepy that I thought she was attractive at the time.) Keanan went on to play one of the kids on the Brady Bunch-esque 1991 - 1998 ABC/TGIF sitcom Step by Step (co-starring with Sasha Mitchell of the Kickboxer sequels), which I watched many episodes of, and she always held my attention when she was on the screen. Casting bonus: Lisa's mother is played by Charlie's Angel Cheryl Ladd.

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