Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Remake Comparison Project - A Party to Die For

It's the time of the season for Cody and Priscilla to talk about the Prom Night movies.


With schools all over the United States set to hold their proms during the months of April and May, this seemed like the perfect time for us to cover the 1980 slasher Prom Night and its 2008 remake for The Remake Comparison Project.

On the outskirts of a small Ohio town, there stands a large, abandoned brick building, built in 1913 but emptied out sometime before the film's opening scene, which is set in 1974. At one time it was a convent, now it's just an empty shell with busted windows.

The allure of having an entire building at their disposal is too much for the local children, a group of whom have decided to use it as a venue for a game of "Killers", a disturbing twist on "Hide and Seek" wherein you're not "It", you're a Killer, and when you catch one of your playmates they join you as a Killer and help in the hunt for the rest of the hiders. Throughout the game, the Killers taunt the hiders by calling out, "Killers are coming! The Killer's gonna get you!"

While walking either to or from school this particular day in 1974, the young Hammond siblings, Kim, Alex, and Robin, happened to pass by the building and notice the elaborate, dangerous game of hide and seek going on. Kim turned back to get her geography book, Alex continued on to their destination... but ten-year-old Robin decided to wander into the building and see what the Killers-players were up to.

Robin makes a lot of noise as she wanders around the rooms and halls, she accidentally gives away hiding positions, so in a cruel move the group of four who were playing Killers - twelve-year-olds Wendy Richards, Nick McBride, Jude Cunningham, and Kelly Lynch - turn against her. Even though Robin isn't officially playing their game, the others surround her, chanting "Kill! Kill! Kill!", chasing her through the building and ultimately backing the little girl, who is totally freaked out and scared by their behavior, across a room and up onto a windowsill. Robin leans back against the window... and unfortunately it's one of the place's many busted windows.

Robin falls through the broken glass, landing two stories below on top of another window, one which had been removed from the building and set on the ground nearby. Seeing that the fall and all the broken glass has killed the girl, the Killers, who now live up to the name and fear they'll be put in jail for this, decide that they need to keep their involvement in this tragedy a secret. Wendy makes the others promise never to tell anyone they were there that day.

The kids are especially mischievous in this movie, and to think all of that happened and they still managed to go to school right after, like nothing happened, without ever telling anyone about it. A few of them look and behave like they should be in Bloody Birthday, especially the girl who plays little Wendy, she's downright scary. They're all very intense. The only one who seems to really care about the accident is Kelly.

I love the look of this sequence, the bright white light that streams through rooms, at times almost completely blowing out as it blasts through windows and doorways. There's a strange haze that hangs over the scene, adding to the uncomfortable atmosphere and enhancing the creepiness of the Killers game and the way the others treat Robin. I'd like it more if that haze was only present in this opening sequence, but it continues to hang over the rest of the film's daytime scenes, as if the town is enveloped in a permanent fog bank.

I've always wondered if the bright light was there by choice or luck. It works really well and adds a lot to the whole spooky vibe of the sequence.

The town's authorities assume Robin was the victim of a sexual attack, and they immediately have a suspect; a schizophrenic sex offender who lived near the old building and who they intend to have in custody by the end of the day.

Said deviant, Leonard Merch, doesn't help his case by attempting to flee when detectives show up at his door. The ensuing car chase ended with Merch crashing his vehicle, which burst into flames. Merch was severely burned, disfigured, and sank into catatonia.

You'd think that even back in 1974 there were tests and exams that would confirm or deny the sexual attack suspicion. Especially considering the way her body was, there were no visible signs that'd point to sexual abuse. Talk about a wrong assumption, and one that I'm sure made things even harder for her parents to move on from.

Following the opening sequence, the film moves forward six years to then modern day 1980, at which time the kids responsible for Robin's death, her sister Kim, and her brother Alex are all attending Alexander Hamilton Senior High School, which is located right on a lakeside bluff and where the Hammond kids' father is the principal.

The casting of the kids was simply perfect, most of them look and act just like the older actors, and that's something we rarely see. Maybe not Wendy so much, but the other ones definitely.

What I don't get is how after only six years none of the girls seem to be haunted by or even care about what happened back then. It just doesn't look like they feel guilty at all. I know they didn't mean for it to happen - I hope anyway - but it still happened and no one really knows the truth other than the four of them. Or so they thought...

Given the Ohio setting, this body of water is presumably supposed to be Lake Erie, although these shots were actually filmed at Toronto's Scarborough Bluffs on Lake Ontario.

It used to make me wish I went to a school that had that view. I don't think I've ever seen a real one with a location like that anywhere though. It would be way too dangerous.

Building a school beside a cliff doesn't seem like the most safety-minded decision. Notice that the school and the drop-off are never seen in the same shot. The combination of these two locations is just movie magic.

Prom night this year has just happens to fall on the anniversary of Robin's death, and as the day goes on someone who is clearly obsessed with Wendy, Nick, Jude, and Kelly starts making strange phone calls to them, speaking in a whisper and saying things like, "Can you come out to play tonight?", "I'll see you at the prom," and "It's been a long time. Tonight it's my turn." This person also tears their pictures out of the yearbook and sticks them in their lockers with pieces of glass attached to them.

How the killer got the pieces of broken mirror boggles my mind. Kim and Kelly are in the locker room and someone throws something at the mirror, breaking it up. It scares them, as it should, but once they leave it's like it didn't happen. They don't even mention said event to anyone else. Weird. And when Kelly and Jude see that they both got their yearbook pictures with the pieces attached to them, they don't seem to care either. Even weirder.

What's also weird is how they announced prom king and queen before the prom. Since we never had proms here in Brazil, at least not when I went to high school, I don't know all that much about the tradition surrounding it. I wonder if that was common back then.

I never went to any proms, so I have no idea how that stuff works.

While this is going on, Nick's police officer father gets troubling news - Leonard Merch has escaped from the state hospital in Cleveland and taken a nurse hostage. A nurse who is soon found dead in the abandoned building at the edge of town, her throat slit with a shard of glass. The nurse's VW Bug is later seen cruising around town... Driving past the high school...

Leonard Merch clearly must be this slasher movie's killer, and yet the film makes an effort to cast suspicion on others. Could the school's creepy groundskeeper Sykes be the one with an unhealthy interest in the teens?

I always feel bad for Sykes and how that one girl Kim hangs out with teases him. Poor guy.

Or what about the school's unibrowed troublemaker Lou Farmer, who openly smokes in the halls and is so into Kim Hammond that he tries to force himself on her while wearing a ski mask? Alex is violently protective of his sister, and he doesn't take Lou's actions well. Neither does Mr. Hammond, who suspends him from the school.

Lou is a total douche and I loved seeing him get his butt kicked by Alex.

Interspersed with the police dealing with the Merch situation, over forty minutes of the running time deals with building the characters. We get a good idea of what Kim and the kids who played Killers are like now that they're in their late teens, we're given glimpses into their lives.

Kim had a crush on Nick in 1974, despite the fact that she also thought he was an idiot. In '80, they're an item, and Nick is haunted by what happened to Robin, his conscience eats away at him.

It's funny how it's usually boys who act like they don't like girls when they're really young and do actually like them. Here we see Kim do it, calling him an idiot when she was already into him. Six years later, he is the only one out of the bunch who cares about the tragic event that took Robin's life, and he seems to be a nice guy now.

Kelly is dating a guy named Drew and is trying to figure out whether or not she should lose her virginity to him.

Even though teenage Kelly doesn't seem to be as bothered by the accident as little Kelly was, it's clear that it probably contributed to her self-esteem issues. Sure, some teens are like that anyway. But to me it feels like her low self-esteem has a lot to do with what happened and how helpless she felt. Dating a jerk like Drew is kind of self-punitive.

Jude doesn't have a date for the prom until she just happens to meet a guy named Slick earlier in the day.

I think most viewers will get a smile from seeing the credit "Introducing Sheldon Rybowski as Slick", and what's even better than having a character named Slick is the payoff that this guy does not match the image that his nickname brings to mind. Seymour "Slick" Crane is a mop-topped, bespectacled, overweight, short guy with a customized Chevy van... But with the way things go for him, he kind of lives up to the nickname he surely gave himself.

Slick is awesome. When we first see him in the van, he looks taller and almost like a badass... sorta. But when we see him with Jude at the prom, it's not exactly like that. They still make a very cute couple and Jude seems to like him a lot, even though they just met.

Wendy has grown up to be the school's queen bitch and Kim's rival for Nick's affections. In her mind, anyway. She's so into him that she even has his picture on her bedside table, but he actually wants nothing to do with her. Given their mutual distaste for the Hammond family, Wendy and Lou hook up with plans to get revenge on them at the prom.

The love triangles we see in movies usually consist of two guys and one girl, but here it's two girls and one guy. Nick and Wendy were actually together for a while, until he broke things off. Was she a nicer person or was he not as nice as what we see now? I'll go with the latter. Wendy has always been a bitch, and since she had to go as low as making Lou bring her to prom, I'm thinking she wasn't really all that popular, which is also not what you normally see when it comes to pretty, rich high school girls.

That family money did buy her a really nice Corvette, though.

She's set on getting Nick back. She makes it clear that she intends to bring him home with her after the prom. And we see that she means business by the dress she chose to wear. Red + sequins = trouble.

The action really kicks in at the 50 minute point of the film, when we finally do reach the prom, which has a Disco Madness theme.

But before we can get down to the slashing, it's time for a three minute dance sequence.

When Wendy and Lou come walking into the prom, Kim decides to show off for the girl who wants her guy. She grabs Nick, says "Let's show her what we can do," and they proceed to dance their hearts out to the film's disco theme song. "Prom night, everything is all right / Prom night, no more feelin' uptight."

Lou and Wendy don't seem too impressed by it, but the other prom teens do. They look at Kim and Nick as if they were rock stars, or disco stars. Their moves are very good and well rehearsed. 

As characters start wandering away from the dance for locker room makeout sessions and vehicular humping and pot smoking, the killer, wearing all black (including a black ski mask just like Lou's), begins to strike, his primary weapon of choice being shards of glass.

For me, the most memorable death scene is what happens to poor Slick.

The character who gets the lengthiest interaction with the killer, appropriately since she's the non-homicidal villain of the piece, is Wendy, who gets chased throughout the school by the axe-wielding slasher in a seven minute long setpiece.

My favorite parts are Wendy's chase sequence, Slick's death scene (those two almost made it! I wanted Slick to survive), and the moment when Kim hits someone with an axe, the look on her face when she realizes who she hit.

The cast is whittled down one-by-one, red herrings fall by the wayside, and it all builds up to a shocking climactic confrontation on the dance floor.

Prom Night never has been one of my favorite slashers or one that I've watched very often, but it is a movie that I'm growing to appreciate more and more as time goes on and I give it more viewings.

I was a little disappointed the first time I watched it. It felt slow to me, but the more I watch it, the more I like it and appreciate the focus on the characters. I also really like the score by Paul Zaza and Carl Zittrer.

As a youngster, the tone and atmosphere were kind of off-putting to me, the stretch of character development didn't hold my interest and the prom night payoff didn't make up for it... But now, I enjoy the story's attempt to fill out the characters, most of whom are actually quite likeable. The Killers were creepy little brats when they were younger, but six years later they haven't grown up to be bad kids. Except for Wendy. They just share one terrible secret.

The Wendy and Lou plotline is very reminiscent of the shenanigans Nancy Allen and John Travolta got up to in the 1976 adaptation of Stephen King's Carrie, a film which was probably a major inspiration behind the making of this movie. 

It's funny how this movie feels more like the '70s than the '80s. Of course the '80s were just starting, but other 1980 movies don't feel so much like '70s movies, and it's not just because of the Disco Madness theme. Speaking of Travolta, the Saturday Night Fever feeling is all over it...from the lights coming from underneath the dance floor, to the dance moves and some of the clothes. It just has that feeling...

Another clear inspiration is the success of 1978's Halloween. Some of the stalk and slash moments have a Halloween feel to them, and of course this movie also shares its leading lady with the John Carpenter classic, as Kim Hammond is played by Jamie Lee Curtis.

In this movie, way more than in the other ones Curtis was in around the same time, we see her in a much more feminine role. The way they do her hair, the way she has a lot more makeup on than what we usually see. Her scene with her top open, and even her dancing alone scene, clearly going for the "as sexy as possible" look. She's pretty good as Kim; maybe a little too shallow at times, like when she keeps loving on that awful prom queen crown - thank God for tiaras! But still, that was the character's fault, so... a job very well done.

Curtis does a fine job in the role of Kim, although the character is no Laurie Strode. She's not required to carry this movie so much, it's more of an ensemble. All of the actors do well, with the most notable of the bunch aside from Curtis being Leslie Nielsen as Mr. Hammond, right on the cusp of his career taking a comedic turn. Airplane! came out the same summer as Prom Night did.

I love the cast. Including the small kids. They all do very well and it never felt lacking in any way to me. And seeing a very serious Leslie Nielsen is always so great and different.

Robert Guza Jr. is credited with coming up with the story, which was fleshed out into a screenplay by William Gray. Paul Lynch is the director who chose to make the movie look all hazy. Gray also co-wrote the classic ghost story The Changeling, which was released earlier in 1980. Gray and Lynch would reteam on another slasher movie a couple years later, Humongous.

They're both pretty different, but I see a little of Prom Night's vibe in The Changeling. Definitely not in Humongous.

I may not be especially enthusiastic about Prom Night, but it's a good entry in the slasher sub-genre, and as one of the most popular titles in the early '80s slasher boom, it's required viewing for anyone who has an interest in those movies.

I can honestly say I like Prom Night a lot these days. Much like Cody, it took me a while to fully appreciate not just the pace, but all the character development and the different atmosphere, but now I truly enjoy it and watch it a few times a year.


Like its predecessor, the Prom Night remake has an opening sequence that shows a tragic event that happened some years in the past. However, the event depicted in the '08 film is much different than the backstory established for the '80 Prom Night.

14-year-old Donna Keppel has been having a rough time lately. 37-year-old high school teacher Richard Fenton became obsessed with her, filling his house with pictures of her and multiple journal volumes with mad ramblings about how deep their love for each other was. He swears they're meant to be together forever. But their relationship existed only in his head. When Fenton's obsession came to light, he was fired from the high school and the Keppels filed a restraining order against him. Donna tried her best to move on after this troubling turn of events... But after a night out at the movies with her friend Lisa, Donna returned home to find that her father and younger brother had been murdered.

Hiding under a bed, Donna was forced to watch as her mother was attacked by Fenton, questioned about her whereabouts, and ultimately murdered, giving up her own life to keep her daughter safe.

Donna could have easily thrown the bed mattress over at Fenton, which would knock him down and cause him to drop the knife. Then it'd be her and her mom... two against one, and they'd have a chance to at least escape the attack. But, of course Donna was completely shocked and that prevented her from thinking of doing this, also... there probably wouldn't be a movie if they went down that road. Or maybe it'd be the same, only with her living with her mom, instead of her aunt and uncle. Hrm.

Donna escaped from the house that night and Fenton was arrested, tried, found not guilty by reason of insanity and locked up in a mental hospital 2300 miles away from their town of Bridgeport.

The story then moves ahead three years. Donna is still living in Bridgeport with her aunt and uncle, and after a long stretch of relative peace she has again started having nightmares in which she relives the night of her family's murder. Her psychiatrist says it's because she's entering a time of transition in her life, she's about to graduate high school and start college in the fall. It could also be because, unbeknowst to anybody else, Donna has recently gone off her meds so she can properly experience her prom without feeling numb. She wants to remember the good times.

While this sounds like the movie has a whole lot of set-up and character work, this is actually all stuff that the movie gets out of the way very quickly. There's not a long build-up to the prom this time around, we're first shown the unbelievably extravagant party, being hosted at the Pacific Grand Hotel, just 14 minutes in, and Donna arrives in a limo with her friends and their dates at the 17 minute point.

There are only 206 people in this year's graduating class, but they have one hell of a prom being thrown for them thanks to the head of the prom committee, a rich girl named Crissy who Donna and her friends can't stand. In pursuing her goal to make the dance look just like a Los Angeles nightclub, she went $100,000 over budget, which her father made up for out of his own pocket.

I've never seen such a fancy prom in a movie before. The red carpet and over-the-top location are very nice, and it is surprising how simple Crissy's dress is compared to the other girls, like pointed out by Lisa. Most of the other girls look way more dressed up and dolled up with their hair and makeup. Donna, Claire and Lisa are great examples of that.

This is definitely going to be a prom night to remember... Unfortunately, not in the way anyone was hoping for. As Bridgeport Detective Winn is notified right before Donna and friends reach the hotel, Richard Fenton escaped from the mental hospital three days prior. Finding out where Donna is, Winn goes to watch over the prom...

Fenton is indeed at the Pacific Grand Hotel, stalking Donna, killing people whenever it furthers his agenda... Kill a maid to get a master key card, kill a nosy bellhop and take his uniform... When Donna's pals wander away from the dance floor, headed up to the third floor suite they're sharing, Fenton also knocks them off one-by-one, whittling down the cast until he can get to the girl he considers his one true love.

The Prom Night remake gets put down a lot by the horror community, but I think its greatest sin is that it dared to call itself a remake, a label which instantly draws an extra level of negativity to it. This despite the fact that there is nothing within the film itself that remakes anything from the original. The only similarities they share are the prom night setting and the fact that there's a killer on the loose. With the anthology approach the Prom Night series took, this could easily just be considered Prom Night 5. And if it had a number in its title, it would probably get more of a pass than it does.

The way people talk about this movie is really unfair. I could name so many movies that are far worse and don't get such treatment. It's certainly not perfect, but not anywhere near as bad as some people make it out to be. I agree that it needed a different name, since the two movies share pretty much nothing, but still. I don't see why it's so hated.

Which isn't to say Prom Night '08 is an unsung modern classic. It certainly does have its share of issues.

For one thing, although it's a decent slasher movie overall, it is definitely neutered by its PG-13 rating. Generally, I expect a little more from the kills in a movie like this. Still, a slasher doesn't have to be like a Friday the 13th, Hatchet, or Intruder to be entertaining, the kills in John Carpenter's Halloween are still satisfying without an abundance of blood and gore, but Carpenter handled them better than how the kills in this movie are handled. A splash of blood, okay once or twice. Kills represented simply by having a dude scream into the camera, as happens in the death scene of a character played by Joshua Leonard of The Blair Witch Project, that is lame.

The body count could've been higher and the kills could've been more creative, definitely. But the movie is more about the suspense, it's more of a psychological thriller than a slasher, if you think about it. That being said, my favorite death scene is Lisa's. I really like the construction/renovations area of the hotel that she gets chased through, and for a moment we think she's going to make it. I wanted her to.

Something else that's lame is the movie's over-reliance on very silly jump scares. Characters jump and scream when someone appears behind them in a mirror, or opens a door, or when they bump into a lamp, even when someone beside them says their name. It's really ridiculous and annoying.

I don't find them to be silly jump scares at all. The movie tries to mess with the viewers' heads as if we were Donna. By trying to make us imagine how it felt to her since the beginning, and how she thought it was all behind her, only to be proven wrong and having to relive the nightmare, losing even more people she cared about. It's more about the final moments when her bad feelings turn out to be more than just that. The direct confrontation between her and Fenton. That very culmination is what the movie's all about.

Prolific television director Nelson McCormick is who made these decisions that I find questionable. He was working from a screenplay by J.S. Cardone, also a director himself, whose career has included movies like The Forsaken, The Covenant, 8mm 2, Sniper 3, and Full Moon's Shadowzone and Crash and Burn.

Cardone crafted a nicely simplistic little stalk and slash tale, although I feel like the script sets too many things up that don't get proper payoffs. You have a group of douches who hit on Donna and her friends right in front of Fenton but don't get their comeuppance. There's a bitchy rich girl with two mean girl sidekicks and none of them die! You have a character, Lisa, who is preoccupied with beating Crissy in the prom queen election, and yet allows her boyfriend to drag her away from the prom right before the announcement...

Also, Fenton seems to be extremely strong and fast. He drags Claire's body out of the bathroom and hides it under a bed being only a few steps away from Michael. Not to mention putting the bellhop's body up in the ceiling and being shot a bunch of times before collapsing.

And you'd think that being as close as they seemed to be, Lisa would actually tell her boyfriend Ronnie who it was that she saw when she recognizes Fenton, instead of running out on him like she does. Or that he wouldn't let her leave without asking her or following her right then.

The cast does pretty well. Brittany Snow is our beleaguered heroine Donna, Johnathon Schaech gets to act all crazy and stabby as Fenton, Idris Elba is the detective out to protect the girl from her stalker. Winn is the Doctor Loomis to Fenton's escaped mental patient in the tradition of Michael Myers in this Halloween-esque story.

I like the cast a lot. Brittany Snow has some pretty inspired scenes in the movie. The look on Donna's face when Fenton finally reveals himself to her in the hotel room and how she reacts after realizing her boyfriend Bobby had been killed are great examples. Johnathon Schaech is ridiculously creepy in this movie, his eyes alone freak me out every time I watch the Prom Night remake. He did an amazing job.

As Donna's friends Lisa and Claire, Dana Davis and Jessica Stroup are given minor storylines to handle - Lisa's ambition to be prom queen, Claire's issues with her boyfriend regarding her plans to go off to a distant college. There's not much substance there, though. What really stands out to me about Lisa is how freely she talks about sex while the girls are getting their hair done at a salon.

Lisa and Claire are typical teenagers with shallow "problems", but they do seem to care about each other a lot. Their friendship feels deeper and more real than what we usually see between girls that age. When Claire stops complaining about her issues with Michael and asks Donna how she's doing and then tells her she looks great, it shows just that.

Actually this applies to the whole group, guys included. They all seem to have a very tight bond and genuinely like each other. It always bums me out that Bobby got killed, what a sweet guy and perfect boyfriend he was! Donna and him made a great couple, way more mature than most at their age. He understood what happened to her and made sure her emotional needs were taken care of. I don't think she'll ever move on from losing him like that.

Prom Night '08 isn't a great movie, but as far as slashers go, everyone who has delved very deeply into the sub-genre has come across much worse. It's a sufficient, fast paced stalk-a-thon with an agreeable running time.

The movie obviously isn't perfect, but I can't say I see too many things that are wrong with it. The elements that aren't great can easily be overlooked, and the movie is fun for what it is. There is no way to compare original and remake this time around, simply because they're two completely different stories, but I probably watch this one as much as the original and thoroughly enjoy it.

I like the score by Paul Haslinger and overall look and atmosphere of the movie. My favorite part is when it gets closer to the end and they're making sure the hotel is empty. The detectives looking for Fenton, making us wonder where he could be; Ronnie desperately trying to find Lisa... it's all pretty nervewracking and climactic.

This wasn't the only time director McCormick and writer Cardone were teamed together to bring a new version of an '80s horror offering to the screen. The following year, they made a remake of 1987's The Stepfather together.

I think they should collaborate some more. The Stepfather remake didn't disappoint me at all, but let's save that for a later date...

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