Tuesday, August 26, 2014

PROM NIGHT (1980) (Synapse Films Blu-ray Review)

Special Edition Blu-ray 
Label: Synapse Films

Region Code: A

Rating: R
Duration: 93 Minutes
Audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1, DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono with Optional English Subtitles
Video: 1080p Widescreen (1.78:1)
Director: Paul Lynch
Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Leslie Nielsen, Eddie Benton, Casey Stevens

Life at Hamilton High sure can be murder - particularly when you belong to a group of teens whom six years previously made a pact to hide the truth of their friend's death. At the top of the film a group of five kids play a mean spirited variation of hide and seek called "killers" in which they stalk a victim and chant "the killer is coming" inside of what appears to be an abandoned school, it's a creepy set-up.

A young girl named Robin is chased down a hallway by the four kids during the game and backed-up against a window of which she falls through to her death two stories below onto a broken window pane. The four kids not wanting to get into trouble make a pact to keep what happened a secret. Hours later her body is discovered and the death a known sex offender in the area is blamed for the crime. The sex offender flees from the police when they come for him only to crash and burn in a car wreck. Scarred by burns we are told he has been sent to the State Hospital. 

Flash forward six years later and the four kids are high school seniors at Hamilton High and have apparently kept their vow of secrecy. Among them we have the blond bombshell Wendy (Anne-Marie Martin), Jude (Joy Thompson), Kelly (Mary Beth Rubens), and Nick (Casey Stevens) all preparing to attend the prom - the prom theme is "Disco Madness"  - which in 1980 was already dated. Enter into the picture Robin's surviving twin brother Alex (Michael Tough) and older sister Kim (Jamie Lee Curtis) plus their father Mr. Hammond (Leslie Nielsen) and wife Vivian (Antoinette Bower). 

Wendy's a white-hot bitch at war with the much nicer Kim, the beef is over her choice of prom date - Wendy's ex Nicky. Then we have the virginal Kelly and her boyfriend Drew (Jeff Wincott) who is on a mission to deflower her. There's a nice bit of comic relief with cute Jude and her jokester boyfriend Slick (Sheldon Rybowksi). The scene where they meet is fun as Slick rolls up on her in his Chevy van and makes a pass which somehow works.  

Alex and Kim are the children of school principal Mr. Hammond and are well liked by everyone with the exception of Wendy and uni-brow burnout Lou (David Mucci). Lou and Wendy are obvious knock-offs of the Travolta and Nancy Allen characters in Brian De Palma's adaptation of Stephen King's Carrie (1976), it is also cashing-in on the success of Saturday Night Fever (1977) and John Carpenter's Halloween (1978). 

After the effectively creepy opening at the abandoned school the film slows down quite a bit which is to say slow by any modern movie convention which allows ample time to set-up the character before the bloodletting begins. During this time the teens receive threatening phone calls from a raspy-voiced weirdo and someone posts pictures of them inside their lockers with a broken shard of glass taped to them - which is sort of threatening. These scenes provide a decent amount of suspense leading up to the final stretch. It so happens that the prom falls on the anniversary of Robin's death - we see her family visiting the cemetery and how hard it is on her slightly deranged mother. Additionally the suspect in her murder has escaped the asylum and the nurse he took hostage is found murdered at the abandoned school igniting fears that the killer may strike again. 

The prom does not actually begin until about an hour into the movie and the deaths don't start for another 10 minutes after that.  Once the disco dancing starts the kids are dispatched in quick succession but not before some prolonged disco dancing sequences, it should be noted that Jamie Lee Curtis has got some serious moves on the dance floor - this is seriously the Saturday Night Fever of slashers. 

The set-ups for each kill are decent even though they are not graphic and the camera turns away just before the actual slicing and dicing which is a damn shame. The first kill happens inside the locker room after an unsuccessful deflowering attempt. It's a notable scene as it is the only bit of nudity in the film, I felt a lot of sympathy for this character. My favorite set-up features young lovers coupling in the back of a Chevy sex van - these two are sweet and fun couple and seeing them go was pretty sad - one of the benefits of spending time with characters before they die is you start to develop a fondness for them. It was also quite sad to see that sweet Van go up in a fiery explosion!

White-hot bitch Wendy has the most prolonged stalk and slash sequence when she is chased throughout the school and into the auto shop where the feisty bitch manages to put a hurting on our masked murderer if only momentarily when a chained door stops her escape. While most of the kills are just off screen the scene the film most known for is a sweet decapitation with the severed head rolling out onto the dance floor as horrified disco dancing teens look upon it and panic - this is the one kill where the film revels in the gore and it's quite nice. 

Prom Night sets-up more red-herrings than pretty much any other whodunit. You have quite a choice of potential culprits. It could be the escaped sex fiend or maybe the creepy gardener. It might even be Mr. or Mrs. Hammond! You just never know, the one thing I can safely say is that the first time I watched it I had a notion of who I thought it would be and I was wrong. One might say that the movie doesn't earn the reveal at the end of the film but there's a nice dynamic at play during the final scenes that smooth that over for me. 

The appearance of the masked-killer here is very simple, a balaclava and dark tight-fitting clothing, probably a bit too simple to inspire a franchise but apparently not as we have three sequels though it should be noted that none of them seem overly influences by the originator. A weapon of choice is an elongated shard of mirror which is a device used in the Australian slasher Nightmares (1980), it's an effective weapon but the killer also grabs an ax and a knife at some point. When physically engaged the killer is a spry character, during the fight scene with Nicky on the dance floor he has some cat like moves and this might be the only clue as to whom the murderer is for eagle-eyed first time watchers. 

A few things have always bothered me bout the film. The first being that the kills and nudity are a bit too tame for a slasher of this era. Another being this weird cop story that is peppered throughout - turns out this was tacked-on at the request of the distributor - it definitely feels like an insert. My biggest issue would be we do not see these teens dealing with the guilt of having covered-up the death of Robin just six years earlier - this was a missed opportunity - especially when you considering what a slow-burn the first hour of the film was, could have been an interesting dynamic that ramped up the tension. 

Even with some negatives I do love Prom Night even if it would not enter my top ten list of slashers - it wouldn't even be on the top five Canadian slashers. It's a slow burn and the deaths are weak but the cast is pretty great and the final twenty minutes are fun. We have Jamie Lee Curtis in her first post-Halloween horror, after this she would go straight into the Terror Train (1980) which is a far better watch in my opinion.  

Blu-ray: Synapse present this maple blooded slasher with a brand new 2k restoration straight from the negative and the results are simply gorgeous. There's a nice layer of natural film grain, a digitally over-scrubbed scrubbed image is a blasphemous sight and Synapse do it up right. The film has a preference for soft-focus cinematography which does not always look great in HD but the dreamy quality it gives the film suits certain scene quite nicely - others not so much.  DVD where it languished for years with a murky transfer. 

Colors are strong and vibrant with good contrast and a few nice moments of fine detail.  Those who suffered for years with a murky DVD plagues by compression will certainly appreciate the outstanding black levels and shadow detail. Previously the final twenty minutes of this film were ruined by an impenetrable murkiness that made it nearly impossible to follow what was happening onscreen - this is a glorious new transfer worthy of celebration. 

The disc features two audio options, a DTS-HD MA Mono presentation for the purists and a newly created DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround Sound Mix for the kids with fancy home theater systems. The Mono option is very nice but I dig the new surround mix  which some nice atmospheric use of the surrounds, very clean and well-balanced with optional English subtitles. 

The restored PQ is the entree now lets dig into the dessert -  the new extras! We begin with a brand new Audio Commentary with Director Paul Lynch and Screenwriter William Gray which is a great listen from start to finish. These guys are fun bunch with an arsenal of gossip, anecdotes and facts about the production and the cast and crew. Lynch starts off with the formation of the project and pitching the idea of a OB/GYN themed medical slasher to Halloween producer Irwin Yablans before coming up with the prom theme - which he brought to producer Peter R.Simpson. The duo are quick to point out various homages featured throughout and gossiping a bit about Eddie Benton's marriage to author Michael Crichton and the lucrative divorce some years later in between commenting on how gorgeous she was. A lot of great anecdotes including Lynch revealing that the van used for a particularly explosive scene was stolen off the street of Toronto!

Up next is a forty-minute making of doc featuring the participation of director Paul Lynch, art director Reuben Freed, composer Paul Zaza, prosthetic creator Warren Keillor and stars Mary Beth Rubinstein, Joy Thompson, Michael Tough and Jeff Wincott. A fun featurette with behind-the-scenes footage ad a lot of great commentary on the film from cast and crew. 

We also have eleven-minutes of additional scenes added for the TV broadcast with an introduction from editor Michael Laverty who assembled the TV version. These scenes were just trims from the editing room floor and were not created for the TV version and add very little to the story except to point out that Alex and Robin were twins and an ill conceived stab at making Mr. Hammond a suspect. There are two additional scenes with a ditsy blond secretary which are just awful. These scenes have been available for quite a while on YouTube but it's great to see them cleaned-up a bit with a new video introduction - love that Synapse go the extras mile for us fans. 

Two of the extras are exclusive to the Blu-ray version - this is not the standard BD/DVD Combo we've come to expect from Synapse - and they just could not cram everything onto a DVD. We have twenty-three minutes of never-before-scene outtakes with score from the film layered over it in the absence of original audio elements. The other is a six-minute motion still gallery of behind-the-scenes pics, stills and lobby cards accompanied by Zaza's score. 

Extras are capped off with the theatrical trailer, radio spots and TV spots for the film. Watching th TV spots I noticed at least three versions of the Prom Night logo including one that was appropriately reminiscent of the Saturday Night Fever logo. All of the extras are presented in HD and there's a sleeve of reversible artwork - which I prefer to the standard  art option. 

Here are a few screenshot comparisons of the old Echo Bridge DVD and the new 2K restoration on Blu-ray from Synapse Films.The Echo Bridge DVD featured a open matte presentation while the new Synapse version is framed at 1.85:1 and loses some information along the top and bottom - at least that's what appears to be happening here. 

ECHO BRIDGE Open Matte (1:3:1)  TOP
SYNAPSE Widescreen (1.85:1) BOTTOM

Special Features:
- Brand-New 2K High-Definition Transfer from the Original 35mm Camera Negative
- 5.1 Surround Remix Specifically Created for This Release (Original 2.0 Mono Included)
- Audio Commentary with Director Paul Lynch and Screenwriter William Gray
- THE HORRORS OF HAMILTON HIGH: The Making of "Prom Night" (41 minutes)
- Collection of Additional Scenes Added for Television Broadcast (11 minutes)
- Never-Before-Seen Outtakes from “Prom Night” [Exclusive to Blu-ray] (23 minutes)
- Motion Still Gallery [Exclusive to Blu-ray] (6 minutes)
- Original Theatrical Trailer (2 minutes) 
- 6 Television Spots (3 minutes)

- 2 Radio Spots (1 minute) 

Verdict: Prom Night is a bit of a slow-burn but it makes up for it with some decent tension and character building leading up to a spirited final sprint to the finish line with some fun kills with plenty of blood and whodunit fun. The new HD restoration from Synapse is a love-letter to the film and a must-own for fans of eighties horror. Easily one of the year's best horror releases. 

On the way from Synapse are what I hope to be the definitive version of Dario Argento's masterpiece Suspiria (1977) and the nineties slasher entry Popcorn (1991). Don May and the Synapse crew have been killing it with outstanding  transfers and sweet extras - support these guys - they deserve it.