John Carpenter’s seminal Halloween (1978) cast a long shadow over the 1980s, providing not only the template for the so-called “slasher movie” subgenre but also introducing a new shock-cinema star in Jamie Lee Curtis, the second-generation actress previously stuck in a middling TV career. Although Curtis soon transitioned to a successful run in big- and small-screen comedy, she reached her fright-flick peak during 1980, starring in two shockers and playing a supporting role in Carpenter’s The Fog. Produced in Canada and released in August 1980, Prom Night continues the Halloween trope of setting bloody stories on holidays and/or special occasions. Prom Night also borrows the basic structure of Halloween, with the survivor of a gruesome childhood incident wreaking havoc years later.
Specifically, the movie begins with an effective prologue of children playing a nasty version of hide-and-seek inside an abandoned school. The game leads to an accidental death. Six years later, the children associated with the incident have become teenagers, and a vengeful killer stalks them on the night of their high-school prom. Prom Night has an attractive look and a fairly rational approach to characterization. Curtis is not only appealing and confident in her leading performance, but she’s also quite sensuous, foreshadowing her ascension to sex-symbol status a few years later. Unfortunately, Prom Night has significant problems. The filmmakers spend a good hour setting up the characters and story, then devolve into repetitive chase scenes and murders. Curtis’ character doesn’t really do anything, at least not until the final showdown, and top-billed actor Leslie Nielsen disappears from the movie about halfway through. One’s ability to enjoy Prom Night also depends on one’s tolerance for disco (Curtis has a big dance number) and for dubious twist endings. All in all, Prom Night is better than the usual slasher fare, but that’s not saying much.
Released in October 1980 and also produced in Canada, Terror Train is in some ways a quintessential slasher film, simply because it hits so many familiar tropes. The shocking prologue. The confined setting. The endless string of attractive teens who die while attempting to have sex. The weird killer with a twisted agenda and a thing for outlandish costumes. The wizened mentor/protector character played by a familiar Hollywood veteran. And, naturally, the final-girl standoff. It’s all quite dull, except perhaps for the digressive scenes featuring real-life stage magician David Copperfield as an illusionist. The setup goes something like this. One night on a college campus, pranksters led by arrogant med student Doc (Hart Bochner) trick a dweeb named Kenny (Derek McKinnon) into believing he’s about to get lucky with hot coed Alana (Curtis). Instead, Kenny ends up in bed with a corpse. He freaks out so badly that he lands in an asylum.
Years later, Doc, Alana, and their classmates celebrate their final year in school by hiring a train for a nighttime excursion through snowy wilderness. Carne (Ben Johnson) is their friendly conductor. One by one, partygoers are killed in horrific ways, so Alana realizes that Kenny must have escaped to seek revenge. Set entirely at night, Terror Train has more atmosphere than logic, but the acting is adequate and the finale is exciting. There’s also quite a lot of eye candy. (Watch for future Prince protégé Vanity as a scantily clad coed.) Make no mistake, Terror Train is often grotesque, repetitive, and stupid—but at least it has a fair amount of action.
Prom Night: FUNKY
Terror Train: FUNKY