An in-name-only remake of the post-”Halloween” slasher pic that solidified Jamie Lee Curtis’ status as scream queen of the polyester era, “Prom Night” is a surprisingly effective teen-skewing thriller that soft-pedals graphic violence (in marked contrast to the R-rated 1980 original) while generating a fair degree of suspense. Well cast and solidly crafted, latest genre product from Screen Gems struck B.O. paydirt, taking in $22.7 million in its opening weekend as it clicked with teens — including couples preparing for their own senior-year celebrations — and early twentysomethings.
Helmer Nelson McCormick, a vet TV director making his feature debut, and scripter J.S. Cardone establish the overall tone of skittish dread early on, with a flashback prologue that recalls terrible events of three years earlier.
High schooler Donna Keppel (Brittany Snow) returns home from a night out with friends to find her family has been slain by Richard Fenton (Johnathon Schaech), a twisted teacher who’s insanely obsessed with her. Donna manages to escape unharmed, and dedicated Det. Winn (Idris Elba) promises her the murderous psycho won’t ever have a chance to menace her again (yeah, right).
Leaping forward to the present, pic finds Donna still troubled by all-too-vivid memories, but determined to enjoy her senior prom with dreamy b.f. Bobby (Scott Porter of TV’s “Friday Night Lights”). Along with two other couples — lovey-dovey Lisa (Dana Davis) and Ronnie (Collins Pennie), not-so-happy Claire (Jessica Stroup) and Michael (Kelly Blatz) — they hop into a stretch limo and zip over to a luxury hotel for the spectacularly lavish festivities. The six friends also reserve a posh suite upstairs, so they’ll have a quiet place for close encounters later in the evening. Unfortunately, another hotel guest — recently escaped from prison — intends to crash their private party.
McCormick and Cardone may be trading on the name recognition of an ‘80s slasher pic, but they’ve made an obvious effort to avoid (or at least revise) many cliches and conventions associated with thrillers of that sort. Their villain is not some semi-indestructible bogeyman, but rather a realistically rendered psychopath (convincingly played by Schaech) who’s all the scarier for being recognizably human. Also, none of his victims would qualify for inclusion among the oversexed and/or unpleasant teens routinely slaughtered in slasher pics of yesteryear.
The filmmakers devise a series of reasonably plausible excuses to periodically move potential victims away from the safety of crowds and back to the hotel suite (which, thanks to lenser Checco Varese and production designer Jon Gary Steele, looks and feels as forebodingly creepy as a haunted house). To be sure, logic and credibility aren’t sustained throughout — the final minutes play like a typically contrived climax of routine horror fare — but there’s a welcome absence of drawn-out fake-outs and last-gasp lunging at the end.
It’s way too soon to tell if Snow ever will achieve the semi-iconic status Jamie Lee Curtis did in similar roles, but her performance here is everything it should be for her character, and the pic itself, to work. Among the supporting players, James Ransone is a standout, if only because he comes across as one of the nerdiest-looking cops in movie history. Production values, in and out of the hotel, are suitably slick.