Is Jamie Lee Curtis the original scream queen? There were multiple generations of femme horror legends who preceded her (including her own mother in Hitchcock’s pivotal proto-slasher Psycho), but the “scream queen” designation specifically feels like a product of the first-wave slashers of the early 80s. Curtis was a central figure in that initial crop of body-count slasher films thanks to her starring role in John Carpenter’s Halloween, which (along with Black Christmas) established many of the tones & tropes now associated with the genre. Previous femme horror legends like Barbara Steele, Karen Black, and Vampira would often be typecast in horror films for their naturally spooky looks, while Jamie Lee Curtis’s generation were better known for their reactions to the horrors of the world – their screams. Curtis was a frequent go-to for the Final Girl Next Door archetype in the earliest crop of formulaic slashers (Halloween, Prom Night, and Terror Train specifically), establishing a scream queen career template that near-future horror actresses like Barbara Crampton, Heather Langenkamp, and Linnea Quigley would later transform into lifelong convention-circuit celebrity. Her mother’s stabbed-in-the-shower scream may have echoed much louder throughout horror history than any of her own on-screen scares, but one isolated fright does not make a Scream Queen. As of last year, Curtis was still extending her Final Girl status in the ongoing Halloween franchisefour decades after its debut. If she’s not the originator, she’s at least the one with the most follow-through.
Prom Night is a significant episode in establishing this scream queen status for Curtis, but only because it faithfully repeats a pattern initiated by Halloween a couple years earlier. If anything, it repeats that pattern a little too faithfully, as its initial gimmick is essentially a mashup of Halloween & Carrie with nothing especially novel to add to either side of the equation. Curtis stars as a suburban high school goody-two-shoes who finds herself the target of two dangerous adversaries: a hot-girl bully who wants to steal her thunder as prom queen (like in Carrie) and a maniacal killer who’s stabbing her friends to ribbons one by one (like in Halloween). When Curtis is gabbing about boys with her more promiscuous friends, walking just out of earshot of reports of an escaped mental-patient maniac, and stumbling blissfully unaware into a cruel prank just as she’s being crowned prom queen, all the audience can think about is Laurie Strode and Carrie White. There are a few key deviations here, to be fair. Instead of the escaped maniac being the assumed killer like Michael Myers, there’s a murder-mystery set-up involving a past wrong when the victims were children – calling into question the masked killer’s identity & motivation. Also, not for nothing, Curtis possesses no telekinetic superpowers here and must survive her bullies’ pranks with good old-fashioned Final Girl purity & wit. Prom Night also tosses in the menacing phone calls from Black Christmas to spice up this Halloween & Carrie mash-up, further emphasizing its adherence to first-wave slasher tradition (and Jamie Lee Curtis’s prominence within that milieu).
Thankfully, Prom Night eventually does come into its own as a unique object & an admirably stylish feat in low-budget filmmaking. Perhaps to no one’s surprise, this turnaround arrives during its titular high school prom dance. Working with a glorious Disco Madness theme, the prom sequence is a pulsating teen dance party where the hormone addled dum-dums we’ve been following all movie show off their best Saturday Night Fever choreography on a light-up dance floor, then file away one at a time to be brutally murdered by the masked killer. In a welcome deviation from a typical first-wave slasher, these kills do not directly correlate with whether or not the teens in question drink, screw, or revel in sin; the kids simply suffer the consequences for a past act of cruelty they’ve kept under wraps since they were tykes. The mysterious executioner sports an unusually glittery ski mask to protect their identity and wields a unique murder weapon—broken mirror shards—instead of the glistening kitchen knife of slasher tradition. Between these gruesome kills and the dance floor glam of the disco prom, Prom Night eventually emerges from its formulaic slasher chrysalis to become its own beautiful specimen of cheap-o grime. Its earliest stretch is guaranteed to test the patience of audiences generally bored with by-the-numbers slasher ritual, but I find that sturdy plot template can be exceptionally useful in providing structure for over-the-top aesthetic & tonal choices like, say, a Disco Madness theme. It also helped build Curtis’s legacy as the genre’s first genuine scream queen; she just also had to be crowned prom queen to get there.