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Photograph by Suzanne Tenner
LIVING HAND TO MOUTH: Brittany Snow's lips are sealed in 'Prom Night.'

De-Imagining Jamie Lee Curtis, Part 2

What's wrong with 'Prom Night' and other slasher remakes

By Steve Palopoli

LAST WEEK, I wrote about how the "reimagining" craze has somehow found its way to the slasher films of the early '80s. Unfortunately for horror fans, these remakes more often turn out to be "de-imaginings," and that's the case with Prom Night, the new version of the cult horror hit from 1980.

In fact, Prom Night is a textbook example of how these slasher remakes don't get what made the originals entertaining in the first place. The early slashers have always been considered misunderstood by their fans—mainstream critics lumped them all together and blamed them for everything from violence against women to kids talking back to their parents. Once again, cultural Chicken Littles (including Siskel and Ebert, who famously launched a two-man scorched-earth campaign against these films) carped that slasher films were nothing more than atrocity exhibitions that were surely leading to the decline and fall of our very civilization.

It's too bad these people usually aren't held accountable for their own hysteria, because watching movies like Prom Night or Friday the 13th today, they seem practically quaint. They were basically whodunits, and like any mystery they adhered to a formula. The movies varied widely in quality—I prefer My Bloody Valentine and Happy Birthday to Me, for instance, over The Burning or Terror Train—but the formula itself is pretty interesting to look back on now. They almost always featured a backstory about teens who have killed someone in an accident or a prank gone wrong and years later are stalked by an unknown killer (usually masked) who invariably ends up to be a family member or friend of the victim. The last couple of scenes always featured a reveal of the killer, Agatha Christie style.

I mentioned last week the cultural cloud of guilt (after the Vietnam War) and paranoia (after Watergate) that may have made this formula resonate so deeply with movie audiences of the early '80s. But what I didn't touch on was the sheer entertainment value of it: any mystery lover will tell you that an unknown killer is a great device—even if you end up disappointed in who it turns out to be, there's an intrinsic suspense in not knowing for most of the movie. I've stuck around until the end of some pretty awful horror movies just because I wanted to know who did it.

Also, I like the ambiguity that hangs over these movies where the otherwise innocent kids who get killed have this traumatic event in their past that they know they're responsible for and have tried to cover up. Sometimes it's not even the kids themselves who originally did it, but the killer goes after them for their connection to the larger community at fault.

These new remakes, though, don't grasp this at all. Take the new Prom Night: instead of the original's backstory about how the main teenagers bullied and accidentally killed a 10-year-old girl, this version has one about a random outsider (in this case, a teacher) who became obsessed with lead character Donna Keppel (played by Brittany Snow) and was put in an institution. He escapes and stalks her and her friends at their prom.

The eye-rolling factor of the premise goes up exponentially when you realize that the movie isn't going to develop the character of Donna or the teacher, let alone actually explore their relationship. Still, let's just ignore how boring this setup is for minute and discuss the biggest problem with the movie: all the mystery—and with it, the thrill—is gone. Instead of the masked killer of yore, we have an average-looking guy in a baseball cap. We're supposed to believe he's capable of the traditional, vaguely supernatural feats that killers in these movies can do, such as get from one location to another seemingly impossible one in an equally impossible amount of time. But we know he can't, because the filmmakers have us following him around the whole time, and we can see he's a total dork. Seriously, all of the characters, male and female, in this movie have an excellent chance of taking this guy down in five seconds. He is so incredibly not scary it's almost breathtaking. Prom Night was an early film for Jamie Lee Curtis, and now all of the early-'80s horror films she toiled in before finding mainstream stardom have been or are being remade. Another Curtis slasher, 1980's Terror Train, is being remade as Train, which will be released this year and has exactly the same problem as the Prom Night de-imagining. While the original had some mystery in its story of a masked killer going after teens on a train (who were of course responsible for a prank gone wrong years before), the new one sounds more like a remake of Hostel: teens find themselves in the hands of psychos who use their train as a cover for systematic murder.

Other slashers are getting remade with this new random-killer approach, as well. 1981's My Bloody Valentine is being remade as My Bloody Valentine 3-D (there was no My Bloody Valentine 2, in case you were wondering). The original had a mining tragedy (!) sparking killings 10 years later at a Valentine's Day dance; the plot of the new one is a reimagining that involves a completely different story. Ironically enough, the new version had to have its release date moved from the obvious choice—Feb. 13, 2009—because the producers didn't want to compete with the remake of Friday the 13th, the film that crystallized (no pun intended, Crystal Lake fans) the early-'80s slasher formula. And yes, the Friday remake (produced by Michael Bay, who massacred Texas Chainsaw with a previous remake) will skip the whodunnit plot of the original film and jump straight to the random-killer antics of the Jason-focused sequels. Big surprise.

CULT LEADER is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback to [email protected]

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