Hello Mary Lou, Goodbye Heart: A Love Letter To The PROM NIGHT Franchise

Prom Night was one of many, many slashers released in the wake of John Carpenter’s Halloween. There had been films of the type long before Michael Myers made his cinematic debut, of course, but there was something about that movie in particular that captured the zeitgeist. It made a ton of money on limited resources, had a formula that seemed effortless to rehash, so it only stood to reason that it wouldn’t be hard at all to emulate that success. Some features had more success with this than others. Friday the 13th became one of the biggest, surprise smash hits of 1980. Prom Night, released the same year, was also successful. But whereas Friday’s success birthed a pop culture phenomenon, Prom Night definitely did not.

Horror in the 1980s became defined by franchises in a way that hadn’t been seen since the Universal heyday of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Once slashers hit their stride, it wasn’t enough to simply follow the Halloween formula. They needed a hook, a figurehead. Some kind of icon to stand at the center of the franchise, like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers. Prom Night’s killer dressed in a ski mask and black turtleneck definitely doesn’t have any of those memorable, recognizable elements that caused a character like Jason to catch on.

The movie is a perfectly serviceable slasher. Of the three back-to-back-to-back horror films Jamie Lee Curtis did between Halloween I and II, it is probably the least effective. It lacks the innovation, atmosphere and stylish nature of Terror Train, the only other slasher Curtis did without Carpenter. It’s at its best when it is not afraid to heavily lean into its quirks, such as the at-least-memorable character of Slick, or the disco-themed prom itself. Its biggest highlight is also a moment that comes pretty close to the end, as a character is decapitated on the dance floor.

This is one of those rare instances in horror in which Prom Night, the movie, would not be nearly as fascinating as Prom Night the franchise. Imagine a world where Halloween III became the recognizable entry, where the unconnected sequel was the thing that gave a franchise its star. Hello, Mary Lou is an absolute delight of a movie that has nothing whatsoever to do with the first. But it can’t even be considered an anthology franchise, because it has its own direct sequel in Prom Night III: The Last Kiss. Yet Mary Lou doesn’t get to be the continuing villain of the series, as we’re treated to another unconnected sequel in Prom Night IV: Deliver Us From Evil. Only two of the sequels have anything to do with one another, but all four share bizarrely specific connections, at least behind-the-scenes.

Is this the result of a unique artistic direction? Absolutely not. It could not be more clearly the result of cheap and lazy decision making, to lead to a franchise as fractured as this. But the results are entertaining and endlessly endearing, nonetheless. As a franchise, Prom Night is like looking at all of the pieces of a puzzle, refusing to put them together and deciding to stack them on top of each other instead. It’s not what’s supposed to happen, but it’s inarguably interesting to look at.

Hello, Mary Lou: Prom Night II is a different movie from the first in every way. It speaks to the shift in slashers of the 1980's, which can only be accurately described as Pre-Freddy and Post-Freddy. Mean-spirited, anonymous slashers were commonplace in the 1980's and Prom Night certainly fit the bill. But after A Nightmare on Elm Street, slashers couldn’t get by on mayhem alone. They needed a sarcastic villain, serving up one-liners on top of increasingly outlandish deaths. And thankfully for all of us, they found said villain in Mary Lou Maloney. Having done the straightforward stalk-and-slash in the original, Prom Night II added a healthy dose of Carrie to the mix, taking the motif of a supernatural girl who’d been wronged and turning it on its head.

Hello, Mary Lou blends together so many familiar elements—Carrie, The Exorcist, Freddy’s Revenge—until it becomes something truly unique unto itself. This is not a repressed girl. In fact, it opens by letting the audience in on exactly who she is via a confession to her priest, recounting her sins (“many boys, many times”) and her absolute delight in each of them. She’s promiscuous and self-involved, but Mary Lou does not deserve to die. She’s a victim of a prank that goes wrong and is one that is immediately covered up, returning thirty years later to get back at the man responsible by going after his son. It’s a quirky play on repression, as Mary Lou possesses the much less free spirited Vicki Carpenter.

Mary Lou is a fascinating villain, confident and witty, intent in her revenge but enjoying it at the same time. Too often in horror, female villains can be portrayed as archconservative, standing in as Good Christian Role Models of an extreme degree—Friday the 13th, Carrie and Misery are all classic examples of this. But that’s not Mary Lou at all. Also endearing is the vibe the character brings to all of her scenes. While perhaps being seen as a woman ahead of her time, Mary Lou is absolutely of her era, even adopting “See you later, alligator” as her catchphrase.  Her character, and by extension the film itself, brings together a unique blend of ‘50s throwback style with all of the then-current, tongue-in-cheek gore of ‘80s horror—resulting in an aesthetic best described as “milkshake punk.”

Prom Night III: The Last Kiss might be the most baffling entry when looking at the four films as a whole, as it’s the only direct sequel in the entire franchise. The bonus, of course, is that means it brings back Mary Lou for another shot at earning her crown. While it’s operating on a much lower budget than the low-budgeted Prom Night II, it’s a surprisingly fun entry and Courtney Taylor does a fine job as our new Mary Lou. Even if much of the fun here stems from the memory of how great the second one was, Prom Night III leans even more heavily into the milkshake punk vibe that should have defined this series, complete with a teacher being turned into a human sundae.

It picks up with Mary Lou in Prom Hell, where she breaks free and returns once again as a ghost to haunt her former high school. Never depicted as a one-man-gal in the original, Mary Lou sets her sights on a young man named Alex who’s just trying to figure out where he’s supposed to fit in and what he wants to do. The change in her motivations might stem from perspective, here. In the previous movie, Mary Lou was never too interested in just one guy, but all eyes were on her and she definitely loved the attention. Here, she’s found a guy who is conflicted about his feelings for her, who doesn’t want to be tempted by her, and that leads her to go further out of her way to make sure she’s the only girl on his mind.

There is, to put it bluntly, a whole lot of ghost sex going on in Prom Night III. Alex definitely has a thing for Mary Lou, but she just can’t stop killing people, and it’s a comedy of errors that might be extremely on the nose—and sometimes falls flat on its face—that screams of an appropriately Old Hollywood vibe. The relationship of boy and ghost is more interesting than Alex’s relationship with his actual girlfriend, and had it not been afraid to commit to its unorthodox undead romance, perhaps Prom Night III could have been The Shape of Water of 1990.

Sadly, Prom Night IV leaves Mary Lou behind for the sake of returning to the original slasher formula—more or less. Instead of the refreshingly liberated would-be prom queen, we’ve got a Catholic priest intent on punishing the sinful. Commenting on the Catholic controversies of its day, Prom Night IV promises some intriguing ideas but never quite delivers on any of them. This priest is out to punish anyone he deems a sinner. The other priests are so terrified of him that they’ve kept him locked up for years.

Knowing he’s bound to break out, we’re left imagining a rampage as sleazy and cheesy as Silent Night, Deadly Night. But instead, he doesn’t actually wind up doing that much. It’s fun in places, as a supernatural fire-breathing priest is a fun thing to look up and see on TV, simply on principle. Yet there are great ideas it could have explored, had anyone cared. The priest, for example, is suffering Stigmata. Does that mean God actually is talking to him? Did God grant him the power to do all of this? These are fascinating questions. And a straight-to-video sequel from 1992 is probably the only thing that could have gotten away with a revelation as extreme as “God is evil and He wants you dead.” Ultimately, though, it’s a far cry from 2 and even 3. Deliver Us From Evil has a refreshingly Fulci-esque atmosphere but commits the cardinal sin of a Prom Night movie: it’s boring.

With only one direct sequel in the series, Prom Night is a mishmash of different ideas from different people. Watching the films, it’s hard to feel any sense of consistency, which makes it all the more surprising to learn that there actually are connective strands between each of the four entries in this minor saga. Even as different as the movies are, they share one family in common: The Simpsons.

No, not those ones.

Peter R. Simpson, a producer on the original Prom Night, returned to produce each of the sequels. His son, Brock, played Young Nick in the original’s prologue and flashback sequences and returned for roles in each of the subsequent films. These aren’t cameos, which might be the most surprising thing. Taking on a minor to supporting role each time, the Prom Night franchise is almost seen as an American Horror Story anthology revolving around a single actor. One could almost think that it is simply a sign that in the vast Prom Night multiverse, each universe has its own Brock Simpson. But the existence of Prom Night III cancels that out, being the only direct sequel in the series. If Brock Simpson returns after having been killed in the previous movie, as a different character, does that suggest that he is simply doomed to reincarnate? If so, why is he always predestined to die on the night of the prom?

In each of the three sequels, his characters appear to be pretty decent guys. One’s a harmlessly awkward teen, the other a bumbling cop and the last a good-hearted priest. Does this mean that he’s still paying for his character’s part in the original movie, causing a young girl to fall to her death? If so, are each of the characters from the original film also endlessly living out their own repeating, prom-themed life-and-death scenarios? Has the whole franchise just been exposing us to the purgatory of only one of its original characters?

See, who says Prom Night doesn’t ask the hard questions?

Existential questions aside, as different as the Prom Night flicks are—to the point that the most bizarre thing will always be that they share any connections at all—they are shining examples of a business model that was too lazy to produce something this entertaining, but thankfully managed to anyway. Beginning with a perfectly serviceable slasher and spiraling into gleeful wackiness, the franchise as a whole is bafflingly enjoyable. The first and fourth are entertaining enough, especially with friends to talk over their lengthy quiet stretches.

But for a good time, call Mary Lou.