Set Visit: Screen Gem’s Prom Night

The ’80s slasher remake opening on April 11th

In the heart of Sony’s Stage 18, a family is going to die. A young girl, the object of a madman’s desire, will live to tell about it. Not before making a discovery that will haunt her well into her teen years, though.

Now: Actress Brittany Snow, climbs the stairs to the second floor of her house – a set built on the studio lot’s 15,000-square foot soundstage. She clumsily tangles her feet around a baseball bat left on the hallway floor with careless abandon. Her little brother’s room is to the left; Snow enters, baseball bat in hand. She finds her sibling on the bed – face buried in the comforter, inert – and calls to him. No response. Using the bat she flips his small frame over. The kid’s gone. Little baby bro has officially left the building. He’s a fresh kill, too. Snow screams. High-tails it out of the room.

And so the body count begins in Screen Gems’ long-mooted Prom Night remake (opening April 11th). A modern take on Paul Lynch’s disco-funky early-’80s slasher film starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Leslie Nielsen, this redo survived various script permutations (“Grudge” writer Stephen Susco took a crack at the property) before producers Neal Moritz (I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend) and Toby Jaffe (The Amityville Horror remake) selected scribe J.S. Cardone’s take on the material and hired TV vet Nelson McCormick to direct. is called to visit the set on an appropriate doomsday – Friday the 13th – and we find Snow on one of her hardest shooting days yet. McCormick calls for “Cut!” on the aforementioned take – a scene that will take place at the outset of the film, it turns out. Snow settles down. Her onscreen brother sits up on the bed with a mischievous smirk – the kid loves playing dead, but he doesn’t have the luxury of going all-out corpse-ish: There’s not a spot of blood on him or the mattress he lies on! This is a PG-13 film, after all. Dead kids, especially gored ones, are a no-no. “This was one [scene] that the ratings board has already said, ‘You know, we don’t want to see any blood on him,” McCormick laments. “So I have to have a safe version and then a little more for the DVD kind of thing.”

As the crew preps for another go at the scene, Snow’s blonde locks are tended to by the production stylist, her pink sweater given the once-over with a lint roller, her rheumy Hobbit-like blue eyes dabbed around the edges by the makeup team. “I’ve been crying and so emotional for a month now,” she says. “The scenes that we’re doing right now and the scenes that we were doing prior to this were all kind of emotional heavy scenes. Then, in the next month and a half, I’m at the prom and dancing. I’m totally oblivious all of my friends are getting killed then. So I have to get the hard stuff out of the way.”

Snow enjoyed a regular stint on the boundary-pushing FX series “Nip/Tuck” as a neo-Nazi teen. One episode found her troubled character trying to bleach her skin whiter when she learns an ancestor was of African-American descent. Good times. In Prom Night, Snow’s a good egg with a tortured past playing teenager Donna Keppel. It seems during Donna’s sophomore year, her teacher, Richard Fenton (actor Johnathan Schaech), worked up a saucy, inappropriate Lolita-esque obsession over his student. He slaughtered Donna’s family to get to her and was inevitably caught and whisked away to an asylum. Three years later, during prom season (natch), Fenton escapes, unbeknownst to Donna, to spill blood and vie for her affection once again.

“The old one was great for its time. It played off the whole mentality of the ‘Halloween’ series when they were making all of those. [Screen Gems] really wanted it updated and so did I,” writer Cardone acknowledges, joining Shock later in the day in one of the many extravagant rooms, splashed in earth tones and rimmed with wrought iron lattice, making up the Pacific Grand Hotel set where some of the film will be taking place. Our surroundings come courtesy of production designer Jon Gary Steele who’s most recent work appeared in Sony’s Vacancy. The film’s executive producer glowed with pride earlier when he told us teenagers will, without a doubt, die here.

Cardone’s credits include The Forsaken and The Covenant, more fare skewed towards a younger audience. However, the writer will attest that, despite its role call of fresh faces (Dana Davis, Jessica Stroup and Scott Porter co-star) this Prom Night floats an, “adult twist while keeping as close to the concepts of the original film.” Many of those mature themes match recent trashy news stories of the last decade that tell of teachers seducing, or being seduced by, their students. “Yeah, the headlines just jumped out at us,” he says. Cardone frankly admits to not being a fan of the genre and he doesn’t, “really consider this a slasher film.” So don’t go in expecting a black ski mask-wearing killer. “[It’s like] – and I’m not comparing this picture to them, but I’m using it for an example – the original ‘When a Stranger Calls’ or ‘Klute.'”

“The first film works within its context, but it was kind of a truncated story. We tried to go in a totally different direction with it,” he continues. “[The original] had two converging storylines. One was the prom, where Jamie Lee Curtis was not the most beautiful girl at the prom but the most popular, and then you have the killer. Our movie has the murders and then the police investigation – which slasher films have not used in the past. That’s the reason I feel that we are kind of going in more of the ‘Klute’ approach.”

McCormick agrees with Cardone saying his film, “only bears a resemblance in name only. I saw the original film and it was somewhat of a ‘supernatural revenge of the dead’ sort of vibe there. I was relieved to hear that this was a different take on that idea.” Supernatural? In the original? We’ll let that statement slide – we get the gist of what he’s saying. “This film rides the rails of a teen horror film. However, it also is a cross of a genre film with a cop film. There is a killer on the loose – the manhunt for him and stopping him before he kills again kind of thing. So you’ve got evidence of films like ‘Seven’ and ‘Silence of the Lambs’ mixed with the traditional teens-in-distress movie. “

Racking up a sizable resume of television work (“Prison Break,” “Alias,” “Nip/Tuck”), McCormick’s high-flying early days found him working in the Air Force as a combat photographer. Although not a pilot, he did wind up soaring over war-torn areas covering military maneuvers. Later, McCormick would go on to take a cue from Michael Bay and David Fincher and began sculpting a personal style, he couldn’t express in documentaries, through commercial production.

“Anything about ‘Prom Night’ states this is such a coming-of-age rite of passage turning point in a teen life,” he says of the remake’s ripe potential for playing on various levels of fear. “For a lot of people, their prom night is a bittersweet night. It’s like the last great night of your high school year. But associated with this are a lot of unknowns. Attached with that unknown is a lot of fear. This is the last night of living in a safe world where we know what to expect. A lot of these people are never going to see each other again after this night.”

And, in this case, that’s largely due to the carnal bloodlust of one Richard Fenton. Screwed up teacher extraordinaire. For the role, Cardone says he championed Johnathan Schaech, the steely-eyed actor he had worked with in 2001’s “Forsaken.” “I have always been a big fan of his,” beams Cardone. “He has that incredibly gorgeous veneer. But there is an evil Johnathan. He understands my material and he has a truly dark edge. I sincerely think that this will bring him attention.” Fenton’s combo of dashing good looks and sinister intent places him alongside the likes of real-life psycho Ted Bundy who, Cardone admits, served as inspiration for the character. “Here was a guy who was just incredibly endearing. He’s kind of a guy that I would want my daughter to go out with.”

Shock seeks out Schaech to discover for ourselves if Cardone’s praise is valid. Bruised, beaten and with a hearty dose of painkillers undoubtedly coursing through his bloodstream, the actor finds us. He hobbles into the room with smile and a knee brace. The poor dude. By default he’s got us on his side. And Cardone’s right, Schaech exudes an undeniable charisma, even a dash of daffiness – but that gaze of his crackles with something hidden. It reminds one not to get too comfortable in his presence.

“Good ol’ Brittany Snow,” he starts, sitting down before us with a pained “oomf.” “One swipe at me and she nailed me right in my nose. I couldn’t believe it.” Something tells us we’ll have to get the full story from the actress at another time. Schaech continues to run through his grocery list of injuries. “I had to bounce my head [during a take] when I fall. They put the camera low [to get the impact]. I lifted myself up and just came crashing down. I thought it was great. I had my eyes open the whole time. Twelve takes later, my eye was out to here,” he holds his hand up, indicating the swelling. A slight exaggeration. He starts to laugh. “That was the stupidest thing. I felt like a jackass. Sometimes I’m just out of my mind.” Perhaps. But it’s an apropos approach to Fenton, no? “You take everything and just push the envelope with it. There is this level of creative freedom [to the role]. McCormick said something to me that just really stuck out. He said, ‘You are my Jaws. You’re my shark.'”

“I think that the more human [Fenton is], the scarier he becomes,” McCormick adds. “We gave the guy a little bit more of a back story – gave him a whole definition of how he got to this place. And then added a scene where he gets to give a confession on the night of his arrest. It’s not a confession to the crime, it is a confession of love. It’s a confession of his devotion to Donna and how ‘You guys can arrest me all you want, but you can’t stop me, because you know, we were meant to be.’ [It’s like] you want some better life and you kind of cross a mental boundary into slightly irrational behavior [to get it]. You can relate to this guy. It can be like he really wanted that parking spot, or you really wanted that job, we really wanted that shirt on the counter that got bought by somebody else. You can sense that feeling. That’s what Fenton has, times 100.”

Post-escape from the looney bin, Schaech tells us his character makes a bee-line for Snow’s Donna, eliminating anyone who gets in his way. He’s not fueled by revenge insomuch as he is powered by…well, lust. As that song goes, “love hurts.” And Fenton’s methods for slaughter are varied. He’s improvisational. “It’s almost like ‘Phantom of the Opera,’ at least to me,” says Schaech. “[Fenton’s] in the wings, waiting for Donna to fall in love with him and knows that she will eventually if they could just be alone. He’s madly in love. All of these people get in the way and he keeps putting them in nifty little places where no one will find them. It’s horrible. Stuffs them in the attic, in the back of the closet, underneath the bed. Done. No problem.” McCormick adds, “People are dying due to the unfortunate coincidence of running into Fenton. His goal was not come here and rack up a body count. His goal was to wait for the perfect opportunity to seize Donna and take her with him and do whatever he was about to do in his deluded mind state.”

Speaking of “Donna,” Snow takes a break from shooting; we step outside with her so she can catch some air. Prom Night, we come to learn, is the Tampa, Florida native’s first splash in the horror genre. The film now puts her on even keel with close pals Sophia Bush and Arielle Kebbel, stars of The Hitcher remake and The Grudge 2, respectively. Films like those, Snow observes, are smart, female-friendly shockers and relates “Night” as similar entertainment. “Girls want to see girls be in terrible situations and then kick some major ass,” she says. “Because you want to see girls, at the end, take control and take charge. I also think girls love being scared. They love being emotional. They like getting their senses heightened – think about the psychological aspects and be thrilled.”

We query if she has a particular favorite slasher film. “Slashers are not my favorite, but I remember the first horror movie that I ever saw that haunted me for years. It was like, something with Pinocchio…” her voices trails off as she attempts to jog her memory, contorting her face with a “aren’t I adorable?” look of befuddlement. We help her along with, “It wasn’t ‘Pinocchio’s Revenge,’ was it?” In return, she slugs us playfully in the shoulder. “That’s it! I saw it when I was too young. I saw it when I was eight or something…”

Ahem, moving on, and not even taking a moment to note the age difference between writer and interviewee, part of Snow’s decision to take on Prom Night came from wanting to work with McCormick who she “just missed” during her stretch on “Nip/Tuck.” “He did a few episodes before I was on there and then after. [But here I liked] Nelson’s ideas, who he was and just his vision for the movie. It wasn’t going to be a stereotypical horror movie where the teenage girl is running around, takes a shower for no reason and starts having sex with this guy. It’s something that actually could happen and does happen. There are guys all over that get obsessed and go crazy. So I kind of thought that this was the type of film that I was going to do if I was going to do a horror film. What I wanted to be a part of.”

At 21, Snow looks a helluva lot younger than she is – a refreshing, authentic change from the original “Prom Night” where Jamie Lee Curtis appeared more suited for college than high school, not that we’re complaining about that. “I was thinking that, too. It’s kind of cool that I do look really young. It’s really important that my character has that excitement to go to her high school prom, in comparison to an actor who’s 30 and went to their prom a really long time ago.” But don’t take that as a knock against Curtis. “She’s like an icon in the horror world and for me to follow in those footsteps – that’s a huge honor. And if I can do this justice that will make me feel really good.”

Now, what’s all this about kicking the crap out of Schaech? Snow looks forlorn. “What happened was I was supposed to do this stupid kick,” she explains. “I was on the floor and [Schaech] was dragging me. I don’t know if he told you this…” Nope, please go on. “So he grabbed my pants instead of grabbing my foot. And they were pajama bottoms, they were falling off. So it was either my whole butt was going to be exposed and it would be on the dailies for everyone to see or I was going to have to shake him off somehow. My underwear was going and then all of a sudden I just went like this,” Snow demonstrates by kicking out. “Then all of a sudden he goes ‘Ow,’ and he starts tearing up, looks at me and leaves.” She learned later that her foot indeed collided with her co-star’s nose paving the way for days of self-humiliation. Hey, there’s still the prom sequences to shoot – that oughtta turn that frown upside down. “I never went to my senior prom, thank goodness, because I’m going to be living it for another two months. That would be prom overload.”

Excess partying, however, appears to be the key word of the day when it comes to describing the film’s main soirée. McCormick loaded up on research in pre-production, watching one documentary that chronicled the sensational importance of “the prom” in one small town. For the prom scenes, shooting is expected to move off the lot and into a downtown Los Angeles location. “We’re going a step beyond reality in our execution of the prom,” McCormick confesses. “I kept hearing in the documentaries and the books I was reading that they kept referring to it as their Academy Awards. This is like their big night. So I kind of said, ‘Well, what if it feels like it’s an awards night then?’ At the moment of the coronation of the prom king and queen it’s like ‘Let’s see who is going to win best actor.’ What we are going to do is we’re going to have this big flat screen, this big video wall and as one of our chaperones says ‘Okay, now it’s time and I’d like to announce the nominees’ you’re going to see a face up on the screen, like their nominees.”

Glitz and glamour aside, as a horror fan was McCormick at all concerned being saddled with a PG-13 rating? Not in the least. “It forced me to think of designing the scares and kills in a way that had you imagine the rest. I think that’s more elegant filmmaking,” he posits. “As we were thinking about how to tell the stories visually, what came to mind was films like ‘Psycho,’ ‘Deliverance,’ ‘Dead Calm’ – where the violence was real, but you felt it more internally, and it wasn’t just sort of visually in your face.”

“The approach was that all of the kills and scares are going to leave you wanting to see more or imagining more,” he continues. “There were times where we shot a scene and we said ‘This is probably more R than PG-13’ so we will pull back on the blood. Some of the kills we are looking straight into Johnathan [Schaech]’s eyes as he was killing us, as if we were the camera, as if the camera was the victim. There is a great Michael Powell film called ‘Peeping Tom’ where he goes around killing people with the tripod and his camera. The tripod is like a knife. And so the victims are looking straight into the lens – they’re getting stabbed to death. So we kind of took that visual language, we had the victims look straight into the lens as they are getting stabbed to death. I have to tell you, this is much more horrific because you’re imagining it on a deeper level. It’s challenging.”

The original “Prom Night” spawned multiple sequels – three, if you’re taking count. And even though McCormick already has his next film lined up (a remake of The Stepfather), are the lights going to be left on for a follow-up to Prom Night? “Not really,” he answers. “I’m kind of surprised, I thought one would want to do that for sure. Like in ‘When a Stranger Calls’ – there is great opportunity. As [our film ends now], it’s pretty definitive.”

For the film’s trailer and a link to the official website click here.

Source: Ryan Rotten


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