De Palma Daydreams: On Hello Mary Lou Prom Night II

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“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been three months since my last confession. I’ve disobeyed my parents many times. I’ve taken the Lord’s name in vain many times. I’ve had sinful relations with boys at my school. Many boys. Many times. There’s one more thing…I loved every second of it.” 

Paul Lynch’s Prom Night isn’t the best film.

A Canadian riff on John Carpenter’s Halloween (complete with Jamie Lee Curtis playing another Final Girl), it’s a cash-in that never really rises above feeling as such. That’s not to say the movie is wholly without it’s own set of charms (the disco-laden finale is worth a few thrills, ironic or otherwise). However, most everything else comes off rote and uninspired. Even the killer is never given a “face” of his own – donning a ski mask as he chases would-be victims down shadowy high school hallways. So while there’s certainly a solid climactic decapitation, and it’s fun to see Leslie Nielsen outside of his usual ZAZ sandbox, there’s nothing really to recommend about the picture other than it’s a must for dead teenager completists.

Thank goodness Prom Night II producers Peter Simpson and Ray Sager wanted nothing to do with the original. In fact, Hello Mary Lou was never intended to be a direct sequel to Lynch’s modest slasher hit. Originally titled The Haunting of Hamilton High (at least in script form), the movie is a mash-up of better-known teen terror staples – namely Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street and Brian De Palma’s Carrie. Modified slightly is the clichéd “avenger from the past” hack n’ slash storyline that carried Lynch’s film, replaced with a ghost story involving the titular beauty (Lisa Schrage) having the best night of her life ruined after a prank accidentally sends her gown up in flames. Now her spirit plagues the halls of Hamilton High, threatening to eliminate the most popular members of its student body, one by one. The sequelization of director Bruce Pittman’s hazy haunting wouldn’t occur until Alliance Films slapped the surname on it in an attempt to capitalize on the first’s receipts – a move Peter Simpson perceives to have mortally wounded the movie at the box office.

It’s a shame Hello Mary Lou never became a bigger hit, because it’s an oft-forgotten gem of the horror genre, standing the test of time nearly thirty years on. An amalgamation of national tax shelter weirdness, brazen borrowing from better films, and the tossing of creative caution to the wind, Pittman’s picture evokes numerous classics while indubitably carving it’s own identity. This is Brian De Palma, half-recalled while stoned during third period; only it owns enough perverted oddity to worm it’s way into the viewer’s consciousness and then nest there, laying possibly unwanted eggs filled with steamy adolescent sex. Funnily enough, Prom Night II would hit theaters almost a full two years before RL Stine published his first of many Fear Street novels. For those initiated into that YA cult of slashers put to paper, Hello Mary Lou is going to feel strangely familiar. Yet it embraces the hot lust that comes with being a teenager in a far more reckless manner than Stine’s somewhat prudish texts.

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Opening on prom night in a cartoonish recreation of 1957 (Ronnie Hawkins’ jams acting as our Delorean), Mary Lou Maloney does her square boyfriend, Billy Nordham (played in the past by a scar-sporting Steve Atkinson), wrong by escorting a local hound backstage for Spanish Fly-tinged sexing. Stung by her callous delivery of “it’s not who you come with, it’s who takes you home,” Billy picks up a discarded stink bomb from the bathroom waste bin with the sole motivation of ruining his soon-to-be-crowned ex’s evening. Regrettably, the stick’s wick is a little long, its sparks torching the ice princess. Fast-forward thirty years; a new set of teens is being governed by a now grown Principal Nordham (Michael Ironside). Too bad Mary Lou saw her killer hiding in the rafters just before the fire sent her soul to Hell, and now she’s fixed on returning to serve up justice from beyond the grave.

Before venturing any further into this maple syrup coated fever dream, it should be noted that Lisa Schrage should’ve become a star. Aside from being strikingly gorgeous, Schrage establishes a villain for the ages in Mary Lou Maloney with only a few short scenes. The actress perfectly inhabits the hepcat bad girl, imbuing every one liner she slings with a feline purr that’s sure to make toes curl. She’s more Chris Hargensen than Sue Snell; a Mean Girl who is remorseless when it comes to breaking hearts and taking lives. Sadly, Schrage never received another role that capitalized on the smoldering presence she exhibits here. It’s a minor tragedy, as she could’ve easily been the 80s horror answer to Barbara Stanwyck – a hypnotic combination of allure and danger that harkens back to Golden Age femme fatales. 

Acting as the old-fashioned counterpart to Schrage’s sexpot is Wendy Lyon, playing the “good girl” who becomes possessed by the spirit of Mary Lou. Ostensibly cut from the same cloth as Carrie White (just with added friends and minus one scenery-chewing Piper Laurie), Lyon’s Vicki Carpenter is blonde, sweet and cute as a button. Courted by a nice guy on a motorcycle (Louis Ferreira) who just wants to see his girl become the queen she deserves to be, her life is only complicated by parents who’re a little too strict, and a rival (Terri Hawkes) who never misses an opportunity to let Vicki know that she better bring her A-game in order to win the crown. Once Class of ‘57’s pitiless apparition overtakes her, Lyon morphs Vicki little by little, until she’s an unrecognizable harlot, riding a creepy plastic pony that grows a slippery tongue and begins fellating her fingers. It’s an amazing B-Movie bit of badassery from an actress mostly known for portraying Prissy Andrews in CBC’s 1985 Anne of Green Gables mini-series.

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Surrounding Vicki and her central quest to become the school’s leading lady is enough drama to fill an entire season of Degrassi High. Jess (Beth Gondek) is the weird, spunky girl who finds herself knocked up by a guy who won’t return her calls. Josh (Brock Simpson) is the weirder science kid who tries to make radios out of guacamole (they only pick up Mexican airwaves) and is asked to rig the ballot on the biggest night of the year. As the kids scramble to save themselves from Mary Lou Maloney, Principal Nordham slides into a confessional booth with Father Cooper (Richard Monette), sharing the horrible secret behind the girl’s death thirty years earlier. It all whirls into a miasma of melodrama that shouldn’t work at all, but Pittman and screenwriter Ron Oliver (who would go on to write for the TV adaptation of RL Stine’s Goosebumps) keep these plotlines chugging along with ease. What results is a near-perfect microcosm of teen infidelity and violence, fit for a timeless urban legend.

Set pieces follow the same semblance of dream logic contained in later Nightmare on Elm Street sequels. An unseen force drags one girl by her hair and hangs her from the ceiling using her scarf, then violently tosses her out a window. Vicki snaps in and out of horrific fantasies, finding herself transported to an era during which her parents were her age. Her soft pink room becomes a prison; a creepy ceramic stallion her jailor, as invisible hands navigate her sheets, groping her body in places she doesn’t want to be touched. Classroom blackboards are sounding stations for the spirit world, crying out for anyone to “help” them before transforming into a jet-black whirlpool. Capturing it all with a misty, neon eye for night terrors is John Herzog (no relation to Werner), whose love for these adolescent arenas is matched only by his knack for soft focus.

By the film’s final reel, Vicki is transmuted completely into a hula skirt wearing, AM Gold humming murderess, stalking girlfriends in the locker-room shower and slipping her tongue into her own father’s mouth. It’s a sleazy, skeevy take of demonic possession, complete with proto-Scream self-referential dialogue, where Josh comments that Vicki’s sojourned to “Linda Blairsville”. Capped by a New Wave prom that climaxes in fiery apocalypse, Pittman goes full De Palma, shamelessly swiping from the horror master.

But the theft is hardly distracting, as the cinematic crime coagulates with 80s cocaine craziness, nodding toward the past while cruelly trashing the future. There are two subsequent Prom Night pictures (The Last Kiss and Deliver Us From Evil), but neither came close to reaching the gonzo yet altogether sincere heights of Hello Mary Lou.

See ya later alligator, you’ll never find another promenade massacre movie as thoroughly entertaining as this.


Related: Top 15 Canuxploitation Movies 


 

 

Jacob Knight is an Austin, Texas based film writer who moonlights as a clerk at Vulcan Video, one of the last great independent video stores in the US. You can find find him on Twitter @JacobQKnight

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