The Killer Suspense of “Prom Night”

The Killer Suspense of “Prom Night”

In the spirit of Halloween, I did a search for Jamie Lee Curtis movies and Peacock served up Prom Night. It was the teaser clip that hooked me: An early 20s Jamie Lee Curtis, dancing alone to the song in her head, arms high and graceful, body spinning, when her nemesis flicks on the spotlight.

Alfred Hitchcock has a great quote that sums up suspense in storytelling…

“There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”

Prom Night delivers all the suspense and foreboding you expect from the horror-movie genre. The creators set up a mix of circumstances and characters that kept me in suspense, anticipating the explosion that was bound to happen. There is the accidental death of the girl, the sworn secrecy of the children responsible, the bereaved family who never knew the truth, the wrongfully accused criminal psychopath out for revenge, the detective with a hunch looking in all the wrong places, the jealous ex girlfriend, the high school degenerate, the creepy school groundskeeper, and the crowning moment of the prom king and queen.

I found myself glued to my smartphone at my kids’ soccer practice jumping in my seat and talking at my screen to the doomed characters telling them, “don’t go in there!” but they always do. Prom Night serves up that good old fashioned suspense, because when everyone is on the dance floor in their early 80s outfits and nothing is happening I know that, as they danced, a girl gets chased into the gym and axed to death. It’s the audience participation in the innocuous moments that makes suspense what it is.

The classic horror movie creators were master craftsmen at suspense.