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Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II

(AKA The Haunting of Hamilton High) 1987, Starring Lisa Schrage, Michael Ironside, Wendy Lyon, Justin Louis. Directed by Bruce Pittman.

Guest Review by Rhett Miller

The surprising success of A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984 opened the door for psychological exploration in horror cinema. Horror films of the early-70s found the most success under the realist mode with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Last House on the Left, and the great remainder of the decade spent its time trying to duplicate that success. Halloween further perpetuated the tired realism into the 1980s, as every new filmmaker sought to cash in on the slasher trend with cheap film stock, on-location shooting, amateur actors and simplistic stories. A Nightmare on Elm Street changed all that, and several films that followed in its wake like The Initiation, The Horror Show and Brainscan would eschew reality in favor of more dream-like imagery.

The shift of the slasher film from the standard to the subconscious is best characterized between the differences between Prom Night and its sequel, Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II. While both films are essentially about revenge, the first relies on straightforward mystery, while the sequel questions the basis of reality with a number of surreal dreams and subconscious sexual undertones. Although not nearly as popular as the original, Hello Mary Lou is nonetheless characteristic of the new direction horror filmmaking took in the 1980s.

The film begins as a standard slasher would, with the token Accidental Death. It is 1957 at Hamilton High, and Billy is at the prom with his lovely beau, Mary Lou Maloney (Lisa Schrage). The most beautiful girl at school, Mary Lou is to be crowned prom queen at the ceremony's end. When Billy goes to grab Mary Lou a drink, she promiscuously slips off with Buddy, and the two waste no time in engaging in sexual relations behind the stage. When Billy finds them he is both furious and heartbroken, as Mary Lou explains to him that she was only using him for money (the fact that Billy is the only high school student in history to have a fully receding hairline also does not help). He decides to pay her back by throwing a stink bomb on stage during her crowning. Things go horribly wrong however, when the stink bomb ignites her dress into flames and Mary Lou is torched in front of the entire student body.

Flash forward thirty years, Billy (Canadian B-movie villain extraordinaire, Michael Ironside) is now the principal of Hamilton High, while Buddy, now known as Father Cooper (Richard Monette), spends his churchgoing days lamenting Mary Lou's death. Billy has a son Craig (Justin Louis), who like him is also taking the prom queen to the prom. But unlike Mary Lou, Craig's girlfriend Vicki (Wendy Lyon) is loving, loyal and not an obvious target for stink bombs. Things change however, when Vicki and a friend search the school wardrobes for a prom dress and accidentally unleash Mary Lou. The depths of hell could not fit Mary Lou Maloney, but a small wardrobe trunk more than gets the job done. Vicki luckily escapes Mary Lou's wrath, but her pregnant friend is hung and thrown out the window, leaving everyone to think it was a suicide.

As prom fervor continues, things begin to get hairy at Hamilton High. Kelly (Terri Hawkes) is campaigning like crazy for the prom queen crown, and will go to--or swallow--great lengths to ensure that she gets it. Meanwhile, Billy and Buddy begin to suspect that Mary Lou has returned after her 30 year pilgrimage for a little payback. The vessel Mary Lou takes in her return to form is Vicki. Slowly, Vicki's dreams begin to blur with her reality to the point where she can no longer tell the difference between the two. Mary Lou is inside her, and Vicki is having trouble quelling her subconscious sexual urges.

Soon enough Vicki starts dressing like Gidget and humming "bad Elvis Presley tunes" as Mary Lou takes over. Mary Lou is a kinky broad though, as she gets Vicki to make out with her father, seductively stroke her rocking horse from hell, forcefully try and have sex with her boyfriend, run around locker rooms naked attempting to appeal to male audiences with lesbian interludes, and of course, kill. By the time Vicki gets to the prom, the body count is already at a sizable number. When she unleashes a Carrie-esque paranormal vengeance on the prom students, that number swells. As Mary Lou is finally birthed from Vicki's body, Billy-boy must deal with his past and confront his former prom date once and for all. But can past mistakes ever be reconciled?

Prom Night II is a well-made rip-off of every largely successful horror film of the last 30 years. Elements of A Nightmare on Elm Street (dream-like murders, exaggerated deaths), The Exorcist (possession that brings out unkempt sexual urges, a priest trying to reconcile), and Carrie (Vicki's vendetta at the prom, her overbearing religious mother) are all mixed into a familiar, yet devilishly entertaining brew. The filmmakers let it be known that they are lifting from the classics of horror films past, with character names like Mr. (Wes) Craven, Vicki (John) Carpenter, Mr. (George A.) Romero, and Jess (Tod) Browning, to name a few.

Although film references there are a plenty (Vicki is at one point called "Linda Blairsville"), the movie has a surprisingly dark and disturbing tone. Most referential films tend to enjoy sending up the genre and having fun, but Prom Night II remains solemn and serious, right up to its final zinger. In 1987, when Freddy Krueger had gone from a scary villain to a talk-show host, the dark dreams of Hello Mary Lou were a welcome attempt at bringing horror back to its darker roots. The effects work is particularly murky and inventive, with the highlights being a chalkboard maelstrom and Mary Lou's bloody rebirth in the finale. For a low budget Canadian film, the effects are extremely ambitious, and really helps punctuate the dreamy nightmare that the story requires.

Hello Mary Lou's exploration of those dream worlds and the subconscious are the most intriguing points of the film. The scene where Vicki, under the possession of Mary Lou, kisses her father is a shocking moment steeped in Freudian undertones. The cause for Vicki's sudden incestuous impulse (and her father's eerily returned gesture) seems less to do with Mary Lou and more to do with the repressed state of their lifestyles. They live under a house ruled by a mother bent on suppressing feeling and emotion in favor of upholding the word of the Lord. Like most horror films from the 1970s and '80s, the complacency of a repressed existence can only last so long until it ends up unleashing the monster of the subconscious. Mary Lou is a crystallization of the Id gone wild, and her return (in the form of a license plate, no less!) signals how the subconscious aspects of the mind can never be fully controlled.

The film is not without humor though, and the way it deals with its forced Americana is particularly enjoyable. Since the original Prom Night required all subsequent entries to be firmly planted in US of A, the filmmakers of Hello Mary Lou (and also The Last Kiss) have fun with distorting the symbol of America and the values it stands for. Both films establish a weird link between sex and America that seems to suggest that their obsession with bodily pleasures has led to a society of sinful hedonism. As Mary Lou cheats on her boyfriend with Buddy at the beginning, she states while kissing him "It's a big, free country" and Buddy responds after taking a swig of alcohol with "God bless America!" The Last Kiss would go further and feature a scene of Mary Lou having passionate sex atop of the star spangled banner. They may be in the "land of the free", but in a time of AIDS and increasing divorce rates, such a distinction was being perverted. So although Prom Night II does not reflect any of the values of its Canadian roots, it instead critiques the American backdrop it is exploiting for greater box office dollars. Ironic world, isn't it?

Prom Night II is a dark film that borrows more from Freud than from the slasher original. It is a dark and inventive exploration of the subconscious, and is in many ways a much better film than its 1980 predecessor. It is dreary, gruesome and exploitative, and one of the last great cries of the Canadian tax shelter renaissance.

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