July 1980 saw the release of two well-loved cult horror classics that piggybacked on popular late ’70s/early ’80s trends- one a slasher film starring scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis as a disco-dancing maniac, the other a “nature-gone-wild” movie starring Quentin Tarantino favorite Robert Forster as a wise-cracking big city police detective. While neither film enjoys the artistic or commercial standing of their main inspirations – Halloween and Jaws, respectively – they’re both still a valuable, if slightly cheesy, addition to any horror fan’s library.
Period song to take you back:
“Back in Black” by AC/DC
Album/Release Date: Back in Black/July 25, 1980
Film: Prom Night
Release Date: July 18, 1980
Distributor: Avco Embassy Pictures
Box-office Gross (Domestic): $14.8 million
The Plot: A group of teenagers responsible for the accidental death of one of their peers six years before are stalked by a mysterious killer on the night of their senior prom.
Production & Reception: Canadian director/graphic designer Paul Lynch, who’d previously only helmed a couple of little-seen dramas, clearly saw dollar signs in the post-Halloween slasher craze when he approached producers Don & Peter Simpson with the story idea of a group of teenagers being stalked on the night of their senior prom. William Gray – who also penned the screenplay for The Changeling, released the same year – was then hired to write the script. Once it was completed, funding proved hard to come by until the attachment of newly-anointed scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis – who’d become a marketable commodity after the massive success of John Carpenter’s iconic 1978 film – as the sister of the murdered girl, who six years later is due to be crowned prom queen at the dance (her role, the first ever to be offered to the actress, was reportedly beefed up to take advantage of her star power). Also filling out the cast was Leslie Nielsen (who shot to comedy stardom with the success of Airplane! two weeks before Prom Night‘s release) as both the high school principal and the father of Jamie Lee’s character.
The movie was filmed in and around Toronto in September 1979, with three days tacked onto the shoot to fulfill a request by the film’s financial backers that they add in a sub-plot about an escaped killer to mirror the storyline of Halloween. Following production the film was shopped around, with Paramount expressing interest but only willing to commit to a limited 300-theater release. The film was eventually sold to smaller distributor Avco Embassy (who around that time also orchestrated massively successful releases of Carpenter/Curtis follow-up The Fog and Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm), who offered up a much more aggressive 1,200-theater strategy. The film was released on July 18, 1980 to poor reviews but exceptional box-office, grossing over $14 million on a budget of just over one million and further cementing both the bankability of the slasher trend and the box-office draw of star Jamie Lee Curtis.
Legacy: While it doesn’t enjoy the artistic credibility of contemporary slashers like Halloween or A Nightmare on Elm Street, Prom Night is nevertheless a well-remembered title in the sub-genre’s canon, used most memorably as a reference point in Scream 16 years later. The film would go on to spawn three less-successful sequels, not to mention a lame “re-imagining” starring Brittany Snow in 2008 that capitalized on the durable title while sharing little plot-wise with its predecessor. Perhaps Prom Night‘s most lasting contribution, though, is the lengthy, “what-in-christ’s-name-were-they-thinking” choreographed disco-dance routine filmed for the climactic prom sequence, which to this day still apparently gets reenacted regularly at school dances and nightclubs across the country.
Disco Dance Scene:
Release Date: July 2, 1980
Distributor: Group 1 International Distribution Organization
Box-office: N/A (but poor)
The Plot: A police officer and reptile expert attempt to hunt down a giant, man-eating alligator roaming the Chicago sewers.
Production & Reception: Taking a cue from Jaws and the slew of “giant-animals-run-amok” films that followed in its wake, Roger Corman protégés Lewis Teague and John Sayles teamed up for this horror-comedy, working off a story by another Corman regular, Frank Ray Perilli, about a giant alligator terrorizing the sewers of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. While Teague disliked Perilli’s particular take on the subject, in which the alligator grew enormous by ingesting ample amounts of beer from a local beer factory (wouldn’t that stunt its growth?), he did think the idea of a giant alligator inhabiting city sewers – based on a famous urban legend – would make for a good horror film. Changing the location to Chicago and the reason for the animal’s unprecedented growth on its eating the carcasses of lab animals injected with a growth hormone, Sayles also added in a layer of satire to create a script that was equal parts horror and tongue-in-cheek comedy. Following completion of the script, Robert Forster – who had recently starred in the Corman-produced Avalanche on which Teague had served as second-unit director, as well as Teague’s directing debut, crime thriller The Lady in Red – was the director’s first choice as the lead, and Forster accepted despite the fact that the actor was weak after having suffered a recent bout of spinal meningitis.
Shot in five weeks – with Los Angeles doubling for Chicago – on a $1.5 million budget, Alligator was practically a Roger Corman production despite the fact that Corman wasn’t a producer on it, with many on the crew coming over from their regular stints at the producer’s New World Pictures to lend a hand. While many of the sewer scenes were shot in actual sewers, sewer sets were also constructed for scenes in which it would be too difficult to use the real location. As for the alligator effects, the original “alligator” had been constructed three years prior to production but was in poor shape come time for the shoot, so a new, larger mechanical model had to be constructed. Unfortunately, much as the “Bruce” shark on Jaws, this mechanical model proved cumbersome and difficult to maneuver, forcing the production to film real small-sized alligators against miniature backdrops for some of the more logistically difficult shots. Upon completion the film was shopped around, and although several studios showed interest in picking it up producer Brandon Chase chose to distribute the movie himself in order to hold onto the rights.
Chase’s curious strategy would prove to be Alligator‘vs theatrical downfall. Distributing the film without the resources of a major studio proved difficult, and the film went on to show in only a small number of theaters. Without any marketing muscle behind it, and despite some surprisingly good reviews – including from The New York Times‘ influential Vincent Canby – the film suffered from a poor showing at the box-office and quickly disappeared from theaters. For most films this would have been the end of the line, but luckily the ABC T.V. network saw something in Alligator and ponied up with a $3 million offer for the rights to air it twice. Their gamble paid off – Alligator proved a huge ratings hit, making it a profitable venture for both the filmmakers and the network.
Legacy: Thanks to a slew of successful T.V. airings (it became a staple on late-night television in the `80s), Alligator has become something of a cult classic in the intervening years, fondly remembered as one of the better Jaw rip-offs to be released during that time. This fact is as much due to John Sayles’ smart comedic script as to Robert Forster’s quick-witted performance, which has become a favorite among genre fans and even inspired Quentin Tarantino to cast the actor as the lead in Jackie Brown seventeen years later.