Hello, Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987) Hello, Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987)       -***

     The sequel in name only wasn’t invented in the late 1980’s, of course. Son of Ingagi came out all the way back in 1940, and The Return of Doctor X is a year older even than that. Then in the 70’s, American distributors of foreign exploitation movies acquired a habit of passing off their wares as sequels to unrelated previous hits, like when Shock played US theaters (with a smidgen of justification) as Beyond the Door II, or when Twitch of the Death Nerve was reissued (with no justification whatsoever) as Last House on the Left, Part II. Nevertheless, it undeniably was during the late 80’s that sequels in name only became a regular part of the cinematic landscape, especially on home video. Indeed, the rise of the videotape rental business tracks the rise of the in-name-only sequel closely enough to suggest a causative relationship, at least on the demand side of the equation. The low cost of renting a videotape as compared to buying cinema tickets was such that people who would go out to the movies no more than once every couple months or so might hit Blockbuster (or their increasingly embattled local independent video store) two or three times in a week. At that rate, such customers would quickly exhaust the obvious, popular offerings, having to resort to titles they’d never heard of when they wanted something they’d never seen before. As any advertiser could tell you, though, a known quantity has an inherent marketing advantage over an unknown one when it comes to capturing consumer interest, even when the consumers in question are specifically seeking novelty. That’s the main reason why sequels exist in the first place, after all, and the obsessive gaming of that paradox is how we ended up in our current sorry pop-cultural situation, where every goddamned thing has to be a synergistic, cross-platform, multimedia franchise. It would have been weirder if the advent of home video hadn’t been accompanied by some mutation or innovation in how sequels were made and marketed.

     What I don’t understand, though, is why, in the 80’s and 90’s, so many producers who wanted to reap the benefits of sequelization saw no need to make actual sequels. Were folks like me, who feel almost personally insulted by a bait-and-switch, really such a tiny minority that we weren’t worth worrying about? Were most people who sufficiently enjoyed, say, a loose adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” to seek out more of the same genuinely content to receive instead a movie about a guy whose arm turns into a snake at inopportune moments? Like I said, I don’t understand it. But the fact that I didn’t just make up the foregoing example probably goes some way toward explaining why I find Hello, Mary Lou: Prom Night II relatively inoffensive as in-name-only sequels go. No doubt it would still have chapped my ass were it not for that fact that I hadn’t yet seen the original Prom Night when I initially watched Hello, Mary Lou way back when, but at least it isn’t totally absurd to follow up a weird Canadian copy of Halloween with a weirder Canadian copy of A Nightmare on Elm Street.

     Interestingly, Prom Night II does make one token gesture in the direction of legitimate sequel-hood: it’s set at Hamilton High School, the same school attended by the Hammond siblings and the Dark Secret Club. We begin 22 years before those kids’ time, though, in the spring of 1957. It’s the night of the senior prom, and prom queen front-runner Mary Lou Maloney (Lisa Schrage, from Gnaw: Food of the Gods, Part II) isn’t paying much attention to her boyfriend, the almost agonizingly dorky Billy Nordham (Steve Atkinson, of Mindfield). Having made a point of dancing with just about every other guy in the senior class, she finally sneaks off behind the stage of the school auditorium to make out with Billy’s best friend, Buddy Cooper (Misbegotten’s Robert Levine). They’re still at it when Nordham at last decides to go looking for his date, and he doesn’t take the revelation very well once he finds them. Soon thereafter, Billy happens to be on the scene when a bunch of troublemakers plant a stinkbomb in one of the boys’ bathrooms, which gives him an idea. Disarming the bomb, he carries it up to the catwalk above the stage where the coronation will be performed. When Mary Lou expectedly wins the vote for prom queen, Billy drops the stinkbomb, setting up what he figures will be a suitably humiliating revenge for her infidelity. He miscalculates the angle of descent, however, with the result that the bomb’s sparking fuse brushes against Mary Lou’s voluminous skirts on the way down. Her dress bursts into flames, and Mary Lou burns to death right there on the stage. Billy at least has the decency to be sickened by the outcome of his prank, although he also has enough instinct for self-preservation not to stick around to catch the heat for it. Only Mary Lou herself observes him fleeing the scene, and she obviously won’t be telling anyone what she saw. Buddy, for his part, is so devastated by his inability to save the girl he loved that he goes on to join the priesthood.

     Thirty years later, Nordham (now grown up into Michael Ironside, from Scanners and Total Recall) is still a dork. In fact, he might even be a bigger dork than before, given that he’s now the principal of Hamilton High. His son, Craig (Louis Ferreira, from Blood & Donuts and Dawn of the Dead), is old enough now to be a senior at Nordham’s school himself, which in fact he is. That’s turning into a point of intergenerational friction, because Craig doesn’t really know what he wants to do with his life, while his father has spent the past eighteen years just assuming that the boy would go straight from high school into college like he did. Craig’s lack of clearly formulated, conventional ambition seems also to be at least part of the reason why his girlfriend, Vicki Carpenter (Wendy Lyon, from The Shape of Water and Kaw), has had such a hard time getting her mother (Judy Mahbey) to accept their relationship. (Her father [Wendell Smith], for his part, likes Craig just fine, and is always trying— without visible success— to make the Carpenter house a welcoming place for him.) Mind you, it’s clear that Mom’s dour, life-abnegating interpretation of Roman Catholicism is at least as big a factor in her rejection of the Nordham kid. To her, Craig is just a walking incitement to sin and wickedness, a danger to Vicki’s virtue and to the Carpenter family’s good name. Indeed, she’s considerably worse about that sort of thing than Father Cooper (Robert Monette, of Iceman and Mania)— which is to say, our old pal from the prologue, Buddy— even though the priest has better reason than most to look with disfavor upon teen lust.

     At school, Vicki is one of several serious contenders to be crowned queen at the forthcoming senior prom, and might even be considered slightly favored over the others. The girl who wants it most badly, however, is Kelly Henenlotter (Terri Hawkes, from Slaughter of the Innocents and Killer Party), who would win in a walk if they were crowning Queen of All Bitches instead. Kelly has been running a decidedly dirty campaign, so Vicki is under some pressure to make herself impervious to attack. In particular, she wants her appearance on the night itself to be impeccable— which puts her at odds on a second front with her mother, who disapproves of spending money on whorish vanities like royal-caliber prom dresses. One afternoon, while staying after class for some extracurricular purpose or other, Vicki starts poking around backstage in the auditorium, hoping to find something among the old drama club costumes that she could surreptitiously borrow in place of the fancy dress that her mom won’t let her buy. While she’s at it, she discovers a trunk that looks like it hasn’t been touched since before she was born, which turns out to contain the tiara and cape which Mary Lou Maloney never got a chance to don on the night of her tragic and appalling death. Evidently they’d been kept back here all this time but never actually used, as if three subsequent decades’ worth of students and faculty alike regarded them as jinxed.

     In point of fact, the old prom paraphernalia are worse than jinxed— they’re haunted. From the moment when Vicki opens the trunk, she begins having recurrent hallucinations of Hamilton High as it was thirty years before. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say Hamilton High as it would have appeared back then in somebody’s nightmares, because there’s always something wrong and evil and twisted about the place in these intrusive visions. Naturally, Vicki is loath to talk about the things she keeps seeing, and not just for the immediately obvious reasons. I mean, remember— Kelly’s out there, constantly plotting against her, and what student body is going to elect a crazy girl prom queen?! Just the same, almost everyone— Vicki’s parents, Craig, her friend Monica (Beverley Hendry), and yes, Kelly too— notices that there’s something strange about her lately. She’s about to get even stranger, too, because Mary Lou’s ghost isn’t just out to make her see things that aren’t there. No, Mary Lou wants the coronation she was denied thirty years ago, and the best way to get it is obviously to possess one of the candidates for this year’s crown. Since Vicki was the one who let her out of the haunted trunk, she gets the unenviable job of hosting the dead girl’s spirit. That means she’ll also be the conduit for Mary Lou’s supernatural wrath against those who stand in her way, including and especially Kelly and Josh (Brock Simpson, the only actor to appear in all four Prom Night films, each time as a different character), the A/V nerd on whom Kelly is relying to rig the computerized vote tally in her favor. Vicki will become the conduit for Mary Lou’s supernatural vengeance, too, once the ghost realizes that Billy and Buddy are both still in town.

     The thing about ripping off A Nightmare on Elm Street (or about ripping off the first three Nightmare on Elm Street movies at once) is that you have to try at least a little harder than you do when ripping off any of the other major slasher franchises. Few viewers expect more from Spam in a Cabin than six to ten luridly gruesome murders, and Spam in the Suburbs isn’t inherently any more demanding. Take on Freddy Krueger, though, and you’d better have some tricks up your sleeve. Fans of this mode of teen horror want to see reality get tied into knots. We want to see victims dispatched in ways that aren’t differentiated merely by which farm, garden, or construction implement gets pressed into service as a murder weapon this time. And most of all, we want a killer with a personality, instead of just a hulking, inscrutable engine of violence or an unseen presence lurking behind a POV cam. Hello, Mary Lou: Prom Night II commendably delivers on all three of those fronts, even if it only delivers on the last one especially well. The hallucination sequences are mostly kind of lazy and hacky, and the handful that aren’t are instead just totally nonsensical given what’s supposed to be behind them. They do, however, all represent a good-faith effort to evoke the same feelings of disorientation and unease as the dreams that Krueger likes to send his victims. Mary Lou rarely resorts to anything as prosaic as a knife, either, even when operating fully from within Vicki’s body. Mind you, there are occasions on which it would have been a better fit with the rest of the scene if Mary Lou had just made Vicki shank somebody, but again, points for trying. All that said, I wish the filmmakers hadn’t been quite so blatant about what they were doing. For instance, the still-incorporeal Mary Lou’s attack on Vicki’s artsy friend (Beth Gondek, from The Night of Scarlet Terror) who tries to cannibalize the old tiara and cape into raw materials for her next project is a little too exact a parallel of Rod’s staged jail cell “suicide” in A Nightmare on Elm Street, and the animatronic tongue that Vicki’s old rocking horse sprouts whenever she hallucinates at home is just about the silliest imaginable way to tell the audience, “There— you see? Mary Lou Maloney is just as scary as Freddy Krueger!”

     Still, although she’s nowhere near as scary as all that, Mary Lou is indeed a memorable and appealing villain. She makes for a nice mix of the traditional and the modern, what with her fixation on completing the last important task of her material life and her vibrantly trashy 50’s bad-girl personal style. And like all the best vengeful ghosts, she has an undeniably legitimate grievance against at least one of the living. In contrast to far too many Freddy wannabes, Mary Lou has more going on than just a pun or a wisecrack to accompany every kill, and she draws strength from screenwriter Ron Oliver’s broad but selective mining of all three then-extant Elm Street films to create her methodology. Lisa Schrage and Wendy Lyon alike deserve props for their portrayals of her, too— Schrage for making the mortal Mary Lou weirdly likable both despite and because of her ostentatious misbehavior, and Lyon for nailing what that sort of persona would curdle into after thirty years of stewing in her own resentments. Both performances are a tad overwrought, but not objectionably so.

     What is objectionable is the way Prom Night II doesn’t really find the core of its story until the movie is nearly over. There are three obvious ways to handle this material: (1) to put the focus on Vicki, and her battle with Mary Lou for control of her body and identity; (2) to put the focus on Craig, and his efforts to save the girl he loves from being suppressed by and subsumed within a malevolent ghost; or (3) to put the focus on the adult Bill Nordham, and his unexpected chance to atone for his youthful misdeed by sending Mary Lou back where she came from, preferably at redemptively immense personal cost. Unfortunately, Hello, Mary Lou spends most of its length dithering between options 1 and 2 before finally settling on option 3, long after it’s too late to lay the groundwork necessary to make it work. That’s especially irksome because Michael Ironside invests about as much as his thinly-written part will allow in his portrait of a thoroughly unadmirable man who inconveniently happens to be the only person with the power to make things really right. Prom Night II then compounds the error with a cheesy and misguided triple finale, in which the thematically correct resolution— Mary Lou vanquished, but at such a cost that no one can really count themselves the winners— is first walked back by a totally unearned happy ending, and then reversed again by one of those “evil never dies, so long as there’s any chance of further sequels” stingers that we were all so sick of by 1987. Nevertheless, this movie on the whole is a screwy good time, even if does have fuck all to do with Prom Night.



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