I officially have a brand new guilty pleasure, my only regret being that I didn’t find it sooner. Much sooner. Why I never stumbled upon Bruce Pittman’s gloriously out-there supernatural slasher Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II while perusing the dusty crevices of my local video shop is anyone’s guess, not least because of it’s knock-out accompanying poster. The above image is the kind of canvas treat that would have left me staring in awe during my weekly horror movie expedition, the kind I approached with the gusto and scholastic meticulousness of a young Indiana Jones. The movie was also released in 1987, which was primetime for my peewee horror fandom. I can only assume they didn’t stock this particular film in the micro cave of wonders where I made the majority of my retro horror discoveries ― a crazy thought in an era of one-touch convenience, but certain things had a habit of evading you back then.
Even in light of such misfortune, I was still later to the party than I should have been, not only because of the cult following this underseen gem has garnered over the years, but because it shares its title with one of the slasher sub-genre’s most infamous golden age entries. Not that their connection stretches any further than superficial marketing. In fact, Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II, originally titled The Haunting of Hamilton High, wasn’t intended as a sequel at all. Executive producer Peter Simpson, who also produced the original Prom Night, wasn’t happy with the initial cut of the film and ordered reshoots for several sequences, which were ultimately rushed out in under a week. During post-production, distributor Samuel-Goldwyn had the film’s name changed to cash-in on Prom Night‘s success, which with a domestic gross of $14,796,236 had proven a real coup for Canadian cinema back in 1980, something the company was hoping to emulate. The fact that both movies are set at the fictional Hamilton High School, the film’s solitary storyline connection, was purely coincidence.
Managing a mere US$2.7 million on a budget of CA$2.5 million, Hello Mary Lou Prom Night II didn’t live up to the film whose name it so cynically latched onto, but it is much more fun creatively. It’s not often I prefer a movie that shamelessly rips off another, but asides from belonging to a trilogy of films that landed Janet Leigh offspring Jamie Lee Curtis the ‘Scream Queen’ moniker, Prom Night, filmed back-to-back with Terror Train, has never been one of my favourite slashers, paling against the likes of Friday the 13th and Maniac, two of a deluge of stalk and slash derivatives released the same year. It has its moments, and you have to love that disco aesthetic/soundtrack, but it kind of crawls along for the most part, and was certainly a comedown for anyone who admired Curtis’ first two ‘Scream Queen’ outings in John Carpenter’s hugely influential Halloween and supernatural successor The Fog. The fact that Prom Night arrived as the slasher was taking off and managed to bag a burgeoning Curtis more than fulfilled its financial aspirations, but creatively it was almost destined to underwhelm.
Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II fared much better in the home video arena the following year, fitting nicely with a genre that had long-since ditched the dead-eyed killer for horror of the supernatural variety. By the time of its VHS release in 1988, Fred Krueger, who had led the genre’s self-aware paradigm shift by becoming a wisecracking, pop culture figure in the MTV mode, was sitting at the top of the horror mountain, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master boasting record figures for the series with a rather impressive return of $49,369,899. Krueger inspired so many like-for-like movies and outright rip-offs during the late 1980s, and his presence is certainly felt here, especially since ‘Hello Mary Lou’ features the work of A Nightmare on Elm Street special effects designer Jim Doyle, who had also worked with the likes of John Badham and Francis Ford Coppola, but despite featuring some rather dazzling dream sequences in the Nightmare mode, this is no straight-up Krueger rip-off.
With a horror surname motif that sees the majority of our cast named after some of the genre’s most lauded creative forces, Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II wears its influences proudly on its sleeve, respectfully borrowing from the likes of Carrie, The Exorcist and A Nightmare on Elm Street much more than it does Prom Night. It even throws in a bit of zombie action during the film’s delirious finale, a whirlwind of halcyon silliness that throws common decency to the wind. The movie also indulges in another 80s trend by setting the prerequisite slasher set-up in 1957, thirty years before its current day narrative. Nostalgia is cyclical, and the 80s was absolutely enamoured with the 1950s, some of film’s biggest players living out their formative years in the rock and roll era. Movies such as Rob Reiner’s coming of age drama Stand By Me and cult favourite Back to the Future were very much the product of 50s kids, and the horror genre was no less immune to the decade’s charms, films such as The Stuff, The Blob and The Thing embracing the Cold War sci-fi of McCarthy era America.
The 50s was also a decade of teenage rebellion, and in titular menace Mary Lou, ‘Prom Night II’ gives us a hellcat to reckon with, one beautifully portrayed by two separate actors in original, possessed and demonic forms. Slashers are notoriously sexist, punishing women for lascivious and unseemly acts, but Mary Lou flaunts her flagrant immorality with unabashed zeal, which is such a refreshing twist in a genre renown for its gender discrimination. In the spirit of films such as Amy Holden Jones’ The Slumber Party Massacre, this is one for ladies who resent the term ‘ladies’, a fact outlined in the film’s opening scene, in which Lisa Schrage’s Mary Lou Maloney stops off at confession on her way to the prom, outlining all the immoral acts she’s committed and explaining with devil-eyed relish how she loved every last minute of it. Not only that, she leaves her phone number in the confessional booth along with the message For a Good Time Call Mary Lou. Quite the introduction!
After she arrives at the prom, we quickly realise that Mary Lou isn’t just acting out the way teenagers do. This isn’t your typical adolescent sticking it to a generation of prudish church zealots. The girl is wicked through and through. She practically rapes vodka-soused jock Buddy Cooper right in front of her beleaguered boyfriend, who she openly admits to using for his family’s wealth. When the timid and trusting Billy Nordham overhears and confronts her, she tells him to beat it and carries on in front of everyone, accepting the title of prom queen as if it was her birth right and lavishing in her own opulence. In a scene more than redolent of Carrie‘s finale, Mary Lou is then burnt alive in a stink bomb prank gone awry, making repressed midgets out of a future Buddy, now a man of the cloth himself, and jilted beau Billy, the boy responsible for sending his beloved bitch so unceremoniously to the afterlife. Bad move, Billy boy.
Once Mary Lou pops her clogs (at least in her flesh form) we’re introduced to a new protagonist in Wendy Lyon’s comparatively unremarkable Vicki Carpenter, but don’t be fooled my her bland goodie two-shoes veneer, it’s merely the set-up for an exceptional twin role. Lyon’s transformation from American sweetheart to unconscionable incubator is absolutely startling, Vicki falling down the proverbial rabbit hole and reappearing with The Mad Hatter clenched between her pearly whites like a rabid Hellhound dragging Satan through a thorn hedge backwards. This is the result of Mary Lou’s awakening spirit and the gradual possession of Vicki through a series of dreamlike visions that are fun and playful and really quite the achievement considering the budget at hand.
Vicki is dating the son of Billy Nordham, now headmaster of the school that played host to his unpunished act of manslaughter. Classmate Billy, now the town priest, senses that retribution may be in store almost thirty years on, though his forewarnings fall on deaf ears, even after Vicki’s pregnant classmate is hung from a ceiling and thrown through a third-storey window, something that the authorities attribute to suicide. An adult Nordham is played by none other than Michael Ironside of Scanners and Total Recall fame, the actor lending proceedings a peculiar pedigree amid so much self-aware melodrama and unrepentant horror shenanigans, which only adds to the film’s offbeat, often cavalier but always entertaining madness. If the original Prom Night stuck to a rigid, made-to-order formula free from risk, then it’s tenuously linked sequel is the complete anthesis, delivering slasher tropes, bizarre imagery, earnest drama, supernatural possession, and a demonic rocking horse with a rather flaccid tongue. It also gives us one of the most underrated horror villains of the era, one who truly comes into her own when bequeathed to the formerly angelic Miss Lyon.
The main reason for Vicki’s somewhat introverted nature is her queerly devout mother, Virginia, who though above wild acts of insane retribution certainly possesses shades of Carrie White’s maternal scourge, Margaret, and boy is she in for a shock. The disappointment of being robbed of Schrage’s equally devilish Mary Lou so prematurely is certainly made up for as we enter the final act, Lyon relishing in the opportunity to show a completely different side to her creative repertoire. A stranger in a strange land three decades detached from her natural habitat, Vicki’s possessed form flaunts her 50s chic, delivering the kind of antiquated rock ‘n roll lingo that gives her a cult edge in the Schwarzenegger vein. And if you thought Mary Lou was a wild child during the movie’s opening, you ain’t seen nothing yet! Lyon’s Mary Lou is every bit as nasty and lascivious as Schrage’s, but now the character has a grudge to bear, with some rather devastating supernatural powers to boot. I’ve never been less and more attracted to a woman in such a short space of time. Lyon’s transformation is nothing short of palpable.
Though the film has benefitted from something of a reappraisal in recent years, critics were not so enamoured with Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II, but this isn’t a movie that warrants serious analysis. It’s economical, lowbrow, utterly erratic, but if you know that going in and actively watch films for those reasons, it’s fun, creative, absolutely off the wall at times, much more than just a bad movie that can be consumed on an ironic level. With its inspired special effects sequences and cute genre nods, there’s also lots to admire here, and in the uninhibited performances of our eponymous villain(s), something to cherish too.