Any good slasher movie worth its salt gives us a villain that has some traumatic event that sets off their murderous frenzy – their “trigger,” if you will. Sometimes it’s horrifically tragic, sometimes it’s tragically hilarious. Sometimes, there’s no motivation at all. And sometimes, there’s too much motivation. With Triggered! we’re singling out one insane individual from some of the best and worst slasher films to see if we can make sense of the method behind their madness. For this installment, we’re focusing on the maniac behind the slayings in Prom Night, Alex Hammond.
In July 1980, AVCO Embassy Pictures released Paul Lynch’s Prom Night, a disco-fueled tax shelter body count film, across 1,200 screens. This film, despite mixed reviews from critics, managed to land over 14 million bucks at the box office, a sum one can only assume would be marginally less had Lynch and company decided to go with Paramount Pictures and their paltry offering of 300 screens. Prom Night’s path to the big screen began with a meeting of the minds between Lynch and producer Irwin Yablans: Lynch went into the meeting under the guise of pitching a schlocky-sounding horror film called Don’t Go See the Doctor (a title perhaps more appropriate for a Lifetime Movie or sinister board game), which was to be a film about a psychotic physician. But at Yablans’ urging to gear the film based around a holiday of some sort (presumably owing to the success of Halloween), Lynch’s idea shifted to a horror film set at a high school prom. That idea blossomed into realization with the help of Canadian film producer Peter Simpson and a screenplay by California film student Robert Guza, Jr. The script begins in 1974 with a young girl named Robin Hammond and her attempt to join a game of “Killer” that her school chums are playing in an abandoned school building. Things get a little too intense, and before they know it, Robin falls from a window to her death. Six years later, an unknown party is out to seek revenge by killing the four responsible for the girl’s murder.
Prom Night is one of the more well-known films released during the hack and slash cycle of the ’80s, even among casual horror fans, perhaps because it received a requisite name check in Wes Craven’s 1996 landmark slasher film, Scream. Leslie Nielsen stars in Prom Night as the “name” meant to lure in older audiences, before his career transition to deadpan comedy star – though he stays off-screen for large stretches to give the film one of its many red herrings. Funnily enough, one of other things that Prom Night and Scream have in common is they feature actors who are predominately known for comedic roles (Nielsen and Henry Winkler, respectively) playing stern principals, both of whom are used as red herrings. Then, lending the film even more recognition, is the presence of Jamie Lee Curtis, who at that time was the hot commodity for horror films (Lynch specifically wanted her due to her fame after Halloween; she’d only make three more horror films before going “legits.”). And Prom Night is most definitely known for its insanely over the top dance number (it goes on for nearly four minutes!). But how the film is not particularly regarded as one of the “best” ones is that it takes its time to get to its ostensible main event: the murder scenes. And those are all over quickly, before the killer is even unmasked. Add to that a villain’s getup that isn’t memorable, resembling something closer to a cat burglar, and then the reveal that the maniac responsible for the deaths is Alex Hammond, the brother of the deceased girl in the film’s opening moments. The wait to get to this revelation, though, is worth it because not only is the killer’s motive relatable on an empathetic level, it makes him one of slasher cinema’s most sympathetic killers.
At the end of the film, the ensuing unmasking of Alex is handled fairly well – edits pivot back and forth from the day his sister died to shots of him staggering out of the high school with the “Killer!” chant echoing in his head as he collapses, crying in Curtis’ arms. Hell, even Nick, the dude he has been attempting to ax murder, looks sympathetic to his plight (though that’s presumably because he knows why Alex was trying to attack him). What other slasher film is there where the final girl is begging the police not to shoot him? From his final confession, “I killed her … Robin,” it’s all too clear that his revenge is purely from a place of guilt. He left his sister to go play, and when he returned, she was dead. In the article Understanding and Ameliorating Revenge Fantasies in Psychotherapy, Dr. Mardi J. Horowitz examines a woman named Ellen coping with her feelings of revenge toward her husband whom she blames for the wrongful death of their child, Morgan. Dr. Horowitz lays it out: “Symptomatic revenge fantasies go beyond normal bitter thoughts; they are unwanted, uncontrollable, dangerous, or intensely evocative of shame or guilt.” Alex has held onto his guilt for so long, carrying the weight and the lie of how his sister died, perhaps more so than the actual perpetrators, that it was just too much, and to silence that guilt meant seeking justice for Robin’s death.
Now that we’ve unpacked Alex’s motive, it’s a little unclear as to what his trigger is. When did Alex decide to strike back at Robin’s killers? The aforementioned article on revenge fantasies perhaps helps us hone this down: “(what Ellen’s) … injured soul wanted, which was restoration of Morgan’s life and of her life before the tragedy. Her hostile response was clarified and paraphrased back to her as: ‘Is this little bit of human warmth and understanding all I get for what I have gone through!? Why couldn’t you have just spared me my pain! Why do you not suffer as much as I? It’s not fair! Give everything back!’” Did Alex see the killers in the hallway one day prior to the prom and feel that anger bubble up? How could they walk around living their lives, when his sister is no longer able to do the same? Six years is an odd passage of time, especially given that slashers tend to stick to lengths of time like one year later, or ten years. It couldn’t obviously be one year because everyone would be too young, and that certainly wasn’t the kind of movie Lynch was making. At the time the film takes place, the kids involved in Robin’s wrongful death would be 17 or 18 years old. Maybe it’s because it’s their senior year and Alex knew this might be the last chance to “get” them. Did he know at the moment he found his sister’s body that his classmates were the ones who did it, or did he believe the official story that Robin was killed as “the victim of a sexual attack?” The film never shows them confessing their wrongdoing, or really even feeling guilt. That is, other than Nick (Casey Stevens), Kimberly’s (Curtis) boyfriend, who seemingly moves to confess his wrongdoing but doesn’t finish his thought. It’s on odd consideration, but the victims probably don’t even know why they’re being attacked by this masked maniac!
Unlike most revenge slashers from the era, Alex really only sticks to the actual perpetrators when doling out his kills (especially unlike certain ambulance drivers who don’t even kill the person who killed their family member). Yes, Alex kills Slick (no great loss there, the dude would have certainly grown up to use casting couches in his career), and decapitates Unibrow Lou (who assaulted his sister in the cafeteria, so he just added him to the list), but we get the sense that his mania wasn’t to just go out and rack up a body count. He is a killer with a purpose. Also, rather unusually for most films of this era, the killer isn’t even after the film’s final girl, owing to their familial connection. In fact, he pushes her away while trying to kill his final victim.
This is why I find it interesting that Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert put Prom Night’s advertising campaign in their crosshairs for their anti-slasher film crusade on a September 1980 episode of Sneak Previews, as one of the films to prove their point about the “misogyny” inherent in hack and slash films. No, Prom Night is not a misogynistic film – gender has nothing to do with why the killer is targeting his victims. In fact, the most gruesome death in the film is for Lou. We can have immense respect for the vast wealth of film knowledge that critics like Siskel and Ebert had, whose passion for film came through in their arguments on their television program, but also recognize like a lot of arguments nowadays, it’s perhaps overblown and full of hot air. The hypocrisy of the inclusion of Prom Night on Sneak Preview’s “Women in Danger” episode is furthered by Siskel’s own admission that “Gender makes no difference in this routine revenge film.”
For a long stretch of Prom Night, the police are focused on finding an escaped mental patient, Leonard Murch, who is initially blamed for Robin’s murder. We’re told that he had a history as a sex offender — police chased him in attempt to apprehend him post-Robin’s death — and we see that he burned up in his crashed car, though not killed, as he is institutionalized for the six year stretch leading up to the film’s main events. All of this is meant to make the audience suspect him as the masked killer, but the set-up fails because the audience didn’t see him kill Robin. The characters don’t know that, but for a whodunit to be effective both the characters and the audience have to believe it, or no one will. It certainly doesn’t help that we’re told Murch was even apprehended by the police with less than 15 minutes before the end of the film, so it’s pretty much a waste of the audience’s time. Murch wasn’t entirely innocent before the fact; he was a sex offender, but the way the police handle the case (determining Murch’s guilt before he even had a chance to defend himself because he fit a certain profile), and because he ran away from the police (unconsciously showing signs of guilt for a crime he didn’t commit), brings up an illuminating point about the sheer level of wrongful convictions handed down by law enforcement in real life. In February of 2020, the National Registry of Exonerations, a registry co-founded with the Center on Wrongful Convictions highlighted over 2,600 exonerations since 1989 in which those wrongly accused served a total amount of 22,540 years. In the specific case of Murch, the only real evidence against him was his prior convictions, and the fact that he lived nearby the crime scene. We can note the subsequent disfigurement and wrongful conviction of Murch as a catalyst for the homicide that he committed against the innocent nurse, considering that one of the emotional responses to a false accusation is anger.
With its second and third entries, the Prom Night franchise would abandon the slasher whodunit narrative and focus largely on supernatural horror. With its 4th title, Deliver Us from Evil, mix the two and we get a fairly solid Satanic slasher film about a crazed priest. To those who may not be as intimately familiar with the 1980 iteration of Prom Night, or are only aware of its 2008 “remake” (a remake in name only, hence the quotation marks), the ’80s version is a much better use of your time (note that the remake abandons the slasher whodunit element and pivots to a lurid, creepy stalker, psycho-thriller — the same type which Hollywood was churning out in the ’90s, like The Crush or Unlawful Entry). Because even though the original and the remake are more or less cash grabs on different film crazes (first, ’80s slasher mania and then the glut of remakes in the 2000s), Paul Lynch’s Prom Night was made with heart.