Sunday, August 24, 2008

‘Prom Night' (2008) and ‘P2’: Studies in Obsession

Caught up a bit this past weekend on some recent slasher flicks that escaped me during their theatrical runs. After watching the much-maligned Prom Night remake and the parking garage thriller P2, I was struck by how one first-time filmmaker demonstrated an aptitude for suspense and how one missed the boat entirely.

Prom Night deserved almost all of the criticism leveled against it. Every aspect of this film screamed TV movie – from the CW-(un)inspired casting to its glossy music video dance sequences to its tamer than tame kills (and this was watching the “unrated” version, mind you!). The story is generic slasher fare: a student-obsessed psychopath kills his object of affection’s entire family, is institutionalized, and escapes just before the titular event to have at it one last time. Brittany Snow is the final girl and does a respectable scream queen turn considering J.S. Cardone’s insipid screenplay that strains plausibility and is riddled with more holes than a slice of baby Swiss. The cast of over-privileged teen characters are featureless, so bland at times that it’s difficult to keep them straight. The setting – a posh hotel – lacks any shred of atmosphere or isolation necessary to create tension. Even the setups are standard fare – killer hides in the closet, under the bed, behind the bathroom door. Worst of all, the action is reliant on the stupidity of all involved, making it hard to empathize, sympathize, or connect with the characters. Personal highlight: when one of the characters – who’s vying for prom queen and talks incessantly about how much she really, really wants the crown - leaves the ballroom for a make-out session with her boyfriend moments before the big announcement. Happily, she wins; sadly, her throat is slit before she makes it back for her coronation.

The supporting cast of television actors – ER’s Ming-Na, Melrose Place’s Linden Ashby, Boston Public’s Jessalyn Gilsig, and The Wire’s Idris Elba - is distracting at times, and one ends up playing an annoying game of place-the-face-with-the-TV-show.

In short, Prom Night offers nary a shred of originality. Veteran television director Nelson McCormick offers nothing new, nothing close to resembling an injection of innovation to the proceedings, and instead succeeds in creating a piece of celluloid drywall. If Prom Night is any indication of what he has to offer the big screen, then viewers had better beware his upcoming remake of The Stepfather.

Thankfully, I watched first-time director Franck Khalfoun’s infinitely superior P2 second. Scripted by Khalfoun with Alexandre Aja and Gregory Levasseur (the writing duo behind High Tension, The Hill Have Eyes remake, the recent Mirrors, and the upcoming Piranha 3-D), P2 employs a simple set-up and gradually ratchets up the tension in this straightforward story of a businesswoman trapped with an infatuated psychopath in a parking garage on Christmas Eve. Rachel Nichols plays Angela, the fairly resourceful final girl, and Wes Bentley plays Thomas, the parking attendant with the major fixation who’s been secretly watching her every move via the office building’s high-tech security cameras.

One handily disabled car and some left-of-center suggestions of sharing Christmas Eve dinner and Angela is appropriately unnerved as she tries to make her way out of the office building. Adding to Angela’s growing sense of dread, kindly security guard Karl (Philip Akin) is nowhere to be found, the exits are all locked, cell phone service within the parking garage is spotty at best, and the holiday sidewalks are barren of passersby.

It isn’t long before Angela’s sniffing a chloroformed towel and wakes to find herself re-attired in a bodice-busting holiday dress and chained to a table in the security office. As Thomas slowly makes his intentions clear, Angela likewise reacts with equal parts horror and resourcefulness – first placating her captor by playing along, then trying to escape when the terror intensifies to the extreme. Nichols gets credit for conveying Angela’s internal struggle to remain calm and never allowing the character to succumb to her victimhood. Bentley deserves props, too, for his portrayal of Thomas’ gradual unspooling as he goes from composed, almost rational madness to over-the-top psycho.

What I enjoyed about P2 – that was sorely lacking in Prom Night – was the continuity and believability of the protagonist’s situation. Everything rings true and very little is left to coincidence. The screenplay is tight and there’s very little disbelief to be suspended. Whereas the characters in Prom Night are positioned illogically, the characters in P2 act realistically in response to their surroundings and circumstances.

The most telling difference between Prom Night and P2 is on the relationship between stalker and stalkee. In Prom Night, much needed back story is sacrificed for high school platitudes and systematic killing. Despite the chillingly cool calculation that actor Johnathon Schaech brings to his Richard Fenton, his behavior never feels grounded and comes off as random, despite a quick flashback in which we’re told of his long-standing obsession with Snow’s Donna. Conversely, the motivations and depths of Thomas’ fixation in P2 are slowly revealed throughout in seamlessly interwoven actions and reveals. His obsession with Angela feels authentic and the audience experiences a genuine sense of fear for the character’s safety. Even when P2 comes to its predictable vigilante, tables-turned climax, we’re actually cheering for Angela. When Prom Night’s Richard Fenton meets his maker, we’re left wishing that Johnathon Schaech had opted for the P2 script.

Word association: Prom Night = lifeless; P2 = surprising.

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