Horror Movie News and Reviews

Jamie Lee Curtis: The Making of a Scream Queen – Prom Night

In some ways Prom Night represented a chance for Jamie Lee Curtis to create a new high school experience, putting aside the element of the masked killer in Prom Night, that she had never enjoyed and this is especially true in terms of prom night and the dancing that’s a rite of passage for graduating high school students.

Whereas Curtis herself had been largely ostracized throughout her high school years, which would manifest in Curtis’ bleak outlook towards the future, Kim Hammond is one of the most popular girls in high school, and is going to the prom with one of the most popular boys in school in the form of Casey Stevens’ Nick McBride character. In many ways this was the kind of teenage experience that Curtis herself could only have dreamed of back at Choate, with the exception of being stalked by an axe-wielding killer.

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Perhaps Curtis’ most memorable scene in Prom Night is when Kim and Nick, Hamilton High’s Prom King and Prom Queen, have their big dance scene in the school gymnasium. The outrageous dance sequence, which lasts about three minutes in the film and features an array of disco moves and poses, required a lot of practice on the part of Curtis and Stevens who had worked hard, both before and during the film’s production, to get the dance moves just right in concert with dance choreographer Pamela Malcolm, Paul Lynch’s sister.

WILLIAM GRAY: Jamie was very much a natural dancer and the scene wasn’t that difficult for her whereas Casey really struggled with the dancing and had to work a lot harder than Jamie did to get the moves right. The scene was embarrassing. We copied everything on Prom Night, and with that scene we were copying Saturday Night Fever. The biggest debate we had when we were planning the film was whether to use disco music or rock music. We went with disco because of the success of Saturday Night Fever.

PAUL LYNCH: In the script it said there was a wild disco sequence so we had to create a sequence out of that. Peter Simpson and I felt like we needed a big dance scene in the film and that’s why I had my sister, who was a dance choreographer, work on dancing with Jamie and Casey Stevens for ten days before we started shooting. I wanted a dance sequence that would at least hold a candle to something like Saturday Night Fever, if not being quite as good. I thought the scene turned out good, and most of that was due to Jamie who was a very good dancer. Casey had to work a lot harder to get the dance moves down.

PAMELA MALCOLM: We had fun with the scene, but it was the end of filming and it was really hot and humid in the gymnasium. Paul could barely stand up during the filming of the scene because it was so hot and Jamie really carried the scene because Casey had two left feet. We also had to work around Jamie’s back at all times, and eventually we got through the scene. Poor Casey was such a nice guy, and I think he’d had his fill of Jamie by the end of filming. Casey trained for hours and hours in the dance studio but he couldn’t do lifts, and some other ambitious dance sequences that I’d planned for the scene. A few years after we made Prom Night, Paul told me that Casey was sick with AIDS and then I heard that he died, and that made me very sad.

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DAVID MUCCI: The dance scene was really crazy and fun. Casey had a stunt double who was standing off in the corner with a wig and everything, but Casey was really determined to try and do the dance scene himself. They used a double for Casey in some of the takes, if you watch the film closely.

ROBERT NEW: Casey and Jamie worked for two weeks on the dancing. Jamie was really into the dancing and really burned it up on the dance floor whereas Casey wasn’t that much into it. Jamie pulled Casey around the dance floor and carried him through the scene. They got along fine, although I think Casey was a bit in awe of Jamie. In terms of shooting the dance number, we had the scene well-covered and shot from an angle. The biggest challenge was with the dance floor itself because it was an under-lit plastic floor and if you stomped on the floor, the cameras would shake so we used a Steadicam for much of the dance scene. We shot the scene off the floor, with the camera off the floor, and we used a Dolly on the dance floor when Casey and Jamie were twirling around the dance floor.

MARY BETH RUBENS: Jamie had legs that went on forever, and an incredible amount of energy. She was tireless and she just kept going and going, and she was a great dancer.

SHELDON RYBOWSKI: Before they filmed the scene, Jamie walked out and surveyed the stage and planned out all the moves she was going to do. She was very prepared. My one scene with Jamie in the film was when I arrived at the prom with Joy Thompson, and I handed Casey Stevens a joint and then I kissed Jamie on the cheek. I was supposed to shake Jamie’s hand or something, but I kissed her on the cheek instead and she was shocked. She went “Oh,” but she was really cool about it, and then we had to do more takes for continuity purposes, and I had to kiss her cheek over and over again.

JOY THOMPSON: I remember that Casey Stevens had a hard time doing the dancing while Jamie found it quite easy. As for the dancing, that was the type of thing kids were doing back in 1979 so when we were watching them do the scene it wasn’t that funny.

STEVE WRIGHT: We had two cameras for that dance sequence, and there was also dry ice and the floor was covered with oil and I remember that Jamie actually slipped and hit the floor hard during one take.

The climactic scene in Prom Night occurs when Kim and Nick are confronted by the masked killer on the stage. The axe-wielding killer grapples with Nick who eventually pushes him away after which Kim grabs the axe and smacks the killer in the head. The killer was played by stuntman Terry Martin, although actor Michael Tough donned the killer’s black mask at certain times during filming. “The axe fight scene took place at the end of our filming schedule and everyone was very hot and frustrated,” recalls Robert New. “Before we shot the scene, Paul stood up and lectured the cast and crew to pull it together because it was a dangerous scene and someone could get hurt, and Paul wanted everyone to band together and pull the scene out. I remember that Casey had a stunt double for the scene and that Jamie was very adept at doing the action and physical stuff.”

Both this scene, and the film’s final scene which takes place outside the gymnasium, were shot on the last two days of filming. It was a very grueling finish to what had been a relatively peaceful and routine shoot, and this was primarily because Toronto was going through a record heat wave during the end of Prom Night’s filming schedule. “We shot that scene on a Saturday, all day and all night, and then we finished the movie on Sunday and the heat was unbelievable,” recalls Lynch. “It was the worst heat wave Toronto had ever seen those last two days and everyone was very tired and uncomfortable. We just wanted to finish it.”

The final scene in the film, which also represents Curtis’ dramatic highlight in the film, happens outside the gymnasium. It’s in this scene that Prom Night’s wounded and dying killer stumbles outside and then falls to the ground. Curtis runs out, leans down to the killer whom she immediately recognizes as her brother, Alex. She pulls off Alex’s black mask, and then her face trembles like crazy with emotion and grief as she watches her brother die, recognizing also that Alex murdered her friends who were responsible, six years earlier, for the death of Alex and Kim’s sister, Robin.

It was a very emotional scene and so Lynch and cinematographer Robert New decided to focus the camera tight on Curtis’ eyes as she convulses and trembles with emotion. In the shooting script, Kim says nothing, but when Curtis and Lynch were discussing the scene, Lynch decided that Curtis should say something to her dying brother. “I felt like Jamie should say something, anything, to end the movie, some line of dialogue that people would remember, but we couldn’t think of anything good,” recalls Lynch. “As it turns out, Jamie didn’t need to say anything because her reaction was so poignant and powerful. When the music hits at the end of the film, it just makes it a great scene.”

PAUL LYNCH: It was a very powerful scene, and I was almost staggered by it when I saw it. When the music hits and you see Jamie’s face, it’s just very emotional, and I felt I had created something very beautiful. I believe at that moment that Jamie’s character has lost her mind, and that her life will never be the same after that night. Jamie deserves half the credit for that scene, and the movie, because she had the ability to project so much emotion. I let Jamie make her own choices in that scene, as with the rest of the film, and she was brilliant.

ROBERT NEW: Jamie emotionally transformed that scene into a very touching scene and it was very powerful to watch. She went to a place in that scene that Paul didn’t expect and it left Paul and the rest of us a bit awestruck actually.

MARY BETH RUBENS: Jamie had bottomless depth as an actress, and a strong connection to human feelings. She also has an ability to make you feel what she’s going through and that’s because she has such a strong presence. In that scene, when the camera hit her face, you could see her whole body vibrate.

MICHAEL TOUGH: This was a very hard scene for me. I’d never done a dramatic and emotional scene like this before and I spent hours trying to get ready. I remember Jamie being very supportive during my pacing time just off set. She kept encouraging me and reminding me to not get too worked-up off camera. Save some of it. I remember crying during the actual scene and I remember being exhausted after we did that scene. That was one of those moments in an actor’s career where you understand why you love what you do. I truly was passionate about acting back then. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I was a jaded and cynical old pro!

STEVE WRIGHT: Jamie was going to say something in that scene, but then she changed her mind and told us she wasn’t going to say anything, as was in the script. When we filmed the scene, she leaned down to her brother and she said something. She changed her mind, and the boom guy and the sound guys were really angry because they had to record this and Jamie said she wasn’t going to say anything. That’s why you don’t hear her say anything in the film.

Prom Night wrapped filming on September 13, 1979 and then Curtis, who’d pretty much kept to herself throughout filming, was gone, back to Los Angeles where she would soon begin work on The Fog re-shoots as well as filming her guest appearance on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

In November, Curtis would return to Canada, to Montreal, for the filming of her next horror film, Terror Train. None of the cast and crew of Prom Night—save for Eddie Benton whom Curtis recalls last seeing about ten years ago—would ever see Curtis again. “No, Jamie got on a plane right after we finished filming and I’ve never seen or spoken to her since,” says Lynch. “The only time I’ve seen her is in watching all of the great work she’s done over the past three decades since we did Prom Night. I feel very lucky to have worked with her on the film.”

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This excerpt is from the book Jamie Lee Curtis: Scream Queen, which is available in paperback and on kindle.