With the end of the school year just around the corner, we’re officially in prom season — time for teens to rent limos, get gussied up in formal wear, and trip the light fantastic. Disney is celebrating with the appropriately titled Prom, in which the social event of the season affects the lives and relationships of an eclectic cast that includes Zach Braff, Jere Burns, and Aimee Teegarden, and it got us thinking about some of the more memorable proms in Hollywood history. From teen comedies to action, musicals, and horror, prom has been a popular theme over the years — so hit the dance floor with us for an especially well-dressed Total Recall!
If it’s senior year and you’re a horny quartet of high school virgins determined to lose your virginity (virginities?) before graduation, prom is probably going to be the most important night of the year for you — and so it is with 1999’s joyously profane American Pie, which follows the hapless, fumbling, and very funny exploits of four friends with one thing on their minds. True, it spun off a pair of unnecessary sequels before tumbling into a direct-to-video shame spiral, but this Pie was a $235 million smash for a reason — as Brian Webster of the Apollo Guide wrote, it’s “An often raunchy, sometimes hilarious and occasionally touching story of hormones gone mad.”
When you’re in high school, the prom can feel like the kind of crucial experience your life depends on — but for the time-traveling Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) in Back to the Future, it’s really true: if he doesn’t make sure his parents smooch at the big dance, they’ll never get married and have him, and he’ll never get to drive a DeLorean or audition his hard-rockin’ high school band for a sternly disapproving Huey Lewis. That’s pretty heavy, but Future never gets too tangled up in its metaphysical implications, opting instead for an irresistible blend of action, adventure, and comedy. “To put it bluntly,” wrote Empire’s Adam Smith, “if you don’t like Back to the Future, it’s difficult to believe that you like films at all.”
It’s always a drag when someone crashes your prom, but what really (ahem) sucks is having to deal with an uninvited vampire king who’s determined to destroy your school’s resident hot blonde cheerleader/vampire slayer. Audiences seemed to agree in 1992, tuning out Buffy the Vampire Slayer at the box office — and critics shared their disdain, with Janet Maslin of the New York Times offering what passed for praise by calling it “a slight, good-humored film that’s a lot more painless than might have been expected” — but screenwriter Joss Whedon had the last laugh, turning Buffy into a long-running TV franchise that spun off another series, comics, and untold volumes of fan fiction.
The prom can certainly feel like a horror show, what with all the date- and dress-related stress, not to mention the weight of expectations that can go along with that whole “rite of passage” thing. But with 1976’s Carrie, director Brian De Palma — working from the Stephen King novel — turned prom into a full-on gonzo frightfest, complete with pig’s blood, screaming death, and property destruction. It’s the kind of thing that could easily descend into self-parody, but under all the mayhem, Carrie touches on timeless themes, and is grounded by nuanced performances from a cast led by Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. Roger Ebert called it “an absolutely spellbinding horror movie, with a shock at the end that’s the best thing along those lines since the shark leaped aboard in Jaws.”
What’s a big-city kid to do when he takes his artfully tousled hair and fancy moves to a small town, only to be told dancing and rock music aren’t allowed? Walkman-sporting folk hero Ren McCormack (Kevin Bacon) only had one choice: to organize an illegal prom and demonstrate the magic that happens when everybody cut, everybody cut Footloose. An $80 million hit in spite of general critical disapproval, Footloose has become something of a generational touchstone for filmgoers of a certain age, thanks in part to the exuberance and scruffy appeal recognized by the New York Times’ Janet Maslin, who wrote, “Like the rest of today’s video-happy teen-age entertainments, Footloose doesn’t expect to be watched closely or taken seriously. It wants to fill the screen with catchy music and pretty kids, and this it certainly accomplishes.”
Filmmakers have used all sorts of methods to inflate the drama of prom, but only Grease added a nationally televised dance contest — complete with climactic on-camera mooning — and topped it off with the classic ballad “It’s Raining on Prom Night.” A wildly successful synthesis of manufactured 1950s nostalgia and surprisingly frank depictions of timeless teen ribaldry, Grease was a huge smash hit at the box office ($394 million and counting) — and also a favorite with critics like Vincent Canby of the New York Times, who saw through its anachronistic setting in his review: “Its sensibility is not tied to the past but to a free-wheeling, well informed, high-spirited present.”
Offering a tale of vicarious triumph (albeit of the rather contrived and highly unlikely variety) for anyone who never made it to their prom, Never Been Kissed tells the story of Chicago Sun-Times copy editor Josie Geller (Drew Barrymore), whose latest assignment involves doing undercover at a local high school to expose the truth about modern teenagers’ lives. Problem is, Josie’s high school years were a horror show that culminated with her being pelted with eggs by her supposed prom date — so not only does she need to get her story, she has to face down the lingering shame of her years as “Josie Grossie.” Will she finally be asked to the prom? Will it all end in an impassioned speech to the student body and a last-minute romantic confession? Never Been Kissed was an $84 million hit, but it wasn’t exactly original, as the New York Observer’s Andrew Sarris admitted when he called it “The most exhilarating American movie I have seen this year — which isn’t saying much.”
It’s got a John Hughes script, Andrew McCarthy as a preppie doofus, Jon Cryer as a misfit, and Molly Ringwald as a teen princess-in-waiting; Pretty in Pink may not be the quintessential 1980s high school movie, but it’s definitely high on the list. And it definitely belongs on this list, thanks to an angst-packed climax involving a broken date, an impassioned shouting match on the dance floor, and Duckie tripping the light fantastic with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Film buffs have debated Pink‘s final act since Andie Walsh walked off into the sunset with Blane, but even if you think Hughes copped out with the ending, it’s easy to see where Filmcritic’s Christopher Null was coming from when he wrote, “It may not be the greatest love story ever told, but it might be the one with the most heart.”
With an assist from William Shakespeare, and a pair of breakout performances from Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles, Gil Junger’s 10 Things I Hate About You put a glossy late 1990s spin on The Taming of the Shrew by switching the location to a modern high school, where the Stratford sisters (Stiles and Larisa Oleynik) are the unwitting pawns in a prom date plot set in motion by a lovestruck young knucklehead (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his scheming classmate (Andrew Keegan). It’s pretty fluffy stuff, and as broad as a barn door, but its snappy pace and charming cast left some critics feeling charitable — Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times called it “as satirical as it is romantic” and “one teen film that is wise enough to span generations in its appeal.”
Other movies on this list have glitzier production values, more impressive dancing, and more freshly groomed kids. None of them, however, boast a soundtrack as cool as Valley Girl‘s — or the endearingly laconic talents of Nicolas Cage in his young, pre-Ghost Rider prime. Underneath its dated fashions and faddish dialogue, it’s made from ingredients that are either timeless or overused, depending on your point of view — the girl and the guy from different sides of the tracks; the obnoxious rich kids; the big finish at the prom — but what it lacks in originality, Valley Girl more than makes up in irreverent charm. “Director Martha Coolidge turned a short-lived fad into a genuine sleeper,” recalled Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader, calling it “an exploitation film that thoroughly transcends its origins to become a highly appealing romantic comedy.”