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MOVIE REVIEWS : 'Hello Mary Lou': Enriching a Genre With Imagination

November 17, 1987|KEVIN THOMAS | Times Staff Writer

"Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II" (citywide) is the "Blue Velvet" of high school horror pictures. Director Bruce Pittman and writer Ron Oliver have treated the genre as but a point of departure for both a comment on American Gothic small-town morality and a nightmare fantasy with imagery reminiscent of Cocteau and Dali. It has considerably more style and imagination than the original 1980 "Prom Night," which was also Canadian-made and to which it is not a sequel but rather an ambitious variation.

Back in 1957 at the Hamilton High senior prom, its queen, the blatantly promiscuous Mary Lou Maloney (Lisa Schrage), is about to be crowned when tragedy strikes, the result of an enraged boyfriend's prank gone awry. Thirty years later Mary Lou's vengeful spirit is inadvertently uncorked, eventually possessing pretty Vicki Carpenter (Wendy Lyon), whose angelic blond looks and quiet demeanor are totally at odds with Mary Lou's aggressive, brazen behavior.

Pittman and Oliver view contemporary high school life as somewhat less than inspiring, but they and special-effects expert Jim Doyle spend most of their time devising some stunningly surreal supernatural and dream sequences that evolve from the most mundane of everyday situations. For example, in poor, tormented Vicki's mind a volleyball net turns into a vast, sticky spider's web threatening to entrap her. In another impressive sequence Vicki is simply sitting at a schoolroom desk when Mary Lou's ghastly arms reach out from a blackboard. As if magnetized, Vicki is swiftly pulled into them, with the blackboard turning into a pool of churning brackish water in which she struggles to keep from drowning. Admirably, the film makers manage to sustain their nightmare logic from start to finish.

For all their contemporary sense of liberation, Vicki and her classmates have suddenly been thrust into the clutches of '50s morality when Mary Lou's spirit rises up like the Creature from the Black Lagoon to protest such a severe fate for having played around. That enraged boyfriend has grown up to be Hamilton High's principal (Michael Ironside), and the youth with whom he caught her having sex is now the priest (Richard Monette) at the Catholic church just across the street from the school; both men are figures of unspoken, deeply repressed guilt. The years have turned Vicki's mother (Judy Mahbey) into a dour religious zealot who dominates her ineffectual husband (Wendell Smith). The adults of this film seem to be as intent on denying the existence of evil as those of "Blue Velvet."

You don't, however, have to take "Hello Mary Lou" (MPAA-rated R for strong language, standard horror picture grisliness and some nudity) at all seriously, and it probably would be a mistake to do so. Certainly, it's not on the deeply personal, highly idiosyncratic artistic level of the David Lynch film, but it is a splendid example of what imagination can do with formula genre material. Much credit for making the film work also goes to Wendy Lyon for making credible Vicki's behavior in what can only be called incredible circumstances.

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