The Last Prom is a Scare 'em Straight driver's education movie that warns about the dangers of underage consumption of alcohol and the combination of reckless driving and drunk drinking. The movie often is seen or aired (on local television stations, which also had rights to air it) in the spring of the year, a time when high school seniors are celebrating milestones in their lives, in particular prom and graduation. Two versions were released.
The first version was filmed and released in 1962, but the 1980 remake — filmed documentary-style by WRBI-TV of Batesville, Indiana — is better known. Both movies, however, follow the final days of typical American teenager Sandra Clark's life. A somewhat quiet junior at a small, rural high school, Sandy (as she is known) is asked to the senior prom by popular jock Bill Donovan, a popular boy who was known for his customized van note and his penchant for driving recklessly.
Bill, Sandy and another couple — Jim Miller and Judy Grant — arrive at prom and are bored waiting for the festivities to start and decide to go for a little ride around town. Sandy has her reservations but is talked into going. As the teenagers are cruising around town, Bill and the others begin drinking beer from his cooler. As the alcohol takes effect, Bill's confidence begins to grow and he begins driving faster ... until he comes upon a one-lane railroad underpass ... and sees a car coming from the other direction. Bill slams on the brakes, but there is no time to stop, and it crashes head-on into the side of the underpass. note
In the aftermath, Sandy is thrown through the windshield. Screams are heard before a cut to black.
Emergency personnel arrive at the scene and work frantically to stabilize Sandy's condition and rush her to the hospital. But she has suffered massive head injuries and when it is apparent what is about to happen, a priest is brought in to perform her last rites.
The following Monday morning at school, Mr. Jenkins, a popular teacher at the school (he was apparently the student council adviser and oversaw prom) confirms what the students already knew: Sandy Clark had died, while Judy will remain hospitalized for some time with severe facial injuries. As a sobering lesson, he announces his plans to leave Sandy's seat vacant for the rest of the school year and the following school year as well ... after all, it isn't always "the other guy" that things such as reckless driving and drunk driving kill.
The movie ends with the funeral and the postlogue: Sandy wore a white gown inside the casket, but outside of her family, few others were ever aware, as her visitation and funeral were closed-casketed. "It was best that way," the news anchor grimly states. And the physical memories of what should have been a rite-of-passage into adulthood — the photographs that might have graced a photo album, the corsage that would have found its way into a family heirloom (such as a Bible), the program that would have gone in a scrapbook —and the thought of their daughter finally "growing up" and experiencing the night all little girls dream of ... are now replaced with the bitter memories of their daughter's death and thoughts of what will never be (getting married, having children and so forth).
While the 1980 remake added alcohol to the equation, the original version chalked up most accidents to youthful inexperience and poor judgment behind the wheel, and no alcohol is shown. In that version, it is implied that Bill's father — also an aggressive driver — had taught him to drive and many of his bad habits, such as rolling through stop signs and driving above the speed limit in spite of weather or road conditions, rub off on the son. Bill crashes his almost brand-new car into a tree after losing control on a rain-slickened road.
In the years since The Last Prom, especially the 1980 version, many high schools have re-created their own mock accidents and dramatic presentations of prom-night, alcohol-involved crashes, with students, community members and emergency workers from the town the high school is located playing various parts. In addition to being actual training exercises for emergency workers, these effective presentations are used to impress upon students a clear point: Bad choices will ultimately lead to bad things happening.
Examples of tropes in The Last Prom
- An Aesop: Which Mr. Jenkins (in the 1980 version) drives home: Accident victims and casualties of reckless driving are more than just statistics and aren't always "the other person" or some random stranger they might see/hear/read about on the news. In Sandy's case, she was someone's daughter, granddaughter, sister, friend, fellow student ... someone with a bright future ahead of her, all taken away by a few bad choices.
- Alcohol-Related Tropes (for the 1980 version only):
- Beergasm: The youthful exuberance and the look on Bill's face as he gains (what turns out to be false) confidence behind the wheel as he sips on his can of beer during that fateful cruise around town.
- Drunk Driver: It's not clear — nor does it really matter — whether Bill's blood-alcohol content is past the point of legal intoxication. What is clear is he was impaired significantly, and his reaction time to the car passing through the one-lane railroad underpass (and needing to slow down, if not stop) resulted in an accident and tragedy.
- Quick Nip: Bill and Jim both sneak flasks of whiskey into the dance and are able to be discreet enough to hide it from the teachers and other chaperones.
- The Teetotaler: Despite pressure from her friends, Sandy declined an offer to have a can of beer during their cruise around town. Amazingly, they back off.
- Ash Face: In particular, Sandy, when she is receiving attention at the scene and at the hospital.
- Character as Himself: In the 1980 version, the WRBI news reporter who narrates the drama of a prom night with a tragic ending.
- Cool Shades: At least one of the pallbearers wears aviator glasses, although very obviously to hide his emotions.
- Cool Teacher: In the 1980 version, Mr. Jenkins is implied to be the most popular, most-respected teacher in school.
- Cool Van: Bill's van, a late 1960s/very early 1970s Ford Econoline van, with customized interior. note
- Could This Happen to You?: The whole point of this film: Poor decisions lead to bad, too often deadline outcomes ... and, as the teacher grimly points out to Sandy's grieving classmates, it's not just "someone else" it happens to.
- Does This Remind You of Anything?: Two empty desks, intentionally left vacant for the rest of the school year by the teacher, to impress upon students the dangers of drunk/reckless driving ... that young, promising students once sat in them, but are never returning.
- Easily Forgiven: Bill Donovan, the guy who was recklessly driving and had alcohol in his system when he caused the crash, is allowed to attend Sandy's funeral. Whether overlooked or intentionally allowed (such as to make him realize the seriousness of his actions), anywhere else Bill would be told to stay the hell away from the funeral or else be arrested for trespassing. Averted perhaps thereafter, as Mr. Jenkins hints that Bill will be facing legal charges, possibly a lawsuit ... and in the very least face the memories of what he caused to happen the rest of his life.
- Flatline: The moment when viewers know ... that Sandy was more than a statistic.
- Foreshadowing: A heavily-damaged van, a broken windshield, a blood-stained program and a corsage, all seen at the beginning of the film and referred to as the news anchor begins his report.
- Funeral-related tropes:
- It's Always Sunny at Funerals: The final scenes of both versions were filmed at cemeteries on clear days.
- Meaningful Funeral: Both versions included brief clips of the major surviving characters — Bill (and presumably, his father) in one car, and Sandy's disconsolent parents in another limousine — en route to the funeral for the gravesite service. In the 1980 version, we see the varied reactions at the gravesite as the priest is finishing the service, with Sandy's mother sobbing and barely able to complete her role; the pallbearers stoic and Mr. Jenkins barely able to keep his emotions in check. (The 1962 version merely sees the funeral procession entering the cemetery, the mourners approaching the tent for the gravesite service and the pallbearers carrying Sandy's casket in the distance as the narrator makes his final comments and the closing credits are shown.)
- High-School Dance: As can be derived by the title, one of the main settings is the junior-senior prom.
- Instructional Film: How both the original and 1980 versions could be classified.
- Ironic Name: The film's title. Indeed, when one things of a "last prom," he/she might think of the highlight of his/her senior year, not to mention one of the final times the senior class will be together and celebrating passage into adulthood. Here, it has the cruel irony: Prom night was also the last night of Sandy Clark's life.
- It's All My Fault: Mr. Jenkins tells Sandy's classmates that Bill will have to live with this weighing on him every day the rest of his natural life ... the memory of how a few bad decisions caused Sandy's death (and possibly that of his buddy Jim as well), caused Jim's girlfriend, Judy, to be seriously injured and inflicted long-term mourning in his small hometown.
- In both versions, the teacher remarks he and his fellow teachers also shoulder a lot of the blame ... they haven't done enough to warn their students about the inherent dangers of driving drunk, reckless driving and so forth.
- Kill the Cutie: Sandy is, by all accounts, a very beautiful teen-aged girl ... and too bad she won't survive to see the end of the film.
- My Greatest Failure: Both the 1962 original and the 1980 remake have the teachers lamenting they had not done enough to warn teenagers about the dangers of reckless behavior.
- Ordinary High-School Student: What Sandy could be classified as: Pretty, smart and having a reasonable amount of friends, but otherwise unspectacular, being asked out by one of the Big Men on Campus.
- Railroad Tracks of Doom: Although it is a one-lane railroad overpass that Bill crashes his van into.
- The Remake: The better-known 1980 movie was a remake of a black-and-white film made in 1962. The original versions' teacher taught driver's education, while the remake he was a social studies teacher. Both mixed off-screen narration with drama.
- Scare 'em Straight: The whole point of the movie — that drinking and driving, and combining that with reckless driving is likely to lead to death.
- Smash to Black: Literally, and figuratively, at the instant where Sandy is thrown through the windshield when the van crashes into the railroad underpass. The scene fades back in after a few seconds with the wail of sirens, emergency workers frantically going about their work and prom goers and other onlookers watching grimly at the goings on.
- Songs in the Key of Panic: Fits the "Warning"/"Nearing-the-End" type. The intensity of the music score — an angelic chorus — rises in pitch, urgency and volume from between the moment the ambulance carrying Sandy is en route to the hospital and the dire situation grows even more so to the time the MRI machine flatlines, with the music cutting off when the priest reads Sandy her last rites.
- Tonight, Someone Dies:
- The news anchor's narrative at the beginning of the film and his use of Foreshadowing make it clear that this is indeed The Last Prom.
- In-universe, as the anchor explains that hospital staff, police, fire and ambulance/EMS workers know that on certain nights of the year, such as high school prom, there is a higher likelihood of serious car accidents where alcohol is a factor, and the higher possibility of death from these crashes.
- Truth in Television: Despite all the warnings about drinking and driving, reckless driving, etc., drivers young and old still try to cheat the odds. Indeed, some succeed, but for too many of them the price is high, with permanent injury and death the result. This is a point both teachers try to drive home the Monday after the accident.
- Wham Line: The teachers at the end of their spiel to the mourning students: "The price was high!"
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Bill's friend, Jim ... as police are seen covering his (apparent) corpse up with a sheet, implying that he, too, had died. But this film is about Sandy, not Jim.