“Dance ’til Dawn” (1988)

Graduation season is upon us, that time when young people must give up childish things and cross the threshold into adulthood. Cherish these days while you still can, teenagers, because it’s the best time of your life. It’s all mortgages and unsatisfying orgasms and boring jobs and crying toddlers after that.

I’m lying, of course. In no way should high school be the best years of your life. Enjoyable, sure. Tolerable, at the very least. But the very best? No. That’s sad. It’s what bitter middle-aged people say because they don’t think anyone under thirty has the right to complain about anything. Let me tell you something, young people reading this post: if twenty or thirty years from now you can honestly look back and say that high school was the best time of your life, something has gone terribly wrong somewhere. If you’re forty and regaling your bored kids for the tenth time with a story about how you planted a stink bomb in the vice-principal’s office, or if you still have your junior year wrestling trophy on display, it’s time to do an assessment and figure out at what point your life went off the rails. The proper time to give up reminiscing about high school is by the end of summer after you graduate high school.

Nevertheless, if you really believe that horsepucky, then I have a treat for you: 1988′s Dance ‘til Dawn, one of the last in a run of teen-friendly TV movies with all-star casts (see also: High School U.S.A., Poison Ivy, Crash Course). Watered down John Hughes without the cynicism and sly humor (and with its own bald-ass ripoff of Yello’s “Oh Yeah”), it hits all the teen movie tropes with the speed and efficiency of a Saturday night bingo championship at the local VFW hall.

Dance ‘til Dawn takes place during a senior prom in an unnamed, blandly middle class American town, the kind of place where the preferred teen hangout is still the local diner. If high school is the best years of your life, then prom is the most important night of those years, as various characters mention numerous times, such a magical, monumental event that it impacts what sorority you’ll get into, and even where you’ll end up attending college.

Taking me to prom, renting a tuxedo, paying for my corsage, and making sure the floor of his car was free of stray Wendy’s containers was an elaborate ploy on my then-boyfriend’s part to get me to sleep with him. It didn’t work, and because he was a gentleman he waited until a week later to break up with me. Though it was a pleasant evening, I don’t think my prom would rank even in the top 1,000 greatest nights of my life. Going to the premiere of Batman just one month later was a more exciting night than going to prom. Let me be clear, I wasn’t some super cool teenager who was above such dog and pony shows as a prom. I was happy (not to mention shocked) to go, but found the “magical” aspect of it to be a bit oversold. Prom turned out to be like a regular school dance, just with stuffed shells and taffeta.

ANYWAY, Dance ‘til Dawn. There’s drama even before we make it to the big event: high school power couple Shelley and Kevin, shoe-ins for prom king and queen, are on the outs. Kevin (Brian Bloom), a mullet sporting, gold chain wearing, chest hair exposing creep, keeps pushing Shelley (Alyssa Milano) to have sex with him when she’s not ready, and both of them lie about having other plans for prom night. Dateless but undaunted, Kevin immediately sets about finding a replacement for Shelley. Kevin doesn’t care who he has to take to the prom, just as long as he gets some puss-ay by the end of the night. Going solely on the word of one of his idiot friends, who claims that she’s easy, he decides at the last minute to ask shy, nerdy art student Angela (Tracey Gold) to be his date.

Angela wears glasses, rendering her, of course, an unspeakable hambeast.

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Thankfully, for the sake of the audience’s emotional well-being, her foxy, glasses-free makeover takes place barely twenty minutes into the movie. Given that this was at least the second time that Tracey Gold, a lovely young actress, played a character who the audience is supposed to believe is unattractive, it’s no wonder she developed an eating disorder in real life.

Angela, who is heading off to Bible college in the fall, initially declines Kevin’s invitation, having already made plans with Margaret, her best friend. However, Margaret (Tempestt Bledsoe), bafflingly eager to be ditched in favor of going out with a charming slimeball who practically has roofies falling out of his pockets, talks her into it. Angela borrows her mother’s old prom dress, a stunning, sequined floor-length number that fits her like a second skin, and announces to her overprotective, born again Christian parents that she’s going out for the evening.

While Angela’s mother, played by the reliably lovable Edie McClurg, is pleased that she’s finally going on a date, her father, Ed (Kelsey Grammer), is not having it. Seething with rage (and no small amount of lust, to be sure), he orders Angela to stay home. For the first time in her life, Angela disobeys, running out the back door. Rather than wait until she returns home to have a talk with her, like normal fathers who aren’t struggling with forbidden sexual desires, Ed takes off after Angela with her mother in tow, determined to catch her and Kevin getting up to no good. Way too much screen time is devoted to this most tiresome and unpleasant of movie cliches, the creepy father going to grotesque means to protect his daughter’s virginity, inevitably played for laughs instead of horror, as it should be.

Meanwhile, because her family and friends just wouldn’t understand if they knew she had broken up with her boyfriend because he’s a manipulative piece of shit, a now dateless Shelley still dons her prom dress and even pays for a limousine to pick her up at her house. She decides to kill time at a movie theater, where she runs into a classmate named Dan (Chris Young). Dan’s also gone to extreme lengths to cover up the fact that he’s not going to the prom, because evidently at Hoover High not going to the prom is more humiliating than trying to pay for lunch with Marlboro coupons.

Like Angela, Dan’s one moral failing is nearsightedness, which he too corrects by wearing comically large glasses. Other than that, he’s cute, kind, smart, and funny. Even with the owl glasses, if this were today, all you’d have to do is put this kid in some skinny jeans and an ironic band t-shirt (Wilson Phillips ‘92 World Tour, say) and he’d have to beat off the babes with a stick. Shelley, on the other hand, is a neurotic snob who seems to be confusing high school popularity with being a minor celebrity, convinced that no matter where she goes she will be recognized and gossiped about. She demands that Dan help her stay out of sight, even putting his life at risk at one point, all while initially treating him with the kind of disdain reserved for someone who’s just farted in a crowded elevator.

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Meanwhile, in the minimally explored C-plot, we meet queen bee of the senior class Patrice (Christina Applegate), and her befuddled, near mute boyfriend Roger (Matthew Perry). Patrice, demonstrating a level of ambition and attention to detail that suggests she’ll grow up to be Annette Bening in American Beauty, has planned the entire prom herself, including choosing the theme, wearing a dress that matches the tablecloths, and forcing her obnoxious, bickering parents to chaperon it. Much of her hard work ends up being mocked and sneered at, because Patrice is one of those “only in the movies” popular girls whose friends and fellow classmates treat her with barely concealed hostility.

Unaware that her parents are trailing just behind her most of the night (”Did you see that? He lowered his hand! Where is his hand??”, Ed snarls), and also unaware that Kevin is just biding his time before he can help her out of her dress, Angela has a wonderful time. Her arrival at the prom is greeted by gasps of disbelief by her classmates. Who is that beautiful babe? Why, is that…could it be…? Angela? No, don’t be silly, Angela wears glasses, she looks nothing like her. “That must be a college girl, I’ve never seen her before,” one girl remarks, even though she made a disparaging crack directly about Angela mere hours earlier. Maybe that’s why the prom is so special, Hoover High is a school for the blind.

She’s even voted prom queen, with nary a drop of pig’s blood in sight. The same girl who earlier didn’t recognize her is teary-eyed with joy, emotionally overcome with this courageous tale of triumph over astigmatism and frumpy sack dresses.

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Angela’s parents, disguised as catering staff, watch as she and Kevin dance. “Isn’t she beautiful out there, Ed?” her mother says, to which her father replies, “She certainly is. I have a mind to go out there and drag her home.” I bet you do, Dad. I bet you do.

At the B-plot, Shelley and Dan warm up to each other while stargazing, followed by a painful scene of Shelley trying to teach him how to dance like a cool dude. Then, she says the magic words: “Do you always need to wear those glasses?” Dan explains that he really only needs them for reading, but likes how they look. Shelley takes them off his face and says “I think you look better without them. I can see your eyes.” Dan is wearing glasses the size of Sizzler plates, you can see his eyes from outer space. Nevertheless, his vision problems are instantly cured, and you know he’ll be tapping popular girl ass in no time.

The prom being a smashing success, Kevin moves on to the next step in his plan, getting Angela to the after party at Patrice’s house and convincing her to go upstairs with him, where they can be capital-A Alone. Because, really, the best, most romantic setting for a couple’s first time making love is a few steps away from a hundred idiot teenagers getting drunk on Seagram’s Golden Wine Coolers and dancing to Tone-Loc. But, uh oh!, there’s a spanner in the works–Margaret, who conveniently disappeared until the plot needed her again, has caught wind of what Kevin is up to, and tries to warn Angela about it. However, despite Margaret being her only friend until that very night, Angela, besotted with Kevin and drunk with tiny foil crown power, refuses to believe her. “This is the best night of my life, and I’m not going to let you ruin it!” she cries, before stomping away.

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Alas, Margaret is right, Kevin went to a lot of trouble and spent a lot of money for the sole purpose of impressing his friends, who cheer on his weaselly efforts to get Angela into bed with a disturbing level of enthusiasm not seen since The Accused. He tries to explain that he’s eventually learned to accept Angela as a human being, rather than just a warm body he can hump with all the care and concern of an old gym sock hidden under his bed, so that makes it okay. Angela’s not buying it, though, and ditches him. While all this is happening, her father is still stalking her, even resorting to stealing a ladder and peeping at her and Kevin through a bedroom window. He’s still there long after she’s gone, until someone thankfully calls the police and has this freak arrested.

As for Patrice, all of her careful planning falls apart within just a few hours. Her classmates are unimpressed with the work she’s done for the prom, she loses out to Angela for prom queen, her house is trashed during the after party, which she misses because she and Roger get stranded miles away from home, they’re arrested for a noise complaint, and after all that, the henpecked Roger dumps her. Patrice is the closest the movie gets to a villain, but as far as teen movie villains go, she’s pretty harmless. If anything, she’s such a thinly drawn character that it’s hard to feel any sort of satisfaction when she gets her “comeuppance” at the end. She’s not even mean so much as dismissive to the less popular students, so what exactly is she getting a comeuppance for, being a type-A personality?

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Despite things not working out with Kevin, Angela finds going to the prom such a life changing experience that she decides to attend art school in Italy, when just twenty-four hours earlier she couldn’t tell the difference between nail polish and lip gloss. She also finds out, thanks to some extraneous, last minute dialogue provided by Alan Thicke, that her parents were the wild kids in high school, and that her mother got pregnant with her on their prom night. Now, why having been a teenage father would compel someone in his mid-thirties to dress like a 1940s soda jerk and refer to his wife as “Mother” is a mystery, but it somewhat makes sense in terms of why he’s so overprotective of Angela. That explanation is enough to compel Angela to forgive him for stalking and embarrassing her (oh, and peering into a window to see if she might be naked, let’s not forget).

The film ends with Shelley and Dan walking into the local diner, where conveniently every character in the movie, even the thoroughly humiliated Patrice, is gathered. “Oh my God, Shelley, what are you doing with that dweeb?” one girl asks, though Dan is easily better looking than every other guy in the place, to which Shelley replies “Going steady!” Everyone in the room reacts to this with gaping mouths and dropped soda cups.

I shouldn’t be so hard on Dance ‘til Dawn. It’s just harmless fantasy for teenage girls who know that one of these days the captain of the soccer team is going to look right at them in study hall. I was there once, I understand. Like every teen movie then, now, and probably forever, sadly, it talks a good game about being true to yourself, yet also sends the clear, conflicting message that you’ll be considerably more noticed and liked by your peers if you look as much like everyone else as possible.

Angela’s makeover (and let me reiterate, she still looks like herself, just without glasses and with better fitting clothing) is so effective that the minute she arrives at the prom the popular girls immediately start trailing behind her in adoration, like handmaidens in Marie Antoinette’s court. At one point, after Angela is voted prom queen, one girl hands her crown to a defeated Patrice, smirking as if to say “You’ve been replaced, bitch, there’s a new sheriff in town.” Which, no, that’s not how high school hierarchies work. Usually, the popular kids freshman year are still the popular kids senior year, and some half-assed makeover isn’t going to shake that up, certainly not in the last few weeks leading up to graduation. Unless you’re in kindergarten, where it’s not unusual to see a kid refer to a pudding cup as his best friend, people rarely switch allegiances en masse, certainly not within the course of less than an hour. Teenage girls are fickle, but they’re not that fickle.

It’s at times an uncomfortable movie to watch, not just because of the gross dad subplot (Alan Thicke’s character, Dan’s father, is also way too interested in his kid’s sex life), but because it’s so aggressively 1980s. Like Teen Witch, another movie that preached the value of individuality while having the heroine wear the same pastels-heavy Contempo Casuals wardrobe as her classmates by the end, it actually made me squirm with embarrassment during some scenes, because these were the movies made for people my age (at the time), featuring things that we considered cool then.

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I don’t believe there’s anything “ironically cool” about Dance ‘til Dawn. Every minute of it seems to be 100% earnest, right down to the goofy…DJ, bandleader, whatever the hell he’s supposed to be, hosting the prom. Every minute this sunglasses indoors at night, shiny suit jacket wearing asshole is on screen, boogieing to the hippity-hop music or talking in that wacky morning zoo radio show voice, equals pain. He’s a human Poochie, and yet, like Poochie I’m certain that he was cast with the idea that this was someone the kids would find super awesome. It’s not quite the ordeal that sitting through the “Top That” scene in Teen Witch is, but it’s pretty damn close.

Original airdate: October 23, 1988

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