Riverdale often borrows from other films. Its episode titles, through the years, have referenced past works. The way the show invokes, pays homage to, or upends those works it references by name is, admittedly, all over the place. Sometimes there are direct correlations; sometimes abstract ones; sometimes none really at all.
I don’t usually dig into these references in these recaps, because we’re generally all assembled here for one reason and one reason only (the Gay Stuff™). In fact, last week’s episode of Riverdale was so heterosexual that I skipped the recap (though if you have any lingering feelings about last week’s episode, then please feel free to let those out in the comments, too — there was technically some good stuff in there!). And even though “Prom Night” is light on the Cheryl/Toni scenes, it goes all in on some of my favorite elements of the show, namely leaning into its camp and horror. It’s also the last episode of the series written by queer writer Britta Lundin (co-written with Devon Turner), who recently announced she’s leaving the show to work on other projects. And it is one of my strongest beliefs in this world that we need more horror written by queer women.
Technically, the horror sequence in “Prom Night” doesn’t come in until the very last minutes of the episode. Here’s where we get our pretty clear title tie-in. “Prom Night” was a 1980 horror movie starring Jamie Lee Curtis, but this episode of Riverdale actually has more in common with thee 2008 “remake” that had a different plot entirely. Brittany Snow plays a girl who saw her former teacher murder her entire family, and on the night of her senior prom, he escapes prison and massacres a bunch of students at the dance in pursuit of her. That is, essentially, exactly what happens here. Except it has an added layer of trauma: This isn’t just Betty’s tormenter back on a killing spree; it’s her own father.
The best horror doesn’t merely scare. It needles under your skin, displaces you. The Black Hood’s pursuit of Betty is much scarier than the appearance of the Gargoyle King. He doesn’t wear an elaborate costume — just a rudimentary mask and, now, a hooked hand (Hal’s efforts to escape involve him faking his own death in a bus accident, requiring that he remove his own hand so that Dr. Curdle Jr. will get DNA test results back saying it was really him). He is, as Betty says earlier in the episode, flesh and blood. He’s human. Specifically, he’s her flesh and blood. And when she’s running away from him, there’s a sense she’s running away from herself, too.
None of this would work if it were not for Lili Reinhart, and we’re getting to the point where I almost talk about her needing to become a horror movie star post-Riverdale too much, but I will stand by this assertion until it HAPPENS!!!! She’s beguiling, and she sells both fear and strength so well. One of the best scenes in the episode is when Betty reacts to the (false) news that her father is dead. What seems at first like maybe devastation is actually relief. A nervous laugh even sneaks in. Betty’s more scared of her father than she lets on. His grip on her is tight. Betty and Jughead think they’re running down the Gargoyle King at prom, but really they’re just playing into Hal’s game all over again.
It was somewhat dizzying to watch this episode after having read the truly terrifying story from this week about a man thoroughly manipulating and brainwashing several students at Sarah Lawrence College. He uses all the tactics associated with cult leaders to isolate them from their support systems and warp their realities. Edgar Evernever is, it turns out, a very good cult leader. He has done the same thing to Alice and so many others now.
When Cheryl tries to campaign for prom queen alongside Toni, he threatens to take away Jason from her if she doesn’t stop (we still don’t know how Edgar has convinced the Farmies that they’re talking to their dead loved ones, but it has become clear that they really believe they’re talking to them). Cheryl, thankfully, isn’t in as deep as Alice is. She is starting to doubt Edgar and the Farm’s rules. But even Betty is unwittingly pulled into Edgar’s orbit when he promises to be her only viable protection from her father.
The townspeople of Riverdale are, it seems, very susceptible to puppet masters. Hiram, Hal/the Black Hood, the Gargoyle King, Edgar. Dangerous men in search of power and God-like status prey on this town. Edgar’s an unsettling villain right now because it’s not quite clear what it is that he wants other than loyal followers. Even though the Gargoyle King’s gospel turned out to be one of Hal’s tricks, Betty and Jughead are probably onto something in linking Edgar to the other conspiracies afoot right now.
Meanwhile, Archie wants to be a professional boxer now. Remember when Archie couldn’t decide between baseball and music? Remember when Archie picked up wrestling? Remember when Archie started a teen vigilante justice group? Remember when Archie was a teen capo for his girlfriend’s mob boss father? Can this boy just, like, make up his mind?
Now, even though I feel robbed of the chance to see Cheryl and Toni in matching crowns, their prom looks are very good, and seeing two women openly slow dance together at a school function still makes me a little weepy? Anyway, I’m feeling emotional, so if you have any gay prom stories, please share.