"Hell Night" (1981) Review
HELL NIGHT (1981) Directed by Tom DeSimone
Greetings and welcome once again to IT CAME FROM THE BARGAIN BIN, the Hub series that strives to bring you only the best in affordable DVD derangement! Tonight's random off-the-shelf pick is 1981's cult horror classic HELL NIGHT.
At first glance, this long time late-night cable and home video favorite appears to be just another entry in the endless parade of mindless, low budget carnage 'n' cleavage fests that roared onto the early 80s drive-in circuit hoping to cash in on the success of Halloween and Friday the 13th. However, Hell Night turned out to be a cut (sorry) above the usual slice 'n' dice clones, with a decent cast (toplined by the all-grown-up-and-amazingly-busty Linda Blair of The Exorcist fame), a genuinely spooky setting and overall grim tone, plus a welcome hint of the haunted house/mystery genre sprinkled into the mix. It's like an ultra-violent Scooby Doo episode with some scantily clad women added as a bonus. Sounds like a good time, doesn't it? So what do ya say, press "play" and let's rock!
Hell Night's story is wafer-thin but serviceable enough to get the ball rolling. The flick opens with a scream -- literally! -- as the viewer is dropped into one of those raging, out-of-control Animal House style fraternity parties that only exist on celluloid. It's Hell Night at the Alpha Sigma Rho fraternity house, and while dozens of costumed revelers rock out to the film's theme song, freely abuse alcohol, inappropriately grab at pretty girls, and break windows, we're introduced to the four new pledges who will be joining Alpha Sigma Rho tonight... if they can survive the initiation, of course (evil cackle). Our quartet of Rho hopefuls include Linda Blair as the pixie-ish Marti, Vincent Van Patten (son of Dick "Eight is Enough" Van Patten, of course; you may also remember him as the "I hear it's raining cats and dogs in Idaho" guy from Rock N Roll High School) as the goofy stoner/surfer Seth, Peter Barton (a former soap opera star and onetime teen heartthrob, best remembered for the cult sci-fi TV series The Powers of Matthew Starr) as the straight arrow Jeff, and the intriguingly-named Suki Goodwin (!) as the slutty British exchange student Denise. All these four have to do to gain entry to Alpha Sigma Rho is spend a night in the crumbling, reputedly haunted Garth Manor, a huge Gothic house that was the site of a horrible mass murder years before. As the annoying yuppie fraternity president Peter tells it, Old Man Garth snapped one night after spending years alone in the isolated house with his simpleton wife and brood of deformed/mentally deficient children, so he killed his entire family and then hung himself (Cue the creepy music...). Legend has it, of course, that one of Garth's children - a so-called "Gork" named Andrew -- survived the massacre and still lives somewhere on the grounds. The frat boys give their pledges enough time to shiver at that thought, then they're locked in for the night.
Let's Git Murderin'!
While Marti and Jeff settle into one room to make small talk, Seth and Denise run upstairs to get drunk, take Quaaludes (whatever happened to 'ludes, anyway?) and fool around in true slasher movie fashion. Meanwhile, the brothers 'n' sisters of Alpha Sigma Rho are sneaking around the grounds of the Manor, setting up a series of cheap "scary" pranks in order to freak out their four pledges. However, they learn that the story of Andrew the Gork might not be a legend after all, as one by one they're snatched and brutally mangled by a huge, grunting, mostly-unseen killer. Of course, the murderous mongoloid eventually turns his attention to the trespassers inside the house, starting with poor dear stoned-out Denise (damn those Quaaludes!), and then the you-know-what hits the fan. Seth heroically runs off to find help and in the interim, Jeff and Marti fend off a series of attacks by the increasingly-irritated killer, leading to a final Battle Royale in his secret tunnel lair deep beneath the Manor.
Summin' It Up...
Like its obvious inspiration, Halloween (Hell Night producer Irwin Yablans had a hand in the making of Carpenter's classic), Hell Night doesn't rely on gore for its shock factor. We do see some occasional blood splatter and a severed head, but mainly the action is set up as a series of well choreographed "jump scares" augmented by the foreboding, eerie-as-hell score. Blair & Barton's film-ending battles with the killer are excellently staged and will have you white-knuckle-gripping the arms of your La-Z-Boy. There's even a decent plot twist about three quarters of the way through the film which I won't reveal, but which I will say doesn't turn out well for poor Seth. Too bad, because he was my favorite character in the whole film. Most welcome of all, Hell Night is one of the few 80s horror flick that doesn't leave the ending open for a sequel! (Though rumors persist that there may be a PG-13 remake currently in development... groooaaaan ...!!)
Hell Night may come off as a bit "dated" to modern day horror viewers, but if you keep in mind that the "rules" of slasher films (i.e. the virginal "nice girl" always survives, whilst those who indulge in the pleasures of the flesh meet horrible fates, etc.) weren't well-worn cliches yet at the time this flick was made, it should make for a fun night of popcorn munchin', monster mashin' retro '80s viewing. Make sure to watch this one in a dark room for maximum effect. They really don't make 'em like this anymore, but fortunately movies like Hell Night live on for future generations of horror film geeks to find... in the bargain bin.