The Golden Age of the slasher film ran from 1968 to 1974 (dominated by directors like John Carpenter and Wes Craven), and smack dab in the middle of this era was a little gem called Hell Night. Taking a break from such “seminal” works as Wild Horse Hank and Roller Boogie, Linda Blair returned to the horror genre to play the final girl in a film that both used the tropes of the genre, but also broke new ground — and though Hell Night may never be as well-known as Halloween or Friday the 13th, it has stood the test of time while other lesser examples have fallen to the wayside.
The movie opens with Alpha Sigma Rho president Peter Bennett (Kevin Brophy) hosting a pledge party for their annual “Hell Night,” where four pledges, Marti Gaines (Linda Blair), Seth (Vincent Van Patten), Jeff Reed (Peter Barton), and Denise Dunsmore (Suki Goodwin), are taken to the notorious Garth Manor, an abandoned mansion with a horrifying history. To win their spots in their respective fraternities or sororities, the pledges must last the night – six hours until dawn. Peter has no intention of making things easy on them, however, starting with the reciting of the chilling history lesson of Garth Manor.
Horror Trope #16 –The Spooky Legend: We learn from Peter that a man named Ramon Garth, who with his wife Lillian had four horribly deformed children; a mongoloid boy named Morris; Suzanna, a girl so hideous you could not tell her gender; Margaret, who could neither speak, see nor hear; and Andrew, who for his first fourteen years never uttered a word, just grunted like an animal. Twelve years ago, Raymond decided he could no longer live in that kind of freak show — fourteen years being more than enough for him — so he murdered his wife and three of the children, before hanging himself. Poor Andrew was forced to witness the slaughter of his family, but when the police arrived, they found a note from Raymond detailing the murder of his wife and three children, yet only three bodies were found, and no one ever saw Andrew again. To this day, it is believed that Andrew stills lives somewhere on the grounds of Garth Manor.
Spooky stories aren’t the only thing in Peter’s arsenal, for once the four pledges have paired off for the night – Marti the smart girl with Jeff the kid from an affluent home, and surfer boy Seth with party girl Denise – he arrives back at Garth Manor along with two other students: May (Jenny Neumann) and Scott (Jimmy Sturtevant), and they proceed to rig up some scares for the pledges; hidden speakers that issue blood curdling screams, a ghost apparition that stalks after Marti, and a corpse to drop in at an inopportune moment, but unfortunately for Peter and his two stooges, things don’t go quite as planned. Turns out there may be some truth to the legend of deformed Andrew stalking the grounds of Garth Manor, and one by one our cast of characters are picked off by a hideous figure.
One key element that makes Hell Night stand out from its slasher contemporaries is that we aren’t just waiting, if not actively hoping, for the characters to get murdered, as they are all quite likable and we are given enough time to come to care about each of them. This is not something that can be said about your average cast of a Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street movie, and even Peter and his pranking co-conspirators are not treated like villainous assholes, as none of their pranks would have harmed anyone and are actually pretty tame when compared to real hazing practices you hear about today. Another element that sets Hell Night apart is how gorgeous the film looks; cinematographer Mac Ahlberg does amazing work with shadow and candlelight, and every actor should be sending him Christmas cards every year for how good he makes them look.
Horror Trope #9 – “Stay here, I’ll go and check it out” Now, just because all the characters in Hell Night are likable doesn’t mean they don’t do vastly stupid things. Whenever Jeff isn’t abandoning Marti to check out some noise he’s heard, he’s leading her into the bowels of the manor, on what one must assume is some kind of suicide mission. Refusing to be left alone – again – Marti follows him down a secret passageway, the one the killer had just fled through, into a cave system deep below the house. And what exactly is Jeff’s reasoning for doing this? Well, when Marti comments that what they are doing is “crazy,” he responds, “I’m not stopping until I get him. He knows this house better than we do and if we don’t get him now, he’s gonna get us.” Call me crazy, but following a killer into a maze of tunnels, passageways that he knows better than you do, is not conducive to a long life. Even worse is when they eventually come across the killer, Jeff’s immediate reaction is to turn around and run away, even though he is armed with a pitchfork and the killer has nothing.
Hell Night is a beautifully shot film, with a nice cast of talented young actors, and though it may have a slower pace than your average slasher film, it still manages to keep you at the edge of your seat as our characters are chased through cobwebbed hallways, down dank tunnels and through dark hedge mazes, all leading to the big “final girl” confrontation. Director Tom DeSimone has orchestrated a nice little horror gem — with the required jump-scares but without gratuitous nudity and excessive gore — making this a horror movie that could be considered “fun for the whole family.” Yet as good as the film is, it’s still not quite perfect, but to get into that I must veer into spoiler territory.
At one point in the film, Seth manages to escape the grounds of Garth Manor, helped over the locked gate by Marti and Jeff, and he makes his way to the local police station. It’s there that he finds that the police have become fed up with the drunken antics of the fraternities and thus don’t take his claims of murder seriously, and so Seth steals a shotgun from the police evidence locker and heads back to Garth Manor. Re-entering the grounds, through a hole he discovers in the steel fence, he encounters the hideous creature we assume is Andrew Garth. They struggle for a bit and Seth manages to come out on top as he shoots and kills Andrew, but of course things can’t be that easy. He runs into the manor house to inform Marti and Jeff that their hell night is truly over, only to be suddenly killed. How is that possible, you ask? The killer looked very, very dead, and as a matter of fact, the guy Seth fought is truly dead – though we were still subjected to the “killer isn’t really dead” jump scare, but then Seth put a second round into the bastard – so who is this deformed monstrosity that just killed our supposed hero?
Now in the story told earlier by Peter, we learned that the son named Morris had his head bashed it, which sounds rather fatal, but it is also mentioned that only three corpses were found — which I guess would then be Norman Garth, his wife Lillian and their two daughters — so somehow Morris survived the head bashing and has been living in hiding with his brother Andrew. If this sounds a little thin, and kind of plugged in, you’d be right, as Hell Night’s screenwriter Randy Feldman didn’t find out about the second killer reveal until he went to the film’s premier. Apparently, the producers wanted to juice up the ending, so they decided to add another deformed madman to chase Linda Blair around for the final act. So for those of you who thought the two-killer concept in Scream was completely original, you’d be wrong, it’s just that Wes Craven did it better. Regardless of how clunking the last acts “startling reveal” was, it doesn’t lessen the fun and thrills to be had in viewing Hell Night, and I can heartily recommend this one to fans of the genre.
• What kind of pledge night consists of only four initiates?
• This Hell Night has been a yearly initiation for some time, so why did killings only happen on this particular night?
• Sleeping in 12 year-old bedding would be rather disgusting.
• Not sure how these yahoos pulled off the transparent ghost effect.
• Police would not ignore a report of murder, even if it was most likely a prank.
• Police also don’t tend to leave evidence lockers open to the public.
• Horror Trope #23 – Killer has trophy room of corpses.
Hell Night (1981)
Hell Night may have some pacing issues, and the ending may confuse and piss off some viewers, but overall the film is an excellent example of a genre shooting above its paygrade. It simply looks gorgeous, as its cast of beautiful men and women.