"As an initiation rite into Alpha Sigma Rho fraternity, four pledges must spend the night in Garth Manor, twelve years to the day after the previous resident murdered his entire family. Two of the pledges, Marti (Linda Blair, The Exorcist) and Jeff (Peter Barton), ignore the rumors that the now-deserted mansion is haunted by a crazed killer, until one-by-one, members of their group mysteriously disappear. Could this be part of the fraternity prank or is it a demented former tenant seeking revenge?
When the seemingly innocent rite of passage turns deadly, these college students will do anything to survive Hell Night."
HELL NIGHT is another classic from 1981 – the golden year for the classic slasher movie. It’s a film ignored for far too long on
Even from the off, there can be no mistake – HELL NIGHT is a good times ghost train of a slasher movie. Hokey and creaky, but never less than 100% fun. In the first few frames the screaming mouth of a teenage girl fills the screen, but this isn’t a scream of real terror but a fog horn howl to signal the ghoulish campery has begun. The students of Alpha Sigma Rho are throwing one hell of a party – the camera pans around all kinds of extravagant frat debauchery as kids swing from a balcony and car windscreens get soaped, before diving into the bowls of fraternity house where an elaborate costume party is full swing (you can tell it’s swanky as there’s even a cigarette girl doing the rounds!). There, two fraternity brothers, Peter and Scott (Jeff Reed and Jimmy Sturtevant), eye their pledge victims – for whom they have a very special night planned. Marti (Linda Blair) is done up in a revealing Georgian bodice-ripper (looking for all the world like an adorable chipmunk with cleavage); next to her, dressed to impress in slinky leopard print, is sorority sister May (the Australian actress Jenny Neumann whose hammy mugging made the Aussie slasher STAGEFRIGHT (1980) so entertaining). Looking a little nervous are fellow pledges Jeff (Peter Barton) and Seth (Vincent Van Patten), dressed as Victorian gentleman and Peter Pan respectively; they cheer up pretty soon when they see wild child English chick Denise (Suki Goodwin) dressed as 1920's flapper, throwing eccentric shapes on the dance floor (like an (even more) demented Lulu Fishpaw from John Water’s POLYESTER).
After some (apparently traditional) barfing and window smashing the plan for the night is revealed: the pledges to Alpha Sigma Rho have to spend one night at the spooky Garth Manor. In a nice nod to the old Universal monster movies of the Thirties a whole gaggle of excitable students pull up to the old house, with party girls sitting on the bonnets holding flaming torches (kind of invoking the monster rather than chasing it out of town) and with hunting bugles blaring (somewhat appropriately). Playing to the crowd, Peter tells the legend of Garth Manor: that twelve years ago, Raymond Garth killed his entire family – apart from his son Andrew, who he forced to watch – before hanging himself. Apparently the police only found three bodies, Andrew and his father were gone. Legend has it, intones Peter, that “Andrew, some believe, is still living somewhere in this house …”. He also tells the pledges that they shouldn’t try climbing over the high fence, as they’d be likely to “.. cut their nuts off!”. Peter tells them they will be locked in until they return in the morning, and hands the boys a gun (just in case of what I don’t know!). With that the partying crowd leave the pledges to explore their rambling, gothic pile …
However, what the innocent pledges don’t suspect is that Peter, Scott and May have a barrel load of ghoulish tricks up their sleeve as they creep back onto the grounds of Garth Manor with the express intention of scaring the students out of their wits. But what none of them know is that somewhere deep in the house a murderous presence is stirring and it’s none too pleased that a bunch of boozing, pill popping, sex crazed teens have gate crashed the party!
HELL NIGHT is unashamedly a popcorn slasher flick – and that’s no bad thing. It has that glossy look (despite a relatively meagre budget of around $1 million) that it shares with many other subgenre films from this year (as we all know the sheen dimmed with every year subsequently). The cast are clearly having a blast throughout, and despite some big characters none of them are too annoying (although Scott was borderline). Suki Goodwin, as Denise, is a scream; providing the film’s main comedy moments without really grating. She sails through the film on a wave of booze, Quaaludes (whatever happened to those?) and double-entendres. Linda Blair is also as effortlessly likeable as you’d imagine, as the slightly tomboyish girl (with the handy mechanic skills) and the coquettish smile. Of course, she’s earmarked as the final as the final girl, not just because of her star status but from her boyish name ala Jamie Lee Curtis' Laurie in HALLOWEEN. Of course, the HALLOWEEN connection isn’t just co-incidental, as HELL NIGHT was produced by Irwin Yablans (obviously hoping that lightening would strike twice).
Andy Milligan (the low budget horror auteur) often liked to makes his films period pieces - so they wouldn't age. HELL NIGHT's Tom DeSimone may well have kitted out his actors in period fancy dress for the same reason (but, of course, the haircuts give it away within seconds of swishing and flicking their way onto the screen!), but what it does achieve is the pleasingly Scooby Doo gothic look - all cobwebs, candlelight and hidden passageways. The spooky gothic mansion, of course, makes the perfect backdrop for this kind of "Boo!" machine - and the film's boogeymen, whilst not in the same league as, say, Jason and Michael - or even Cropsy - do their jobs with relish. There's one fantastic scene where the killer does his best Michael Myer's shape impression, whilst emerging from a carpeted over trap door - I bet the audiences were screaming "He's behind you!" in their best panto squeals back in the day. However, despite being a prime pedigree slasher, HELL NIGHT is pretty light in the grue department; which is partly because the film makers were already aware of the MPAA's crackdown and partly because DeSimone didn't want to make a gore film. However, those handy with the remote control will still be able to revel in snippets of gory debauchery - especially the hokey, but effective, decapitation of one of the characters. The film also misses out on that other major requirement of teen slashers from the time: namely a little bit of the tried and trusted t&a. Surprisingly, this was at the behest of one of the male stars (Van Patten), who was worried about sullying his family name!
Despite a few shortcomings, HELL NIGHT never fails to be entertaining. It's the consummate fun early 80's slasher flick - designed for retro thrills, fun scares and popcorn munching. It takes itself seriously enough to stop from descending into self-parody (although, there's a curiously out of the blue ghost scene that had me wondering if Daphne, Thelma and co wouldn't be close behind!), but knows exactly what it is and revels in it. It seems funny to talk about innocence in a film where a bunch of people get carved up in creative ways, but HELL NIGHT is a perfect twilight genre example of the slasher flick before it descended into self parody and rapidly shrinking budgets.
HELL NIGHT is a helluva lot of fun!
BODYCOUNT 8 female:2 / male:61) Female decapitated with machete