Hell Night doesn’t look like much on the surface. A slasher released in the heyday of slasher-mania, it also throws its hat into the ring of the “fraternity/sorority initiations gone wrong” sub-genre which saw many young, perky, and nubile young men and women pitted against murder happy psychos and sickos who are often to thought to exist only in the over active imaginations of impressionable 20-somethings who are looking to scare the heck out of pledges as a rite of passage into their order. But instead of embracing the exploitative nature of the sub-genre, Hell Night instead offers up a competent entry into the realm of slashers done right, tapping into the Victorian atmosphere of the Garth manor where much of the tale is played out in.
Four pledges, broken down into two groups of two by personality (the two who are merely there because it seems like the thing to do in modern day society, and the other two who are horn dogs and looking to live it up during their college days) are locked overnight inside Garth manor, a castle like estate that is shrouded in blood-stained legend and booby trapped by the fraternity president, his floozy blond girlfriend, and his right hand man and all around tech-guy. After some of their pranks go off without a hitch, the guests within the manor, and their pranksters roaming outside the estate begin encountering forces and inhabitants who aren’t all that pleased that their final, or not so final, resting place has been chosen as the venue for their little annual initiation game.
What immediately sets Hell Night apart amongst the flock of near identical slasher fair being forged and promoted at the time is the fact that our four main characters have more than one layer to their personalities, and are capable of some impressive feats of reasoning and detection. They are also all capable of showing multiple sides of themselves, and even if those sides are a little thin, it’s a pleasure to see that enough care was given to make our potential victims worthy of at least a smidgen of our attention and sympathy, which makes the cat and mouse elements and near constant threats to their lives in the second and thirds acts just that much more engaging. Linda Blair, famous for The Exorcist and, as of 1981, not quite yet being the ultimate B-movie Queen we know and love her for today, stars and leads, and does a really admirable job in making a claim for fame with her acting ability. It doesn’t hurt that she has a very young and innocent look at this point in her acting career, along with a body many lusted after. In one of her best moments in the film, she is having a conversation with her romantic interest, and intellectual equal within the manor, Jeff about the reason why they have decided to go to college and sign up for their respective fraternities and sororities. They talk about how Jeff is from a richer family, and how Jeff’s main reasoning for getting involved in Alpha Sigma Row was because of his fathers wishes. Marty (Linda Blair) then explains that her motivation was that if she helped her less intelligent and educationally motivated sisters pass certain courses, she would get a car to use, a new wardrobe, and some other perks. They even explore a bit of the difference between the rich, white collar background that Jeff comes from compared to the blue collar world Marty knew growing up as a child, which has bestowed upon her all the knowledge of being a proper mechanic (I wonder how having the skills of a mechanic could assist Marty later on down the line in a slasher film. Hmmmmm.) The other two pledges, Denise and Seth, are the more typically shallow college students, interested more in cocaine, Quaaludes, and liquor, but even they have a discussion about their passions in life outside of drinking, drugs, and pre-marital, death-warrant-signing sex that hints at something underneath their frivolities. Peter Bennet, president of Alpha Sigma Row, and his girlfriend May and crony Scott, are also solid characters, showing confidence from an acting standpoint and the proper amount of borderline psychopathic menace required to pull off such a mean-spirited set of pranks.
The look and feel of Hell Night is also cause for some minor jubilation, as a majority of the film takes place inside an inexplicably well furnished (12 years since anyone’s been in there, but they still have beds complete with blankets, functioning toilets, and lit candles in every room) manor that’s quite huge and contains a mysterious and and cavernous geography. The house is multiple levels high (3 or more) and has some maze like caves underneath as well as a pond/moat deal and is surrounded by foliage and woods on either side, all encased by an extremely high and pointy fence with a gate entrance in front. The director, Tom DeSimone, makes the appropriate amount of love to the exterior and interior of the building, and while I can’t be sure how much was a set and how much was an actual location, it all works seamlessly and rarely takes you out of illusion that you are on such a lore-laden property that seems stuck in a Victorian past. One would figure that with such a cast and set up, we would be privy to gratuitous nudity and unrealistic sex scenes, but DeSimone spares us that, instead shooting for subtle, mostly off screen romance while interrupting any on screen loving with well-timed jolts and revelations. Speaking of well-timed jolts, DeSimone and his audio team may have the best “DONG!” sounds to emphasize the incredibly jump-worthy and off-beat boo scares. DeSimone doesn’t wait until the audience has had time to catch their breath before telegraphing his next jump scene, and instead uses the predictability of other, lesser slashers to his advantage by throwing in scares on the beats a few steps before or after when you expect the boo scare to pop up. This flick made me jump 4 separate times, and none of the thrills seem cheap either. They all came at times where I was generally interested in what was happening anyway, instead of times where the movie had nothing going on and a a boo scare would have been the only way to justify a particularly unnecessary scene. Since the entire film takes place during the night, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that no part of the movie is too dark to see clearly, and that the atmosphere is handled very well, driving home the blustery, autumnal night this film is taking place on without being too obvious about it. The pacing may be my only true beef with DeSimone, as the film seems to drag a bit when the second act is coming to a close and the third and final act is getting underway. Had this flick been shaved down 10-20 minutes, I think it would’ve moved at a much more brisk and relentless pace. As it plays now, it seems to wander and shamble a bit too much at points, albeit for good, story-based reasons. But still a little more of a scissor happy approach in the editing room would have had me at the edge of my seat continually.
As I mentioned a bit earlier, the look and the feel of the film is spot on, creating all the spookiness you would hope to hear and see from a proper slasher film, along with some really nice, flashy death and special effects sequences. Some of the slayings take place off screen, but more often than not we are treated to quick, but brutal on screen killings that make up for their lack in creativity with the impact of great sound effect accompaniments and overall swiftness. The killer is pretty effective when dealing out the death, and the fact that he has this famaliar playground to do it in, that is well lit, shot, and scored, makes it all the more fun for us fans of the sub-genre. Aside from the “DONG!” notes that push the boo scares on us so well, the score is also just as impressive, while sadly not being terribly memorable. There is no recognizable theme, but instead it all feels moody and dark enough to fit the action taking place. Better yet though, the score doesn’t try to blatantly rip-off any more well-known slasher themes, so at the very least it is unique and well-suited for this particular movie. The gore is a bit on the light side, but in a flick so rich with atmosphere and some very tense moments, it is ok for it not to be drenched in red. For those wondering if there are any super memorable kills in Hell Night though, I can tell you with absolute certainty that the “final kill” which ends the film is a howler, and I actually rewound it a few time because the setup to it and the pay off seem accidental and unrelated, which makes the kill itself even more impressive.
Much Like Madman, Hell Night is a slasher fans slasher, at least in my book. It has that off-beat, groovy vibe going for it which keeps a viewer on his or her toes throughout most of the film, and it looks, feels, and sounds every bit as spooky and creepy as it should. It doesn’t reinvent the slasher, but for every step it doesn’t take forward into the land of groundbreaking progression, it takes one step to the left, being just different enough to hold your attention and warrant a special place above the cesspool of more shallow, cash hungry knock-offs of the tried and true formula. The acting is more than a few notches above what should be realistically expected, it sounds amazing, and if it weren’t for some questionable pacing at key points, this could be one of those examples of how a relatively unknown successor to the heavyweights of the genre had actually trumped the champions. If you are looking for one “hell” of a October night slasher double-bill, I would couple Hell Night with Madman. Just another reason never to go to college, and never to join a fraternity or sorority.