An ear-piercing scream worthy of consideration for the Jamie Lee Curtis Scream Queen Award (that I just made up). Party-going teens in costume. A pitch black night where anything and everything can go wrong. This is the opening to Hell Night, a once forgotten slasher that failed to attract on its debut, but is far more unique than its basic premise and rote setting would suggest.
It’s Hell Night at the local college, a night of debauchery and ritual hazing meant to induct nubile young co-eds (played by actors clearly pushing thirty, obviously) into Greek life. King of frat life Peter (Kevin Brophy) leads four likable teens to nearby Garth Manor, a Victorian mansion left locked and vacant since the brutal slaughter of the entire family by the deranged father, and the disappearance of the deformed youngest son. If Marti (Linda Blair), Jeff (Peter Barton), Seth (Vincent Van Patten), and Denise (Suki Goodwin) can survive the night alone in the massive house, they’ll be initiated into Alpha Sigma Rho. But as they’ll soon find out, Garth Manor isn’t as empty as it first appears.
Hell Night did not premiere to great fanfare or box office success. Even in 1981, the newly minted slasher genre was overflowing with Halloween (1978) knockoffs and Friday the 13th (1980) copycats. Some of them, like Prom Night (1980) stood out from the crowd, while others floundered. There was just too much competition. It’s a shame, because despite Hell Night‘s paint-by-numbers premise, it’s not quite as cookie cutter as we might think. Take Peter’s monologue explaining the mythology of the house and the massacre that occurred there, for example. In most slashers, that speech would be accompanied by a gauzy flashback where we see the murders committed in pantomime, but not here. Instead, it’s straight dialogue. The film trusts it’s audience to fill in the blanks themselves, a brilliant tactic.
Sure, there’s still lots of slasher tentpoles present. Sex, drugs, isolated locations stalked by a mythic maniac. But then there’s the Gothic set dressing of the manor, an unusual choice for a slasher, which as a rule catered to contemporary teen audiences and moved away from anything too grand or eccentric. It makes the film feel a bit Poe-ish, which is a surprisingly nice touch amidst the standard silliness. Equally unusual for a slasher, there’s no nudity involved in the more titillating scenes. Instead, the film earns its R rating based solely on the violence and though it takes awhile to build to the slice-and-dice, when the kills do happen, they’re quite creative.
Hell Night isn’t Halloween, and that’s okay. It’s not trying to be–and that’s what makes it so fun. Director Tom DeSimone knew his audience, and you can tell the cast did as well. The result is an ideal sleepover movie best watched in early autumn with a heavy blanket, some popcorn, and a mug of warm cider. Snuggle up and give it a watch, you won’t regret it. This I pledge.
5 – Totally Terrifying 4 – Crazy Creepy 3 – Fairly Frightening
- 2 – Slightly Scary
1 – Hardly Horror