Welcome to Back to the ’80s. This recurring feature aims to take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly from horror’s most beloved decade. Regardless of which category a particular film falls under, this segment will spotlight films that horror fans can appreciate for one reason or another. We will look at how some of these flicks have stood the test of time and others have not aged quite so well. Regardless of what they look like today, these efforts from the 1980s laid the groundwork for the horror genre as we know it today.
Four college students experience fraternity hazing in this 1981 horror feature directed by Tom DeSimone. Agreeing to spend the night in the town’s local haunted house, these co-ed pledges are unprepared for what awaits them inside. Made near the beginning of the 1980’s slasher craze, a series of harmless pranks turns into a terrifying reality in this minorly flawed and surprisingly enjoyable feature.
Hell Night begins with a drunken group of college kids setting up for the night’s events. There is to be a ritual initiation conducted by Peter (Kevin Brophy), the president of the fraternity. He enlists the help of two friends (Jimmy Sturtevant and Jenny Neumann) to set in motion a series of pranks they have developed to scare the pledges. To set the tone for the night, Peter tells the story of the unfortunate family living in Garth Manor before they were all murdered.
Those occupying the house for the night are Marti (Linda Blair), Jeff (Peter Barton), Denise (Suki Goodwin), and Seth (Vincent Van Patten). Denise and Seth set off to make the most of what they perceive to be a party environment, while Marti and Jeff just want the night to go as quickly as possible. Someone else lurking in the shadows has different plans for the pranksters and the couples.
The suspense in Hell Night is well-crafted. An excellent choice made by the filmmakers is the slow reveal of the killer. The person is just a hand reaching out at first. With each murder, the killer is removed further from the shadows. By using shadows, the audience is shown more until finally the killer’s identity is revealed. This is an effective technique, differing from the regular methods of the time. The killer’s POV shot or the use of a frightening mask was the budding norm of the time. Instead, the killer is literally what is hiding in the dark. The POV shot is utilized but alongside creative methods employed other than the use of a mask.
The house and grounds serving as Garth Manor are appropriately used to create a Gothic setting. The building dons a foreboding look set back beyond a high and dangerously pointed gate. An overgrown hedge maze sits below the high roof containing turrets. Hell Night has elements relating to a haunted house story in addition to the typical slashers of the time. The structure used as Garth Manor is successful in setting the tone for the film. The secret tunnels and twisting roof allow for interesting sequences to be played out.
Nominated for a Razzie Award, Linda Blair of The Exorcist fame leads the cast. The nomination is surprising, considering that Blair gives a natural performance as Marti. There are moments when Blair appears genuinely terrified of the action. One concludes that she is so submerged in the performance that she is able to forget what is coming or she is talented enough to seem legitimately caught off guard when something like a door breaks down. Either scenario would suggest Blair is talented enough to deliver a sincere portrayal of one in terror. Blair’s Marti is a sarcastic and self-reliant young woman from a working-class background. Blair takes the character on an arc from controlled to unhinged. She then brings Marti back around to a resourceful survivor.
Peter Barton does a fine job as the male lead. He is willing to go back for a person in trouble. At the same time, he is refreshing to watch as a male lead prepared to run as fast as any Scream Queen away from insurmountable odds. This humanizes his portrayal of Jeff. This is a recurring trait for most characters in the film. Once in a harrowing situation, they do not remain to foolishly fight the killer. They realize something is wrong and decide escaping is the best solution.
Hell Night is an overlooked feature from the slasher sub-genre. A solid choice for the horror fan looking for something different than the usual selections. This flick does not possess the magic of Halloween or the fandom of A Nightmare on Elm Street. However, this Linda Blair vehicle rises above the duds with which it is typically associated. It is perfect for the viewer seeking the feel of the 1980’s slasher. Hell Night is an occasionally flawed but sincere feature. The chase sequences are creative. The acting is strained but believable. Contemporary audiences wanting an alternative to the usual horror suspects should check this one out.