I wasn’t expecting much out of Hell Night. At first glance, it appears to be just another anonymous 1980s slasher flick, featuring a star who had lost her grip on A-list roles years earlier. On top of that, whatever old print had been transferred to digital had not been cared for, with many scenes featuring vertical scratch lines. This film has seen a partial restoration from Scream Factory, released on Blu-Ray, so someone thought this flick was worth preserving for the future. And they were right. Hell Night is low rent and clichéd, but it is also a good horror film.
At an unnamed college (played by the University of Redlands in the Inland Empire), it is Hell Night, just like the title. Hell Night is a rager of a costume party that fills the houses and streets of fraternity row. One house has a tradition on Hell Night. They, along with a sorority, send their pledges to spend the night in the Garth mansion (played by the Kimberly Crest Estate, a stone’s throw from the University of Redlands), which was the site of a grisly murder/homicide twelve years earlier. Should the pledges make it through the night without fleeing in terror, they will have passed their initiation.
It’s all fun and games. The fraternity president, Peter (Kevin Brophy), spins a wild tale of a father driven to the brink by his deformed children, gathering them all in the family room for a spree of violence. But, as Peter tells his rapt audience, not all of the bodies were recovered. Some say that at least one of the Garth children survived, and is still living within the walls of the mansion. That’s a pretty good fun house setup.
It must have been a light semester when it came to rushing new pledges, because there are only four to lock in the mansion. The fraternity is represented by Jeff and Seth (Peter Barton and Vincent Van Patten), while the sorority wishfuls are Marti and Denise (Linda Blair and Suki Goodwin).
Seth and Denise are the sex-craved youths of the flick, a not uncommon trope in slasher films. In fact, they spend most of the movie in bed. That leaves the heavy lifting to Jeff and Marti. Marti is beginning to regret her decision to join a sorority, though, which makes her character a stick in the mud. In fact, her character isn’t all that likable, yet any experienced horror fan can tell she’s going to make it all the way to the end.
It’s not enough for this film for these four to sit around a big, empty house waiting on the killer, so director Tom DeSimone and screenwriter Randy Feldman make sure more co-eds are on hand. Since the whole idea of locking the pledges in the house is to prank them, Peter returns on scene, with a couple others to try and terrify the newbies. That makes for seven potential victims, which is a good number for a horror flick — plenty to serve up for visceral thrills should things begin to drag for a viewer.
Hell Night clocks in at 101 minutes, which is on the long side for a slasher flick. DeSimone showed some fine storytelling skills, though. Forty minutes into this thing, the body count is still low, and the main characters are still clueless to their peril. Countless other directors would have found themselves flailing by that point, yet DeSimone’s direction was steady and deliberate. He took familiar tropes and explored them further. That has the effect of making the familiar seem fresh again, as he didn’t just film scary stuff to check off slasher flick boxes. He was genuinely trying to scare the audience. In a few scenes, he absolutely nails it.
That’s the good. But, no film threatens to fall into obscurity without some bad. That starts with the star. Blair’s character was a drag. The character thought too much of herself, and that makes it seem as if Blair thought she was too good for this film, as well. Maybe I’m being too critical of Blair. Perhaps it was just an incredibly realistic portrayal of a wet blanket, but if Blair was really that good of a performer, she wouldn’t have been in flicks like Chained Heat. There is one area where she deserves praise, and that’s when she’s being chased around by the killer. In those frantic moments, she makes for a quality scream queen.
There is more that is flawed about this film, but anything else is just minor compared to the overall quality. Get past Blair’s moping, and her character’s stubborn refusal to get murdered, and this is a fine horror watch. The gore is somewhat lacking, but there is still plenty enough to get one’s murder fix. This is a great film for those who have seen just about everything else in the genre.