Who is willing to spend a night of horror hell in a haunted mansion?
While films such as Black Christmas (1974) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) would be considered to be the genesis of the so-called ‘slasher film’ in the horror genre, the success of Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) brought about the boom of low-budget movies about a killer stalking teens and young adults. 1981 alone brought such films as My Bloody Valentine, The Burning, The Prowler, Final Exam, and the subject of this review, Hell Night.
Following many of the tropes established by the previously successful films of the genre, Hell Night takes place primarily at the abandoned Garth Manor, which has a dark history with the owner having killed his family and himself years prior, minus a son whose body was never found. It provides the setting for the titular ‘Hell Night’ that four pledges must endure to make it into the Alpha Sigma Rho fraternity. The head of the fraternity, Peter (Kevin Brophy), and some friends hide outside the estate, setting off traps to scare the seemingly impressionable pledges, only for there to actually be a killer lurking around Garth Manor.
The main group has somewhat known actors among the bunch, the obvious being Linda Blair as Marti, who was roped into this thanks to her friend Denise (Suki Goodwin). This film marked a change in trajectory for Blair’s career, as she would end up starring in exploitation fare such as Chained Heat (1983) and Savage Streets (1984) a few years later. For the male members of the group, we have Jeff (Peter Barton), whose upper class upbringing clashes with Marti’s poor background, and the lovable stoner Seth (Vincent Van Patten). For a genre often associated with high body counts, the lack of characters can be seen as a negative for those who desire a more bloody affair.
While Hell Night offers some quality production value and decent cinematography for a slasher film of the time, it suffers from an issue that plagued many of the genre that tried to capitalize on the success of Friday the 13th… poor pacing and an uninteresting story. There are often long stretches of time in this 1hr 40min long film where there is nothing to grasp the audience’s attention, either from banal conversation by the main characters or wandering around the mansion as an excuse for providing ‘tension.’ The opening story about Raymond Garth’s murders and the supposed survival of his son Andrew is done very well, as they arrive at the manor, but that is the only information we get about our supposed killer, with a lack of motivation provided and nothing to make the ‘twist’ during the final act sensible. The aforementioned Final Exam had a similar idea, with their nameless killer stalking a college for no apparent reason, but that felt more like a deliberate choice compared to Hell Night.
The film does provide some levity, when Seth manages to escape the manor, trying to get help from the police. His pleas for help are dismissed by the officers, who are aware of the ‘Hell Night’ ritual and consider his actions a prank. Seth manages to get a hold of one of the shotguns in lockup and steals a car from a random pedestrian, hoping that his actions will bring the police to Garth Manor. While that subplot has a decent amount of intelligence to it, there are some threads that don’t feel completely established, such as not really being given a reason as to why the police would not want to trust Seth, and that they do not come into play at the end following the car theft.
While it would be ridiculous to consider this the bottom of the barrel in terms of slasher films (and Blair’s Razzie nomination is undeserved, even if her performance is not that great), Hell Night belongs with the lesser-known movies of the genre that are best left forgotten, aside from a curiosity watch. A possible comparison would be with The Prowler, which suffers from many of the same issues that plagued this film, like the slow pace and lack of interesting characters, but that one is salvaged by the excellent effects work of Tom Savini. Hell Night is a quite bloodless romp, and while that isn’t always a complete turn-off, the audience will feel like they were the real ones who spent the long evening in a house with little horrors to it.
Take a peek at the trailer for “Hell Night!”