Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Hell Night (1981)

Set during Pledge Week, four wannabe Greeks — Linda Blair (SAVAGE STREETS), Vincent Van Patten (ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL), Peter Barton (THE POWERS OF MATTHEW STAR), and Suki Goodwin — vow to spend the night inside a creepy old house where the master of the manor murdered his entire family twelve years earlier. Or did he? One of the children, a “gorked out” monster named Andrew, was never found, alive or dead.

While the four college students explore the mansion — and one another — during the overnight hours, some of their friends (one played by LUCAN star Kevin Brophy) sneak into the house to escalate a prank war meant to test the pledges’ mettle. And who else is in the house? Someone with a nifty penchant for murder in creative and gruesome ways. A fraternity brother taking the act too far? One of the pledges? Or is...gulp...Andrew still alive with a taste for slaughter?

Not to be confused with the inferior HAPPY HELL NIGHT (a depressing experience for Darren McGavin fans), HELL NIGHT was made during the slasher movie boom of the early 1980s, when almost every week theaters were packed with teenagers eager to see teenagers getting smashed, bashed, gashed, and slashed. Though the basic premise, courtesy of screenwriter Randy Feldman (TANGO & CASH), is derivative to say the least (it wasn’t original even when the East Side Kids were doing it), the film rises above it to register as one of the genre’s better entries. Skillful direction by Tom DeSimone (CHATTERBOX), evocative cinematography by Mac Ahlberg (RE-ANIMATOR), Feldman’s intelligent plotting and dialogue, and a likable cast of TVQ favorites work together to throw a few scares into the audience.

Relatively tame in the sex and gore departments, despite the R rating, HELL NIGHT is a good example of what can happen when filmmakers tackle horror tropes with a bit of ingenuity. Making the Hell Night party a costume party and setting the film in an old house with candelabras and no electricity gives the film a nice Gothic atmosphere. Another interesting touch is the gender-swapping of leads Blair and Barton: she’s a mechanic from a blue-collar neighborhood, and he’s the rich kid (but not a snob).

HELL NIGHT was the last film released by Compass International Pictures, the independent studio behind HALLOWEEN, with HALLOWEEN’s Irwin Yablans also sharing production duties with Bruce Cohn Curtis (THE SEDUCTION). Despite an admirable job creating suspense, DeSimone continued to bounce between gay pornography and R-rated exploitation movies after HELL NIGHT, which may not have been seen by enough people in 1981 to benefit the careers of anyone involved.

As good as HELL NIGHT is, it doesn’t quite reach the level of great. The lack of nudity and gore (DeSimone’s one major gore scene was censored and never restored to recent releases) does take a bit of excitement out of the film’s sails, and the killer isn’t developed as a character at all. Once the movie gets going, it really crackles along, but excising a few minutes from the first half wouldn’t be a bad idea.

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