The increasingly violent and exploitative slasher cycle was in full force when "Hell Night" reached theaters in August 1981. While the film closely adhered to the subgenre's tried-and-true formula, dropping young adults into an isolated setting and pitting them against a homicidal maniac, director Tom DeSimone, writer Randolph Feldman, and producer Irwin Yablans (coming off the success of 1978's slasher watermark "Halloween
") sought to give the proceedings a classier sheen of welcome personality and suggestion. Headlined by a more-winning-than-ever Linda Blair (by this point seven years removed from receiving a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for 1973's "The Exorcist
"), "Hell Night" effectively builds tension from its familiar premise and cares about its characters even as it bumps them off. This is easily one of the stronger entries of its era.
It's Hell Night at Alpha Sigma Rho, and four pledgessensible Marti (Linda Blair), nice guy Jeff (Peter Barton), fun-loving Seth (Vincent Van Patten), and Quaalude-popping Denise (Suki Goodwin)have just one test to pass in order to be accepted into their respective fraternity and sister sorority: spend the night locked within the gates of Garth Manor. The site of a family murder-suicide from years' past, legend has it a deformed surviving son still roams the grounds, ready to pick off anyone who dares step foot on the property. Before the sun rises, the pledgesand a trio of members out to scare themwill discover just how real this frightful tale truly is.
Thick in atmosphere and funhouse-style thrills, "Hell Night" makes a generally unoriginal setup feel fresh. The snappy script shows interest in what its characters have to say, building them and their relationshipslike the cursorily romantic one between Marti and Jeffenough that the viewer genuinely likes them. It doesn't take long for mortal danger to reveal itself, and as the body count rises so does the expertly crafted suspense. Adroitly using all corners of the framein one terrific scene, the villain gradually reveals himself in a thoroughly unexpected wayand the sumptuously gothic exterior of Garth Manor (really the Kimberly Crest House and Gardens, located in Redlands, CA) to its fullest, "Hell Night" displays a keen understanding that every detail can positively contribute to a horror picture's affecting outcome.
Linda Blair brings intelligence and strength-under-pressure to "final girl" Marti, culminating in an exciting climactic showdown and a appreciable final beat of emotional consequence and empowerment. It's moments like this that lift the film above the norm. "Hell Night" may not break new ground the way 1974's "Black Christmas" and the aforementioned "Halloween" did before it, but it does share, and succeed, at the same mission statement: to earn every one of its legitimate jolts and scares while treating audiences with the respect they deserve.
© 2018 by Dustin Putman