Synopsis: Four college pledges are forced to spend the night in a deserted old mansion where they get killed off one by one by the monstrous surviving members of a family massacre years earlier for trespassing on their living grounds.
Stars: Linda Blair, Vincent Van Patten, Peter Barton
Director: Tom DeSimone
Running Length: 101 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: In 1981, horror movies were still figuring out ‘the rules’ to their formula. With the double-barreled shotgun successes of 1978’s Halloween and 1980’s Friday the 13th, the slasher film was on the brink of an all out attack on the box office with countless imitators being filmed and released in short order. August of 1981 saw the release of Hell Night which, while falling into most of the trappings of the genre, still manages to come off as well-intentioned and (mostly) well made.
The plot of Hell Night reads along the same lines as the Mad Lib-ed nature of wannabe horror films. Basically it’s a fill in the blank set-up: Nubile teens are stalked by a BLANK at a BLANK. Just fill in your killer and location and you’re good to go. Here the nubile teens (really college freshmen) are stalked by a half-breed crazy at a supposedly haunted mansion which was the site of a family homicide years before. Every year the local college fraternities and sororities haze a selected group of incoming pledges by forcing them to do something crazy…and this time it’s to spend the night in said mansion. It’s safe to say that the mansion isn’t as deserted as they think and it becomes a cat and monster game to see who will survive the night.
After making a splash with her Oscar nominated performance in The Exorcist (which, to be fair, was greatly aided by make-up and special effects), Blair was at an awkward stage of growing up. She always looked more mature than she actually is and hasn’t changed a whole heckuva lot since. In Hell Night she looks more like an upperclassman rather than a freshman…try as the film may to give her a young appearance. It may be mean but I have to say that I also didn’t buy the notion that she was one of the more comely lasses at this college, making most of the men that see her go googly-eyed. She’s not a conventional beauty like other scream queens…but come to think of it, neither were the leads of Halloween and Friday the 13th. Still, Blair makes for a nice lead and aside from her mature appearance is otherwise totally convincing in conveying her terror.
She’s joined by a group of non-memorable supporting players that only exist to get the axe at some point. Van Patten is kinda funny as a lothario that gets put through the ringer and stages a head-shaker of a robbery from a police station later in the film. Barton is the sensitive college guy that probably would end up with Blair if they can just get out of the locked gates around the perimeter of the house.
So…to the blood and gore…I mean, that’s what you’re ultimately here for, right? Well…director De Simone goes light on the red stuff in favor of drawing out the dread as long as he can. Remember, this was a time when it was still OK to not bathe the audience in boobs and blood so if you’re looking for a film with those elements you’ll need to look later in the 80’s and to cheaper movies.
At 101 minutes, the film is much too long for its own good. There are several endless sequences where the actors just look around the mansion trying not to get killed. It’s a lot of s-l-o-w walking around…and it feels like it’s filmed in real time. At one point, two actors were ascending a flight of stairs when I got up to grab something to drink. When I returned they hadn’t made it to the top of the stairs. I’m not joking. A good 10-15 minutes could have been trimmed out to keep things moving, enhancing the pace and not letting the action drift.
If the wrought iron fence around the mansion was were as wide as the plot holes the actors could have escaped in no time flat. You’ll be incredulous at the amount of times someone will escape the house only to go right back in to find a missing friend. It’s the noble thing to do, yeah…but I can honestly say if a maniac was trying to kill me you’d see only a dust cloud behind me if I had the chance.
One of the lesser known horror films of the 80’s, Hell Night is still enjoyable for its pre-mass imitation attack on its tale. It’s not very original and not quite scary…but something about it works well enough to keep it memorable in my brain several days after viewing it. If you can track it down, try it out and see if you agree.