(Editor’s Note: This latest installment in our A LOOK BACK AT column is once again provided by our very own Josh Soriano! Dig in on his trip down slasher lane with 1981’s Linda Blair starring, HELL NIGHT!)
The “slasher ” sub genre is more unique than people give it credit for. Ask any horror fan their favorite and you’ll hear a multitude of answers: THE BURNING, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, PROM NIGHT, PSYCHO, TOURIST TRAP…the list goes on and on. That says a lot about the amount of quality slasher films that were being pumped out during the 1980s. With a sub genre that could easily have just been an over abundance of FRIDAY THE 13th or HALLOWEEN rip-offs, it’s pretty impressive how many great slashers films there actually are. I recently took a look back at THE ANTICHRIST, an imitation of THE EXORCIST that was better than most so, in similar fashion, I thought it appropriate to talk about another horror film that easily could have been lost in the wake of Jason Voorhees’ and Michael Myers’ groundbreaking reigns of terror but instead succeeds; Tom DeSimone’s 1981 genre-splicing horror, HELL NIGHT. Your average filmgoer is under the impression that Linda Blair’s horror career began and ended with her brush with the devil, but for those of us that have seen Hell Night, we know better.
In the film, four pledges, as part of their hazing to Alpha Sigma Rho, are asked to spend the evening in Garth Manor on hell night (the last night before classes begin). Now, like any respectable haunting estate should have, a tall gate with razor-sharp points surrounds the grounds and if that isn’t eerie enough, the grounds include an overgrown hedge maze. Add to this a disturbing back story where Raymond Garth, fed up with his family, brutally kills his wife Lilian Garth and their four deformed children in front of his oldest son Andrew and then kills himself. When the family was found, there were only three bodies accounted for. As legend says, ‘gork’ Andrew Garth stills roams the blackened halls of the manor. During the course of the evening, the students are not only terrorized by the trickery of three pledge masters but also under the attack of Andrew , who we’re given the impression is constantly watching in the shadows.
Blair’s cherubic face is suiting for a final girl–her innocence and vulnerability reminds of how adorable she was in THE EXORCIST (you know, before that whole ‘Pazuzu thing’). This makes it easy to sympathize with her character which is a good thing considering her performance is painstakingly drab for the first half of the movie. Once the bodies start piling up, she comes into true form. It’s a shame that she ended up starring in a bunch of cheese and sleaze pics, instead of indulging her inner scream queen more completely because she clearly belongs in the horror genre. Another horror alum, Peter Barton (FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER) gives the most likeable performance, playing a fellow student and love interest for Blair. While the rest of the cast is entertaining enough, there are a few unintentionally funny moments as well. Keep an ear open for Vince Van Patten’s ridiculous scream (it’s likely a good thing he decided to pursue a career as a tennis player instead of a horror star).
Hell Night wouldn’t be nearly as effective if it were just in a standard setting though. The size and scale of Garth Manor soaks the film in heavy shadows and peering architecture. It oozes classic Gothic horror from the seams of every frame complete with cobwebs, candlesticks and a ghost that’s rattling chains. There are countless corridors and darkened areas where Andrew could be hiding. Although they could have shown more of the estate, Tom DeSimone makes stellar use of what we do see, and keeps things running at a pace that leaves little lagging. The overgrown hedge maze, in particular, plays host to a great sequence of intensity between the head pledge master, Peter Bennett (Kevin Brophy) and a scythe-wielding Andrew with most of the scene dimly lit with only a flashlight. Another sequence, atop the manor’s roof, is creepily effective thanks to its Gothic horror style with wispy trees and long shadows. In fact, what helps Hell Night succeed is how seamlessly it weaves the slasher genre with the Gothic horror tropes. It’s the kind of film that could only be born in the heyday of the 1980s when the bulk of classic slasher pics produced were toying with ideas were still somewhat fresh and new. With Andrew Garth being as frighteningly disfigured as he is, there are aspects that have similarities to later ‘mutant creature features’ like THE HILLS HAVE EYES. DeSimone hides his villain’s full reveal for a large portion of the film and in doing so creates an masterfully tense build.
Irwin Yablans, producer for HALLOWEEN and TOURIST TRAP, adds his name to the film, solidifying his place as a man who knows a good horror film when he sees one (though you could argue that his previous production of ROLLER BOOGIE, also with Linda Blair, is inadvertently a horror film in a much different way). With Tom DeSimone coming from a background of directing porn in the 1970s, it’s a wonder how sexually tame Hell Night is for a slasher. As a whole, the film is an impressive exercise in mood and horror, over breasts and blood. Rarely in slashers does gore take a back seat to the atmosphere quite like this, however don’t assume that the film doesn’t have its share of bloodshed. Actually, this movie has one of the best decapitations in the genre at that time, and I’m including FRIDAY THE 13th.
Even today the film still holds up quite well and really deserves a quality special edition release because it does stand apart from so many of the slashers and should be acknowledged for it. It would have been easy to just make another film with the same tropes for a quick cash-in but in this case you can tell that the makers were really trying to do something different. There’s a lot of unique flavor peppered throughout that separates this particular film from most of its peers. You’ll even get a few interesting shocks and reveals in the last half that you may not have seen coming.
It would be interesting to hear what some of the influences were for the creators/designers to the film. Obviously with a setting like Garth Manor, there’s clearly some inspiration from the Gothic days of Universal Horror. I can’t imagine a genre fan who wouldn’t find some kind of love for HELL NIGHT and its creative spin on the slasher genre. During this time of year, it can be easy to overdose not only on candy ,but also on major horror franchises. So if you’re looking to add a lesser-known gem to your Halloween film fest roster because you can’t handle seeing another single hockey mask, killer doll, or chainsaw massacre and even Freddy has you dreaming of better films, then spend a night at Garth Manor and pray for day.