Hell Night (1981)
Hell Night loses points for its non-enjoyable kind of low-budget cheesiness, and teeters on losing more for a series of stupid plot moves designed to perpetuate its slasher-oriented existence. I say teeters, because almost inexplicably, director Tom DeSimone (aka Lancer Brooks), whose oeuvre consists mostly of porno and exploitation films, manages to periodically create these fantastic, atmospheric shots.
The story, scripted by Randy Feldman, who later penned Tango & Cash, Nowhere to Run and Metro, is clearly designed to cash in on the slasher-mania that swept the U.S. in the wake of the critical and box office success of Halloween and Friday the 13th. By the time Hell Night came along, filmmakers were already beginning to experiment with the formula slightly, or at least combine a slasher flick with other kinds of tried and true horror subgenres, such as haunted house flicks, which is basically the combo that Hell Night capitalizes on.
Here, a co-ed quartet ends up at a possibly haunted and/or possibly-inhabited-by-a-maniac house where they have to spend the night in order to be inducted into some fraternity, or sorority, or whatever the heck it is. I don’t remember fraternities and sororities being co-ed, or having co-ed Hell Nights (the term for the night where everyone has to do their wacky initiation stunts) but that more than likely just evidences how much attention I’ve paid -- basically none -- to the machinations of frats.
To make it spookier just in case the frat head’s "Haunting of Hill House" experiment doesn’t work, he gathers a small band of pranksters with skills that would easily get them hired by any haunted house worth its weight in bone marrow, and they set to work making creepy sounds, making the doors open or lock, etc.
Of course, that’s not all there is to it, since we can’t forget about the slasher craze. Soon, characters start experiencing real horror from whatever it is that menaces the home, and since the film stars Linda Blair, we know who is likely to be left standing at the end.
The bad part about it starring Linda Blair and not being The Exorcist is that we also know what the budget is like. The opening of the film, set at a frat house party, has got to be one of the cheesiest things you’ve ever seen, and with some of the lamest dialogue. This scene lasted too long, and the dialogue never completely recovered. That was one point off in the first five minutes or so. And if anyone doubts the cheepnis (yes, I’m a Zappa fan) of Hell Night, just check out those periodic ghosted reflections from the candles and the flashlight in the camera.
But that’s not enough to ruin a film. Unfortunately, profoundly stupid plot decisions designed only to stretch out the running time and enable a Michael Myers-like immortal killer are almost enough. The reason they don’t ruin it is because DeSimone is somehow able to frame all the stupid stuff with beautifully constructed scenes, and the good stuff slightly outweighs the bad.
For example, there’s a scene late in the film when Jeff (Peter Barton) and Marti (Blair) head into a series of labyrinths that underlie the home. Jeff’s had enough and he’s seeking out the killer armed with a pitchfork and lots of gusto. DeSimone gives us a wonderfully lit, extra-spooky sojourn through tunnels, a handheld, effectively (this time) low-budget camera backing up along the path in order to capture our heroes’ reactions, which are largely responsible for the great atmosphere. They enter a shocking room, and then find the killer. What do they do next? Run like idiots, Jeff completely forgetting the whole point of the trip, and putting them in a much worse position.
Hell Night is riddled with such oil and water scenes, and the net effect is an average horror flick without a lot of originality, but with plenty of spirit and mysterious skill that’s unfortunately marred with half-baked attempts to squeeze a good film into a popular genre. Watch it if you’re a pretty serious horror fan, because there’s plenty of good material -- enough to make it worth your while, even though the flaws may aggravate you. But otherwise don’t bother.