So this weekend I watched Tom DeSimone's 1981 slasher Hell Night. I know this mainly because the last pages in my black-and-white marbled composition book bear an entry prominently marked HELL NIGHT, followed by a delineation of various plot points and periodic flashes of the kind of erudite wit that keeps you coming back for your dose of the Vicar, time and time again. So I *must* have watched it, right? So why don't I remember more of it? Why isn't there more in my brain than a few half-remembered scene set-ups and a pervasive feeling of cinematic dissatisfaction?
And no, it wasn't the booze. I didn't break into my latest bottle of absinthe from the Duke's stores until sometime Sunday morning. This I know because of the timestamp on the police report. But I digress.
Hell Night, Hell Night...ah, yes, it's starting to come back to me a bit now...
If my notes are to be believed, we open at the type of wild collegiate bacchanal that you associate more with National Lampoon movies than 80s slashers: in front of the Alpha Sigma Rho fraternity house (which looks more like a museum of art or the Jefferson Memorial than a dormitory), literally hundreds of drunken partygoers in fancy dress are creating a good old-fashioned ruckus. There's drinking, making out, more drinking, bonfires, whooping and hollering, the occasional scream--standard stuff. The only thing that separates this opening from a similar National Lampoon flick is the director's failure to take this opportunity to throw a few naked boobs at the screen--a reticence that is sadly typical of the rest of the film.
It's pledge night at Sigma Alpha Rho, and inside the frat house a few superannuated college students are getting ready for the night's festivities. Frat president Peter Bennett (Kevin Brophy) is making time with a super-hawt coat check girl (coat check? at the frat party? really?) who offers to go upstairs with him RIGHT THAT MINUTE if he wants, but Peter is suddenly distracted by the entrance of Linda Blair. Of course he immediately loses interest in the Sports Illustrated bikini model/sure thing in favor of Linda's circa-1981 chubby-cheeked, pug-nosed, massive-racked glory. It's not the last time the flick will stretch credibility, but it's perhaps the most egregious instance.
Some more party scenes happen, none of them interesting, and finally Peter gives the signal and the crowd forms a massive convoy from the frat house to the grounds of stately Garth Manor, the requisite Haunted House at which all Sigma Alpha Rho pledges must spend the night as part of their initiation. In addition to Linda's character Marti, the prospective pledges include Jeff Reed (Donny Osmond lookalike and future soap-star Peter Barton), English exchange-slut Denise Dunsmore (Suki Goodwin), and surfer-dude Seth (future competitive poker commentator Vincent Van Patten). How the frat keeps up such a huge membership roster while only initiating four new pledges a year is never addressed.
On the way up to the house, Peter lays down the required Spooky Lore about Garth Manor, and as such stories go, it's not too bad. Apparently Old Man Garth had dreams of starting some kind of dynasty with all his wealth, dreams that came to naught thanks to the string of monstrously deformed children his wife laid on him. One was deaf and blind, one was hideously disfigured, and the last, Andrew, was a retarded mute with the strength of an ox. Twelve years ago, when another attempt at procreation ended in another little monster, the elder Garth snapped, murdered his wife and three of the children, leaving Andrew alive to witness it all for some reason (likewise never explained), and then hanged himself. When the police arrived they found Garth's note, but only the wife and kids' bodies...Andrew and his old man's corpse were nowhere to be found, and of course legend states he still dwells the halls blah blah blah.
So the pledges--who seemingly never met each other before tonight--are left alone in the old house and told they'll be retrieved the next morning around dawn. Denise quickly reveals she's smuggled a stash of Quaaludes, Jack Daniels, and sundries onto the premises in the garters of her flapper costume, leading Seth to exclaim "This is one RADICAL CHICK!" (In fact, the word "radical" is busted out no less than five times in the first 20 minutes of the movie, showing how very 80s it is and how very bored I was to have counted.) Seth and Denise go upstairs to get it awn, leaving rich-kid Jeff and working-class girl Marti to spar on social sciences before succumbing to the kind of sexual attraction that's bound to blossom between any two characters left alone long enough in a slasher flick.
Of course Peter and his nerdly sidekick Scott (Jimmy Sturtevant) soon return to spring all the meticulously wired pranks they've set up on the new pledges, from low-tech stuff like Spooky Soundz tapes playing over hidden loudspeakers and skeletons leaping out of closets, to a high tech effect of a zombie in chains projected onto thin air. None of this particularly frightens any of the pledges, however, and much less the audience.
Of course as is often--strike that, ALWAYS--the case in situations like this, the legends about the house's creepy inhabitant are true, and soon enough Andrew is popping up through secret passages, killing off a few college students, and menacing Linda and her beau for the required amount of time before a final confrontation in which Linda gets to use her working-class mechanical skills to fix the car for the getaway, stopping long enough to impale her attacker on a big iron gate. The end.
his pillow-talk demonstration of his surfing technique elicited a few chuckles, and he was really the only character who commanded attention whenever he was on screen. Both Blair and Barton are bland bland bland--their character development limited to a couple of lines of dialogue, most of the time they just discover bodies, run from the killer, and when the time is right, get away.
The whole "locked in a haunted house that actually has a killer loose in it" premise was hoary even in 1981, and the Scooby-Doo level hijinks of Peter and his crew only underline the unoriginality of the whole thing. Of course I'm not against reusing old tropes with affection and effectiveness, but neither of those qualities seem to be present here. And while the cinematography is at times very effective--particularly in the shadowy corridors of the old house--it's all but ruined by some out-of-control candle-reflections on the lens, adding to the whole "who gives a crap" vibe infused throughout the runtime.
Of course the one place you've always got room to shake things up is with the killer, but even the hidden deformed Garth boy in the basement is nothing to write home about--rather than giving us one of the genetic monstrosities so tantalizingly hinted at in Peter's opening tale, Andrew is merely a tall, hollow-eyed dude in a suit, hopping up to growl every now and then and chase the kids across the hall, again like nothing more than a Scooby-Doo transitional scene. If Jeff had pulled out a guitar and started playing a Monkees tune, I wouldn't have been terribly surprised--and in fact, that would have been better than what we get.
The flick is rated R, though it's impossible to see why--apart from one disembodied head, the gore is tame enough to be part of an after-school special, and there is absolutely NO nudity--a couple of garter belts and Blair's admittedly prodigious cleavage are all you get. There's no attempt made to give any more than the bare minimum--this is a movie that simply goes through the motions and doesn't aspire to anything more than that. Sadly, it doesn't even hit the modest target at which it aims.
In all, a completely forgettable entry in the slasher-glut of the early 80s, with nothing to recommend it to anyone except Linda Blair completists, and even they would be better off quenching their thirst for 80s Linda with the far superior Witchery. 1 limp thumb for a few good compositions and that surfing speech. Find something else to watch, and maybe you'll remember it a day and a half later. I wish I had.