GORE IN THE STORE
HELL NIGHT **
Directed by Tom DeSimone.
Starring Linda Blair, Vincent Van Patten, Peter Barton, Suki Goodwin, Jimmy Sturtevant.
Horror, USA, 101 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on Limited Edition Blu-ray via 101 Films on 26th July 2021.
On paper, 1981s HELL NIGHT seems to be a tick-box of genre traits guaranteed to put a smile on the face of even the hardiest of fans; it’s a slasher movie made right at the peak of the first wave of knife-wielding maniacs hitting our screens and therefore it had to compete with the likes of HALLOWEEN II, FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2, THE BURNING and MY BLOODY VALENTINE that same year, but not only that as it also stars a fresh-faced Linda Blair stepping up to compete with Jamie Lee Curtis in the scream queen stakes and haunted castles are always fun for a bit of campy murderous mayhem, aren’t they? Well, they were twenty years previous to this in Hammer movies and in SCOOBY-DOO cartoons.
But despite its potential HELL NIGHT doesn’t lean into what it has going for it and instead plays everything dead straight, and that is ultimately what makes it a less than thrilling slasher experience. The setup is the standard ‘students at an American college want to join a fraternity' style story that we’ve seen in dozens of movies, from the B-movie likes of VAMP and NIGHT OF THE CREEPS to bigger budget studio productions like NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE, and to be fair it is a setup that could go in any direction, so when our four main characters are dared to spend the night in the huge creepy house that belonged to the Garth family, and of course there is a local legend that comes with it, you can bet there will be all sorts of shenanigans going on. After all, this is the 1980s, where the hunky jocks will get with the screaming girls, there’ll be blood, boobs and totally gratuitous violence to keep us amused.
However, HELL NIGHT chooses another path once Marti (Linda Blair), Denise (Suki Goodwin), Jeff (FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER’s Peter Barton) and Seth (Vincent Van Patten) are locked into their digs for the night, as the expected naked fooling around and obligatory tomfoolery doesn’t happen. Oh sure, the promiscuous Denise and chief surfer dude Seth get it on whilst clad in only their underwear but that is as titillating as it gets, which is like pornography when you compare it to the more well-behaved Marti and posh boy Jeff still dressed in their party fancy dress costumes and having meaningful chats about cars and other mundane stuff that doesn’t pay off or even matter in the slightest.
Four kills aren’t really enough for a ‘80s slasher and so there are a few extra pranksters hanging around the old spooky house to up the numbers, and because we get all of our exposition about the Garth family and what happened in their home in the few minutes leading up to our leads entering the house there is no real discovery or shock value to what happens afterwards. The killer is exactly who you expect it to be because you were told who it was in the first ten minutes, and whilst the kills themselves aren’t bad and have a bit of a vicious streak to them, there is far too much padding between the attacks that is just tedious to sit through. There is a reason that the FRIDAY THE 13TH series became the huge hit that it was; in fact, there are plenty more than one but the obvious one is that each of the movies got in and got out around the 90-minute mark every time so even if the movie itself wasn’t much cop at least it wasn’t boring. Formulaic maybe but if it works then don’t mess with it, which HELL NIGHT does by taking itself too seriously and wasting too much time with pointless character beats. Pointless because we know who is going to survive and who is going to die so let’s not worry about Jeff’s financial advice from his father or where Denise stashes her drugs and could we just get on with the slaughter, please?
As is usual 101 Films have gone to town to present HELL NIGHT in the best way possible with the material they had. The movie itself is a 4K scan of the best surviving archival 35mm film print with minor SD inserts to replace missing footage and the limitations show as the image is not the best, even for a movie of this age but you can only do so much with material of that quality. However, the extras are plentiful, with a whole host of cast and crew interviews that give a very rounded view of the production and how it all came together. Naturally, Linda Blair’s interview is of the most interest and she comes across extremely well, although for some reason she skipped over EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC when discussing her career to that point – can’t think why. There is also a breakdown of the kills and a location visit plus a collector’s booklet featuring essays on Linda Blair and haunted house movies, and some fantastic new artwork that, if nothing else, hints at the movie we could have gotten if someone had been a bit more heavy-handed with the editing scissors.
Despite 101 Films’s best efforts, HELL NIGHT is a slog to sit through, being 20 minutes too long and lacking any sort of spark or energy to keep it moving or even vaguely engaging. The gore effects are handled quite well, everyone does their best with the script they’re working from and the production values seem to be a little higher than the camp-set slashers that were in favour at the time so the sets and costumes all look decent but when it comes down to it horror fans will come to this movie to see a violent haunted house slasher movie and what they’re getting is a tepid and overly talky murder mystery with a generic killer, very little atmosphere and no mystery whatsoever.