Hell Night

Hell Night (1981)
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Cast: Linda Blair, Vincent Van Patten, Peter Barton, Suki Goodwin
Extras: Commentary Track, Theatrical Trailer and TV Spots

If you go to our "Halloween Chopping List", you will see five films listed under the category of "Slashers." That means that there are about another 995 movies that could fit under that category. OK, that may be an exaggeration, but there were definitely a lot of slasher films released in the early 80s. These ran the gamut from gory to silly to actually scary. "Hell Night", which was released in 1981 at the height of the slasher craze falls somewhere in between those categories. The film is now available on DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment.

"Hell Night" focuses on Marti, a young college co-ed played by Linda Blair. Marti is pledging a sorority and must endure "hell night," the night when pledges must perform some idiotic stunt in order to become members. So, Marti along with fellow pledge Denise (Suki Goodwin), Marti must spend the night in Garth Mansion, along with fraternity pledges Jeff (Peter Barton) and Seth (Vincent Van Patten). Why Garth Manor you may ask? Well, it seems that millionaire Mr. Garth and his wife had three deformed children. Mr. Garth couldn’t take this, so he slaughtered his family and killed himself, but only three bodies were found. The legend has it that Andrew, the youngest Garth child, still roams the grounds.

So, Marti and the rest of the gang enter Garth Mansion. Soon, frat president Jeff, and two cronies arrive to begin playing pranks on the group to try and frighten them. But, someone else is in the house, someone who isn’t there for fun and games. One by one the young partiers are picked off by an unseen assailant. Is this all an elaborate "hell night" trick or has one of the Garth’s returned to seek vengeance?

The biggest thing that stands out about "Hell Night" is how mediocre it is. "Hell Night" manages to be in the middle on just about every category. There is some gore, but not too much. There is an extended sex scene, but no nudity — the couple has outrageous sex, but manage to keep their underwear on. (This is doubly weird when you take into consideration that director Tom DeSimone used to direct porno and even made a film called "How to Make a Homo Movie"! Yikes!) The film offers some shocking moments that will make you jump, but overall isn’t scary. Also, it’s odd that "Hell Night" limits itself by offering only seven potential victims. While this does distance it from the "body count" films that were prevalent at the time, it also makes it fairly easy to figure out who’s going to die – although one death is a surprise.

Overall, the movie just feels bland. It’s entertaining, but it’s not great. The script by Randy Feldman, who went on to write "Tango & Cash", offers a cliched premise and lacks any cleverness. Also, we are never told exactly who the killer is — I mean, I think I know, but I’m not 100% sure. And why are there only four pledges? Is there a waiting list? Also, the characters fit into the slasher film stereotype molds — rich boy, poor girl, sex kitten, horny surfer guy, prankster — no one reaches beyond these labels, although it’s obvious that some of the actors are trying.

Despite the uninspired story, director DeSimone has given the film a nice look, considering the low budget. The interior of the mansion has no electricity and is lit only by candles. This gives the film a dark, almost gothic look, yet the candles offer a warm tone. The action set pieces are well done, and there is a "keep watching the background" shot that is actually quite suspenseful – although it owes a great debt to John Carpenter.

The actors in the film seem to be doing their best with the material. Although, Linda Blair looks very bored, not to say somewhat embarrassed at times. One can imagine that at age 22, she may have thought that she would have moved beyond films like this. Peter Barton’s chiseled features lend an air of credibility to his role as the rich kid, but he doesn’t do much more than protect Marti. (Barton would re-visit the slasher cycle in 1984’s "Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter.") Vincent Van Patten seems to be playing himself as the surfer guy, and the powers-that-be actually admit that on the running commentary. (You can’t help buy wonder if Dick Van Patten was hanging around the set.)

While many probably consider "Hell Night" an obscure film, Anchor Bay Entertainment has given it first-class treatment on DVD. The film is presented in a <$PS,letterboxed> format and is framed at 1.85:1. The DVD is <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> TVs, and although the film starts out as pretty grainy during the title sequence, this clears up noticeably when the credits end. For the most part, the picture is clear, but there are some minor defects evident in the source print. This transfer is much brighter than any VHS copy that I’ve seen, which is very good. Given the darkness of the sets, the film needs some brightness in order to view the action. This is probably the closest that the film has looked to it original release in years. The audio on "Hell Night" is a digital mono, offering no surround sound capabilities.

The DVD contains several extras. There is an <$commentary,audio commentary> featuring Linda Blair, director Tom DeSimone, and producers Irwin Yablans, who also produced "Halloween" and Bruce Cohn Curtis. The four of them talk consistently for most of the film, although there are some long quiet periods. It’s obvious that all four haven’t seen the film lately and need to pay very close attention to know what’s going on in the movie. While some good information is gleaned from the commentary, it gets pretty repetitive after a while. They all agree on the following things: 1) The film was shot at night. 2) It was cold. 3) The movie looks great, and 4) It’s a great movie. Yes, much of the commentary consists of the foursome patting each other on the back for making such a wonderful movie that still holds up today. I’m glad that they’re proud of it, but that may be taking things a bit far. The DVD also contains the movie’s theatrical trailer, which is <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1. The trailer is nearly three minutes long and shows most of the deaths from the film.
There are also two 30-second TV spots, which are presented full-frame.

"Hell Night" is certainly not the most innovative or creative film we have seen but its atmosphere makes up for much of the deficits. While "Hell Night" is by no means a bad movie, it’s not a great one either. It does serve as a perfect example of the slasher genre and offers some scares and really nice and atmospheric photography. Anchor Bay’s great treatment of the film on this DVD is also very commendable and helps add value to this release of a film that would otherwise be easily overlooked.