Thanks to our friends at Scream Factory another obscure slasher film title from the 1980s has finally received the blu-ray treatment. From the release of Halloween (1978) to around the mid-1980s (Rockoff, 2011), the slasher subgenre ruled the horror kingdom, spawning multi-million dollar franchises, like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, to countless B-level imitators. Even casual horror fans are probably familiar with many of these B-level ‘stalk-and-slash’ teen horrors, including Prom Night and My Bloody Valentine, if not from the originals then the remakes that followed in the 2000s. Yet Hell Night (1981), starring Linda Blair of The Exorcist fame, missed out on the 2000s remake cycle and is still largely unknown.
As part of a fraternity and sorority hazing ritual, or “Hell Night”, four college students must spend the night in Garth Manor, an abandoned gothic mansion where Raymond Garth murdered his wife and deformed children, before hanging himself, 12 years earlier. The pledges are warned that the youngest member of the Garth family survived and still lurks through the halls and secret tunnels underneath. Fraternity members have of course rigged the mansion to scare their pledges but real horrors lurk in Garth Manor and inevitably a body count of obnoxious college students piles up.
Sadly, there is probably a good reason why Hell Night has languished in obscurity while other slasher films enjoyed a revival in the 2000s. Like Prom Night, Happy Birthday to Me, and the glut of films that were released following the success of Friday the 13th (1980), Hell Night has most of the defining characteristics of the slasher outlined by Carol Clover (2015) in Men, Women , and Chainsaws, rendering it generic and largely indistinguishable. Very little about Hell Night will stand out for audiences. The characters are of the stock variety – Linda Blair’s Marti is the virginal ‘final girl’ joined by May (Jenny Neumann), the promiscuous blonde, Seth (Vincent Van Patten), the jock, and Jeff (Peter Barton), the nice guy. A “secret or terrible past” defines the source of the film’s horror and early victims are promiscuous or otherwise awful in some generic way. Garth Manor, the film’s “terrible place”, offers a unique setting for a slasher film and is Hell Night’s saving grace.
Hell Night is ultimately plagued by two problems. Slasher films are defined by their build-up to the jump scares, the over-the-top nature of their death scenes, and the unique style or look of their villains. But there is no Tom Savini or other special effects wizard working behind the scenes in Hell Night and it shows in death scenes that are completely unremarkable even in a cheesy, fun way. Most audiences will also find Hell Night devoid of scares or suspense; the requisite jump scares are telegraphed and punctuated with an annoyingly jarring 1980s synth score. You’ll have a hard time making out anything that occurs in the outdoor nighttime scenes. One standout scene midway through the film should elicit some suspense and “Look behind you” screams that should characterize these sorts of films. It’s a glimmer of what could have been in Hell Night but it’s fleeting. Even the film’s final third twist is botched by poor staging. The film’s killer won’t make much of an impression either.
Its biggest weakness is its runtime, which hangs around the film like an albatross. At an hour and 46 minutes, Hell Night is unwieldy in its length, especially considering this is nothing more than a ‘ run-of-the-mill” slasher film. Don’t get me wrong, I grew up in the 1980s and was practically raised on films like Friday the 13th and Prom Night, but these types of horror films have a very basic narrative structure and the length of Hell Night drains any potential for tension or suspense. Any time something happens its followed by seemingly endless periods where nothing important occurs. An exciting chase through tunnels winding beneath Garth Manor – offering us our first full shadowy glimpse of the killer – grinds to an almost immediate halt. Hell Night needed some serious slashing in the editing room, not just onscreen. I caught myself checking how much time was left in the movie on more than one occasion. Even its final climatic chase feels generic and protracted.
There isn’t much to recommend about Hell Night to most horror fans. If you’re looking for an obscure or hidden gem in the slasher subgenre you’d be better served to seek out Just Before Dawn or Intruder (see an upcoming list on obscure slasher titles.). Otherwise Hell Night is purely for the collector or completist looking to round out their 1980s horror shelf.
Clover, C.J. (2015). Men, women, and chainsaws: Gender in the modern horror film. Princeton University Press.
Rockoff, A. (2011). Going to pieces: The rise and fall of the slasher film, 1978 to 1986. McFarland Publishing.