Hell Night is an atmospheric Slasher film that relies on setting and tension more than on gore and nudity to produce thrills—though not always willingly. The director, Tom DeSimone, was hamstrung both by an overactive MPAA and a recalcitrant actor during the production of Hell Night but, despite these obstacles, he managed to produce an entertaining film that contains some genuinely creative scares.
As part of their initiation, a tiny, tiny group of college pledges, including Linda Blair as soft-spoken Marti, are made to spend a night in the legendary Garth Manor, the site of a mass murder perpetrated by the Garth patriarch. However, as the doors are shut, the gates locked, and the four pledges settle in for the night, it becomes apparent that not all of the Garths died all those years ago.
DeSimone makes great use of the film’s setting, a Victorian mansion, dark and vaguely claustrophobic. Given that the Garth Manor was meant to be without power, the entire film had to look as though it were lit only by candlelight and the occasional flashlight, giving the whole film a Gothic look that is enhanced by the small cast’s costume party attire of gowns and suits (though one of the boys, Seth, starts off dressed as Robin Hood and one of the girls, Denise, spends most of her time in frilly but somewhat vintage-looking underwear).
Due to a crackdown by the MPAA on graphic violence, DeSimone was forced to cut some of the gore from the film, including the first kill, a decapitation that, in the final version of the film, ends with the blade touching skin, whereas the director’s cut would have seen the disembodied head, still blinking and held aloft by the killer’s blade, as the body fell to the ground.
The film’s lone sex scene was similarly hobbled, this time by the actor playing surfer dude Seth, Vincent Van Patten. Though Suki Goodwin, the actress who played Denise, Seth’s bed buddy, was fine with providing nudity, Van Patten apparently balked at participating in a scene that might embarrass his family (this from a man who would go on to play a recurring role in Baywatch, and who, at the time, was starring in a film featuring an actress best known for producing demon-induced vomit). So, thanks to Van Patten’s familial pride, we get an odd sex scene in which the participants manage to consummate their shared lust for one another without ever removing their underwear. It’s almost magical, really.
The scares fare far better than the sex in Hell Night. The limitations placed upon him by the ratings board actually seemed to foster DeSimone’s creativity, so that we get a genuinely creepy scene in which the killer rises up from the floor, shrouded in a rug, an image reminiscent of Michael Myers’s “ghost” in the original Halloween. The killer(s) in Hell Night are also interesting, one of them a sort of homicidal Boo Radley, and the final showdown is suitably tense.
Unfortunately, Hell Night suffers from a singularly useless Final Girl. It’s not to say that Linda Blair doesn’t do a good job, she’s fine as Marti, but the character spends most of the film standing behind or calling for help from one of the boys. She doesn’t actually do anything until she’s entirely alone and so forced to either fend for herself or cower in a corner. A stronger, more interesting Final Girl would have elevated this otherwise superior film from worth-watching to must see. As it is, though it was released during the Slasher Golden Year of 1981 and is undeniable historical importance, an unnecessarily weak Final Girl makes it less than a great film.
Still, as mentioned, Hell Night is certainly worth watching.
Length: 101 min