Monday, October 31, 2022

#2,854. Hell Night (1981)


The opening scene of 1981’s Hell Night could have been lifted straight out of Animal House; a wild party, ushering in the start of an annual Halloween tradition known as “Hell Night”, is raging at the Alpha Sigma Rho fraternity, complete with drunken dancing, window smashing, and frat president Peter Bennett (Kevin Brophy) trying to bed every sorority sister he meets.

It’s a wild start to what will prove an even wilder horror movie, a slasher filled to its breaking point with suspense, surprises, and plenty of scares.

To close out Hell Night, Bennett and his cohorts Scott (Jimmy Sturtevant) and May (Jenny Neumann), along with the rest of Alpha Sigma Rho, drive their four new pledges - Jeff (Peter Barton), Marti (Linda Blair), Denise (Suki Goodwin) and Seth (Vincent Van Patten) – to an abandoned estate known as Garth Manor.

Legend has it that, 12 years earlier, Raymond Garth murdered his wife and three of his four deformed children on the grounds of the estate before taking his own life. The fourth child, a mute dwarf named Andrew, was never found, nor were two of his sibling’s bodies, and there are those who believe all three continue to live inside the remote, decrepit mansion.

To pass their initiation into Alpha Sigma Rho, Jeff, Marti and the others must spend the rest of the evening locked inside Garth Manor. Naturally, Peter has no intention of letting the night pass by quietly, and has planned a few practical jokes to keep the pledges on their toes. But as they will all soon discover, the legend of Garth Manor is more than a fable designed to scare fraternity pledges, and a few of them may not survive until morning!

Directed by Tom DeSimone and produced by Irwin Yablans (the man who also brought John Carpenter’s Halloween to the big screen), Hell Night is, pardon the pun, one hell of a horror flick! The real fun begins the moment everyone arrives at Garth Manor, at which point Peter relates the sad story of Raymond Garth and his progeny. Brophy does a masterful job telling this tale, keeping us poised on the edge of our seats as he does so. The characters are also well-defined, to the point that, unlike the usual victims in early ‘80s slashers, we actually care about them, and the performances are a big reason why; even Van Patten, whose Seth seems to be little more than a sex-starved surfer at the outset, brings depth to his character as the story progresses.

As for the horror, Hell Night delivers it in large doses, whether it be the pranks pulled by Peter Bennett and his team (everything from random screams to spectral manifestations) or the actual terror that eventually makes its presence known, often in brutal fashion (the first victim is dragged into a pit and beheaded). And if all this wasn’t enough, DeSimone and his cast do an amazing job of keeping the tension level cranked as high as it will go; even something as simple as scaling a fence will have you nervously biting your nails.

All this, plus a batshit crazy ending, are why Hell Night has become a cult favorite, and is one of the most entertaining slashers of its era.
Rating: 9 out of 10

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