I’m trying, I really am. I said I’d try to watch and review some horror movies for Halloween, and see if I couldn’t find something that was either genuinely scary, or which managed to be good despite not being scary. Turning up the classics of the classic horror slasher films hasn’t proven terribly easy. But when I saw that Hulu was offering Hell Night for viewing, I thought it might prove a worthy entry. It’s from 1981, about the mid-point of the slasher movie hey-day. It stars Linda Blair, best known for her role as Regan in The Exorcist. And of course, it’s set on Hell Night (also known as Devil’s Night or Mischief Night), a day of pranks (ranging from minor stunts to serious vandalism depending on the jerkiness of the perpetrator) “celebrated” by juvenile and fraternity delinquents on October 30th, so it’s essentially a Halloween-themed horror movie. It seemed like a reasonable bet.
Unfortunately, that’s really all it has to recommend it.
Linda Blair plays Marti, a pledge to a sorority affiliated with the Alpha Sigma Rho fraternity. The movie opens with a Halloween costume party at the fraternity, and then frat leader Peter (Kevin Brophy) announces it’s time for the initiation of the pledges. There are four pledges, and in a case of serendipitous symmetry, it’s two fraternity pledges and two sorority pledges. There’s Marti, who is sensible and a bit shy, and unsure about this whole sorority thing. There’s Denise (Suki Goodwin, a one-movie actress), a British transplant who is highly flirtatious and takes quaaludes with whiskey. Jeff, a rich-but-humble kid pledging at his father’s request, is played by Peter Barton, who would go on to be in the fourth Friday the 13th film. Vincent Van Patten plays Seth, a somewhat befuddled surfer dude.
The pledges, with some more symmetry; vaguely sensible people on the right, stereotypical dumb blondes on the left.
Peter announces the initiation rites for this year’s pledges: they must spend the night in Garth Manor, an abandoned mansion with no electricity where a father snapped and killed his family twelve years ago, subsequently hanging himself. It is rumored that the youngest son, misshapen and demented, was never found and may still be living there. I was tempted to criticize the cliche of the “spend a night in the actually-haunted mansion” initiation, but it occurred to me that as this is a 1981 film, it might not have been a cliche quite yet. Anyway, Peter locks the pledges in, and then he, sorority leader May (Jenny Neumann), and frat brother Scott (Jimmy Sturtevant, another who dropped out of existence afterward) then proceed to set up various fake frights to scare the pledges, ranging from recorded screams to self-locking doors to a holographic ghost.
Scott’s good enough to create this and run it on a portable power supply, and the best thing he can think of to do with it is prank frat members.
Naturally, there is a real terror in the house, and it starts picking off the kids one by one, starting with the pranksters. Here’s where the movie really starts to let the viewer down. The, for lack of a better word, execution of the executions leaves much to be desired. Every time the director thinks we ought to be scared by something, there’s a discordant blast of “music” (the same one each time), when most of the movie has no soundtrack or a very quiet one. It’s not frightening. It’s not even surprising after the first time. It’s just unpleasant to hear. And then there’s the killings themselves… the killer is hidden in shadows for most of the movie, which is a trick normally used to make it that much scarier when it finally does reveal itself, but here the revelation just felt anticlimactic. Plus, the result of this decision was that most of the killings actually occur off-screen, and those few that do appear on screen happen with the abruptness of an action hero’s movements. When the killer grabs and breaks one kid’s neck, the whole scene from set-up to finish takes about 3 seconds. There’s little build-up of suspense, and most of the kids don’t even get time to struggle.
The characters exist as props, and it’s hard to care about them as anything more than props. They have only the briefest characterization, and the dialogue is generally pretty hokey. As a result, the audience doesn’t really have anyone to root for here. We should be rooting for the kids, but they’re uncharismatic. And the fans of the macabre would have a hard time rooting for the killer, because he’s unimaginative and his deeds are generally only shown after-the-fact. I will admit that late in the movie I did find myself rooting for Seth to avoid the killer. Not because I wanted him to survive, mind you; there wasn’t much to like about his character. But he came so close to Darwinning himself so many times in the film that I figured there was at least a 50% chance he’d get himself killed before the murderer had a chance to.
No matter how useful it may prove later on, stealing a firearm from the police station requires a special kind of stupidity.
I had, if not high hopes, at least moderate hopes for Hell Night being a good horror movie. But it’s not even a mediocre horror movie. It would be a pretty good candidate for viewing if you have a few friends who like the heckle the screen, Mystery Science Theater 3000-style, but other than that, I can’t recommend it. It is by turns boring, corny, and annoying, and what few redeeming values it has are easily found in better films.