The slasher movie was the bête noir of cinema back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, a crude cultural phenomenon to despise. Could there be any serious merit in watching an endless conveyor-belt of teenagers being hacked to bits by passing maniacs? Yet the best of these films (Black Christmas, Halloween) are now considered genre classics, and even the second rank (Prom Night, Terror Train) aren’t bad at all. The arse was beginning to fall out of the genre by 1981, and Tom DeSimone’s genre entry for horror specialist Irwin Yablans didn’t do much to reverse the trend. But Hell Night has gained a cult audience, and this blu-ray restoration from 101 Films’ Black Label offers up plenty of reasons why, despite no sequels, reboots or remakes, this semi-original shocker shouldn’t be forgotten.
A raucous opening doesn’t promise too much; sex and booze-addled teens gather for a night of unimaginative debauchery in a frat house. The action swiftly moves to Garth Manor, a proper haunted house where the previous mortgage-payer, Raymond Garth, murdered his family and himself. A legend persist that Garth’s child still prowls the grounds, but that doesn’t stop a quartet of teens, led by The Exorcist’s Linda Blair, who aim to stay the night and win a pledge. It doesn’t go well for them.
It was, presumably, a big deal to lure Linda Blair back to the horror genre, but her career had pretty much stalled with Exorcist II: The Heretic and she doesn’t have much to go on here. More influential are the creative decisions; by setting the film at a Gothic costume party, Hell Night lends itself a distinctive period look which marks it out from the competition. There’s more than an echo of Hell Night in 2019’s much-adored thriller Ready or Not, which doubles down on the olde worlde costuming to good effect. The mix of sex and violence is fairly rote, but Hell Night has a better organised production than most, and manages to make something coherent out of standard elements; the use of a hedge maze recalls The Shining, but the proliferation of freshly sharpened scythes and pitchforks marks this as a old school slasher rather than anything supernatural.
Hell Night has some dull patches, with attempts to alert the police crudely handled, but anyone interested in the evolution of 80’s horror should take a look; DeSimone manages to keep the interest, and there’s some artistry in the way that set pieces are drawn-out. It’s standard Scooby-Doo race and chase, for sure, but it’s also a good example of how a decent film can result from ordinary ingredients; for all its flaws, this Hell Night is closer to heaven than hell for slasher movie fans.
Thanks to 101 Films for advanced access to this title, Hell Night is out now on streaming, DVD and blu-ray for the first time in the UK as of July 26th 2021. Link and trailer below.