In the rush to cash in on the surprise box office success of Friday the 13th, slasher film makers seemed to forget one thing: why it was a hit in the first place. Perhaps it has been lost in the mist of time but I clearly remember when it came out back in 1980 (and I was far too young then to sneak into an X certificate film dammit). What everyone was talking about were the gory deaths and how realistic they looked. Let’s face facts it’s not like Friday the 13th was even in the same league as Halloween which had come out two years previously. It had neither the tension or the cinematic professionalism to match Carpenter’s classic. What it did have was an axe through the face, a guy being used as bow and arrow target practice and Kevin Bacon getting speared through the throat, seemingly in real time. It was a freak show, a carnival, a house of horrors and people flocked to see its grisly showmanship.
So a year later when the cinemas were ram-packed with slashers, as teens died silly nilly, moments after getting their clothes off, it was the promise of more of this macabre side show that got the audiences in. How disappointing it must have been for them to find the likes of Hell Night limply following the same old story but with little of the red stuff. As part of a sorority/ fraternity initiation four students must stay the night in Garth Manor where a decade before a crazy old man killed his mutant family and then himself. Obviously they are all doomed and there will be a final girl.
On the positive side that final girl is the one and only Linda Blair.
Blair had been thrown into the spotlight several years before hand as twelve year-old head spinner Regan in The Exorcist. It was a defining role she would never escape though often embrace. By the time of Hell Night she had shed off her childhood roles and was now, quite frankly, a full chested woman, which film makers here mercilessly exploit as she is strapped into a fancy dress costume that pushes her breasts to the fore. For these kind of film, the acting is variable at best, but Blair, being the consummate professional and by then an old hand at the age of 22, gives it her all and acts much better than the scripts deserves. I noticed on IMDb that The Razzies awarded her Worst Actress for her performance here, which is sad when she is clearly doing her best in a cheesy b-movie. It is also typical of The Razzies who come across as more like judgemental bullies rather than just gentle fun pokers of the industry.
The rest of the cast, to be judgmental, are pretty awful. It doesn’t help that the script tries to throw in a lot of jokes that the actors just aren’t up to delivering. There is an ongoing joke about a girl making out with a guy called Seth who she keeps calling Wes. When he says he has to go to the John, she says “Hey, I thought your name was Seth?” You can almost see the tumble weeds rolling past the screen. Another couple of students playing pranks on the main four comment about how the girl with them is a pain. “We should have left her behind.” “Why? Her behind is the best part. We should have kept her behind and left the rest of her.” That wouldn’t be a good joke in a Carry On movie.
Talking of Carry On movies, one of the characters seems to have fallen straight out of them. Denise, played by British Actress Suki Goodwin, spends the entire film in red and black stockings and suspenders and is constantly making double-entendres. There are various jokes about only lasting three strokes and finishing off and you can almost imagine her bursting into a Barbara Windsor style giggle. The only difference is that she claims to have taken loads of Quaaludes so is obviously tripping her fits off, until she reaches her untimely demise. Babs would never be caught dead doing such a thing. It’s a shame Denise does die (off camera) as she is almost entertaining at points. Or maybe it’s just the suspenders.
Hell Night is okay. There are certainly many worse slashers from this time. There’s some interesting diversions and a twist or two and it has a strong climax when Blair finally gets to do something other than scream and hide behind a big-haired man. However, the bulk of the film substitutes decent kills for far too much of characters walking around in the dark saying “hello is there anybody there?” Of course you need these scenes to build up the tension, and I’m sure they were fairly effective back in 1981 in American movie theatres packed with screaming teenagers. But these scenes of tension need to have a punchline, and in the horror films that came after Friday the 13th that punchline needed to be a good kill with some decent make up effects. Hell Night does not have enough of this. Most deaths are too quickly edited or boring to warrant the long build up. One of the few gore effects is clearly a woman lying under a bed sticking her head through a hole in the matress. See:
Its not as embarrassingly obvious as the similar effect in the toilet in The House On Sorority Row but its not far off and who the hell are they kidding anyway.
Saying all that, the most effective moment hardly involves any blood at all: Seth tries to escape by climbing over the high spiked gate of the manor – its wince-inducing as he tries not to get killed, not by the murderer but by his own drunken clumsiness.
Maybe Hell Night is fine after all. Maybe I’m just harking back to my own childish ways when the idea of a good horror movie was how gory it was, and how many pictures of said gore could it get inside the covers of Fangoria magazine. On the other hand, maybe not… if you’re a slasher movie from the early eighties spill blood or go home.