Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Hell Night

1981
Dir. Tom DiSimone

The early eighties was officially a good time for slasher movies. From 1978 to round about 1985 is generally considered the slasher heyday. From Black Christmas to Halloween, Friday the 13th to, well, Friday the 13th Part 5: A New Beginning, and everything in between; the output of the horror genre at this time usually involved some masked psycho or other stalking nubile teenagers in a specific location, killing them off in grisly fashion, one by one, until only a single female character was left to face the brute alone, with nothing but her underwear and resourcefulness.
Hell Night is one such film, but its ominous atmosphere and gothic trimmings mark it as one of the better ones.

As part of their initiation into the revered fraternity Alpha Sigma Rho, four young pledges must spend the night in the exceedingly creepy Garth Manor, were legend has it, many years before; disturbed patriarch Raymond Garth slaughtered his wife and monstrously deformed offspring before taking his own life. Unbeknownst to the pledges, a number of other students have rigged the house with props and booby traps to keep them on their toes throughout the night. However unbeknownst to even the pranksters, someone, or something, still lurks within the mansion’s crumbling walls. Something with murderous intent and a lust of blood… One by one, the teens are stalked and slain until only a couple remain and realise the full extent of the horrific situation. Can they make it long enough to survive the night and see another day?

The cast of gullible pledges includes Linda Blair as Marti (the ‘resourceful, down-to-earth tomboyish’ one), Peter Barton as Jeff, the ‘sensitive and dreamy’ one, Vincent Van Patten as Seth, the ‘randy jock’, and Suki Goodwin as Denise, the ‘sexy and promiscuous English’ one. While blatant stereotypes one and all, these characters are at least allowed a modicum of intelligence and are drawn with the faintest of characterisation: amongst other things, we learn that Marti comes from a working class background and helped her father repair cars in his garage. This will obviously come in handy later…



When the murders begin they come thick and fast before the carefully built up jolts recede back to foreboding dread and eerie tension. At times the film has an ‘old dark house’ feel to it, as the various characters wander around the faded grandeur of the vast interior with candelabrums in hand, brushing off wayward cobwebs. The pledges are all dressed in period costumes, which really enhance the gothic atmospherics and twisted fairytale connotations. At times Hell Night is pretty formulaic: the cast split up to explore/have sex/look for help and are inevitably attacked and killed. As it is a slasher movie though, this shouldn’t really come as a surprise to viewers. It follows the blueprint of the genre precisely, but does throw in a few surprises here and there to keep things brisk, and director DeSimone peppers proceedings with memorable shots and carefully constructed scenes of tension.

Surprisingly one character does manage to escape from the grounds of the spooky manor to venture back into town and get help. Unsurprisingly, the police think he is just playing an elaborate prank and threaten to arrest him.

One of the film’s creepiest moments comes when Blair finds herself locked in a large candlelit room where she is unnerved by a holographic projection, set up by the older students, of a decomposing corpse lumbering menacingly towards her.



Another particularly taut, white knuckle-inducing scene involves Blair and Barton barricading themselves into a room and beginning to momentarily relax again. As they plan their escape they are situation in the foreground of the shot. In the background, and out of their line of sight, we see a huge rug on the floor begin to stir and rise up as something enters the room from a hidden trapdoor beneath it… Tense stuff!

The ghoulish killer is only glimpsed briefly here and there throughout the film, but when we do finally get a good look, he is suitably grotesque and gnarled.
When Barton and Blair venture into the catacombs beneath the house to try and surprise the killer with a pitchfork, the camera backs down the tunnels in-front of them, capturing their terrified expressions which are further highlighted by the lurid lighting in the scene.

While DeSimone’s other filmic output is largely relegated to adult and exploitation fare, his deft direction of Hell Night ensures its status as one of the stand out slashers of the early eighties. Short, sharp, sweet and chillingly atmospheric.

1 comment:

Dr. Theda said...

Kevin Brophy also played in this film..... From the TV show "Lucan"