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Hell Night (1981)

February 20th, 2012 by unkle lancifer · 12 Comments

HELL NIGHT (1981) is shamefully underrated and I wonder what kind of drugs you’d have to be on to not see how superior it is to the films it’s usually lumped with. It’s often painted as a HALLOWEEN also-ran but it does so much to distinguish itself from the fly by nights of its day that it should be considered a classic in its own right. The set –up is certainly simple but the execution is remarkable. It has a structure all its own and the cinematography, the direction and the score severely surpass what it’s given credit for. I can understand that its lack of T&A and gore could have left young audiences back in ‘81 feeling disgruntled, but its multitude of other attributes should be crystal clear by now.

I’ve written about HELL NIGHT a couple times before; once over at Retro Slashers and once for the book “Butcher Knives and Body Counts” (which is really good even if I’m in it!) Because of that I thought I might skip this FINAL GIRL FILM CLUB selection but wait, I still have more to say about HELL NIGHT. There’s still so much I love about it that I have yet to mention. Every time I take a trip to Garth Manor, I find a different room.

HELL NIGHT is about four pledges who spend the night in a mansion as part of an initiation. The place is rumored to be haunted thanks to a dark history. A father so sickened by his children who were all born with deformities killed his entire family there save for one, whom he forced to witness the act. Not all of the bodies were recovered and legend has it that the surviving son still lurks about. The pledges are locked on the property behind a massive razor sharp gate and pranks are planned to make their stay as uncomfortable as possible. The house itself is goth –glorious both inside and out; trap doors, secret passages, underground tunnels, a garden maze; it’s all there. Everything is filmed in deep rich tones framed by inky shadows and broken up by glowing candlelight. The pledge kids are dressed in classical costumes from variant eras. Everything adds up to a horror lovers dream come true.

The four pledges form one of the most endearing casts you’ll find in any slasher. LINDA BLAIR as Marti Gaines is impossibly adorable with her chirpy voice and before she discovers her true mettle, she is refreshingly freaked. PETER BARTON, as potential beau Jeff Reed, is relatively dull but his misbegotten old school chivalry makes up for it. Marti and Jeff’s budding relationship is unusual in how sweetly romantic it is. We’re invested in these characters not simply because we get to know them but because we’re allowed to witness the fortuitousness of them getting to know each other. A wonderful scene occurs between the two as they connect by trading childhood traumas. As a kid Marti believes she encountered a witch and in turn Jeff recalls chancing upon an elf. The two decide that their joint histories dealing with unreal beings make them both weirdoes and that as such, they should stick together. Forget every bullshit thing you ever heard about virgins surviving in slasher films. It’s the outsider who lives. The one who sees more.

VINCENT VAN PATTEN as Seth and SUKI GOODWIN as Denise are meant to illustrate a more carnal side of the same romantic coin but they are both so goofy and good-natured that they only read as charming free spirits. Their “sex” scene is nothing more than a cartoon pantomime that ends in a giggle fit. As rowdy as HELL NIGHT might try to present itself in its opening scenes, there’s no mistaking the fact that its heart beats to a corny, old-fashioned drum that was atypical of its time. It’s almost like a film from the fifties dressed up like a film from the eighties. In fact, HELL NIGHT with its characters playing house within an empty mansion and its themes of breaking away from parental expectation could be said to strongly shadow REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE.

HELL NIGHT is directed by TOM DeSIMONE and his work is impressive throughout and simply brilliant on several occasions. Let me point out a couple scenes that I think deserve high praise.

GOODWIN’s Denise is sprawled out on a bed waiting for Seth to return. This shot is composed like a painting and you get lost in just how good she looks. You can’t help it. Then we get the most abrupt and terrifying pullback view of the monster standing over, dwarfing her while she still lays unaware. It’s such a strong bait and switch. There is no way to prepare. The viewer is sneakily lulled by one piece of the puzzle and then taken off guard by the bigger picture. Blink and you’ll miss it but it’s grand.

Marti and Jeff have found a safe zone. He’s got a pitch fork ready to do battle if need be and she’s taking a breather on the bed. They’re safe as houses and snug as bugs. Then we see what they do not. At first it makes no logical sense but the carpet is rising. Eventually we’ll discover that there is a trap door in the floor that the monster is (slowly!) making his way through but for those first moments it’s impossible to comprehend. Is it supernatural? Another prank? We don’t know but whatever sense of safety we might have had is completely shattered.

There is a sequence toward the climax that never fails to excite me. It’s as if all the fine elements that have been floating throughout the film collide in one second.VAN PATTEN’s Seth returns to Garth Manor convinced he has destroyed the terrorizing monster. In a flash he is yanked off screen. The shotgun he was yielding fires a shot offstage and then flies toward the front door. It lands, it spins on the floor and stalls perfectly aligned with a light shaft. BLAIR’s Marti, who had been hiding her face, nuzzled in BARTON’s side swiftly jerks her head to look in fear. The head turn is sublimely synchronized with a pitch perfect musical cue from composer DAN WYMAN and it’s a thing of perfection. Gold!

Oh there’s so much more; the rapping on the window that turns out to be a toy parrot, leaving a corpse behind that has the keys to the front gate, the twisting underground tunnels, the high stakes rooftop escape. It goes on and on. I admit there are some things that may come off more muddled then they should but they are easily cleared up if you watch close (and often) enough. Really this movie is such a rarity not only for its time, but for any time. It’s gorgeously shot and it has wonderful characters and if it should happen to be a bit far fetched sometimes well, welcome to the world of film. There are long moments of stillness in HELL NIGHT that probably come across as slow to some today but I love the patience shown and frankly when I’m in Garth Manor, I like to take my time and stay as long as possible.

Because HELL NIGHT borrows heartily from classic, old dark house flicks it’s often mistakenly seen as derivative. The past is not mere window dressing here though, bygone eras and ideas are the source of the horror. Much is made of both Marti and Jeff’s family backgrounds, each are quick to point out that their lineage does not define them. Garth Manor is a place where the inhabitants have failed to escape the family fold. The monsters Marti and Jeff must battle are creatures trapped inside the boundaries set by their parentage. It’s a conflict that many young people engage in on a smaller, less gruesome scale everyday. It’s fitting that in the end the greatest threat is destroyed by an iron fence that encircles the estate, a confining line drawn by its ancestry. When day comes, Marti has won more than just her life; she has won the right to any life she chooses regardless of her upbringing. She turns her back to outdated limitations and walks forward.

Maybe I’m imagining that last part but I’m not imaging this: Garth Manor later went on to star in the Fleetwood Mac video “Big Love.” Yay Garth Manor! You are hotter than any Robert Palmer chick! Dance, Garth Manor, dance!

Tags: Caution: I break for geniuses! · General Horror · Uncategorized

12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 craigNo Gravatar // Feb 20, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    Finally! This movie needs to be praised on all levels. When I was in college I had to write a paper on a film that used the same story structure as Greek mythology. Turns out they all do, but I chose HELL NIGHT because it is one of the only movies that is actually a literal translation of the stages of Greek myth; there’s a “land of the dead”, there’s there’s a need to “claim a key”, there’s a need to “return to the upper world” etc etc. There are gates and mazes and all things mythological. This one is so brilliant. Thank you.

  • 2 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Feb 20, 2012 at 6:00 pm


    I’d love to read that paper! Do you still have a copy available? And if so, could you send it my way? So glad you feel the same way about this movie. It’s really something else and I can’t get enough of it.

  • 3 ApocalypsejunkieNo Gravatar // Feb 21, 2012 at 1:51 pm

    I watched this last night on Hulu and I think Unk is dead on about the ending. First let me comment on how young and pretty Linda Blair is, all dimples-n-cherub cheeks and I would KILL for those white boots.

    I dug how Marti pulls it together at the end, grabs the key, unlocks the gate, *locks the gate back*, jumps in the car and actually *locks the doors*. (How many horror movies have we all seen where nobody thinks to lock the damn doors?) Car won’t start. No problem, she hops out, pops the hood and gets that sucker rolling. I won’t spoil the ending, but she keeps her head through even more boogieman hijinks.

    She’s rocking girl power that says, “suck it Spice Girls, *this* is how it’s done”. In high heels no less. 😉

  • 4 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Feb 21, 2012 at 2:21 pm


    Marti is the best! I kind of skipped over her skills as a mechanic in this post because I covered them before but I think it’s really significant that unlike Jeff and the Garth Clan she has had to work for a living at her father’s shop and that is what saves her. I think it’s really cool too that Marti is able to both rise to the occasion when needed and properly freak out when appropriate instead of just being confined to one characteristic. She’s smart too. She mentions she has to help the other Sorority girls with their homework. Is there nothing Marti can’t do?

    Alright well, maybe she could have suggested that Jeff simply pass Seth’s boots under or through the gate rather than throw them over but hey, she can’t think for everybody! I’m with you on those boots too. See, this is why I don’t rag on sequels. I would have loved to have Marti come back in another movie! She’s multi-awesome.

  • 5 Amanda By NightNo Gravatar // Feb 21, 2012 at 6:03 pm

    I’m so gorked out that you wrote about this (again)! I adore this movie sooooo much! It’s been eons since I’ve seen it though. We tried to watch our DVD, but for some reason the widescreen doesn’t translate onto our TV (I don’t think I can explain, but the DVD is all messed up… or our TV… who knows?). Anyway, I agree about Vince Van Patten (so adorable!) and Suki Suki! They are super fun. I love movies like this that are somewhat brutal and terrifying but have a good natured spirit lurking underneath.

    And I want to read Craig’s essay too!

  • 6 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Feb 21, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    Not that I know too much about these things but I think I did read something about a DVD that was “anamorphic” being out there and one that is not. I guess I have the one that is (anamorphic) because I watched it on my PS3 and it looked great. I tried to watch it originally on Netflix Streaming but the picture was kinda stinky. Anyway…I could write about this one again in a second. As simple as it might appear there is so much going on. Plus it’s just such a great time.

  • 7 EshbaalNo Gravatar // Feb 22, 2012 at 5:03 am

    You know, I DID see this movie a while ago, but I must have been dead tired, because goddamn, I don’t remember any of the things you’re pointing out here. What a crime! Thankfully, I’m having a friend over this weekend who tends to, even if he doesn’t seek them out himself, immensely enjoy the load of slashers and other delicious scares I send his way, so why not pop this sucker in for a second viewing? (I should mention he’s incredibly fun to watch scary stuff with – he jumped at the Friday the 13th ending, and he’s the only person I’ve ever seen do the “hand over his mouth in fear” thing – at When A Stranger Calls, no less!)

    Delightful review overall. I DO remember liking what I did see, I just need to give it another whirl, it seems.

  • 8 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Feb 22, 2012 at 8:26 am


    Hell Night really does reward multiple viewings. You’ll see new things sprout to the surface each time you check it out! Can’t wait to hear what your friend thinks. There’s nothing better than watching a horror movie with someone who can really get into it & isn’t jaded. I have a pal like that and I love seeing movies with them because I can get vicariously freaked out by my proximity to that kind of energy. I think it’s really important who you watch movies with. It’s never worth it to me to watch stuff with those who fight against the movie and naysay everything. Hope you guys have a blast!

  • 9 EshbaalNo Gravatar // Feb 22, 2012 at 10:34 am

    Like I said, I barely remember anything now that I think about it, so I’m definetely giving it a whirl. I’ve also sort of considered subjecting the poor fellow to a Phantasm marathon and try to measure the level of confusion they will leave him with.

    Yeah. thankfully, I got friends who find it fun to see the stuff I dig up – I personally always do what I can to get into any movie I watch and look for the good – I can usually walk away from even the worst with at least a “That one effect worked pretty well” or “hey, that guy didn’t act half bad” or even a “well, the core IDEA isn’t bad, just the treatment of it”.

    May help that I’m dabbling in short films myself. But now I’m rambling. I’ll give Hell Night a proper viewing, it’s one of them constantly heralded unseen classics that I still gotta get around to.

  • 10 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Feb 22, 2012 at 10:57 am

    “May help that I’m dabbling in short films myself”

    I think that’s it! I have a theory that all the “That sucks!”, “Worst film ever!” people are folks that have never attempted anything creative themselves. They are always starving because they are terrible cooks! I know The Beatles were not talking about movies when they said “And in the end, the love you get is equal to the love you give.” but I think that theory applies to everything.

  • 11 arthur teagardenNo Gravatar // Feb 22, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    I was lucky enough to see this on the big screen! Not when it came out but here in Durham NC we are blessed with the Carolina Theater and Retrofantasma double feature freakshows. I can’t recall the other one but Linda Blair was so cute and not so HereticAwkward. and Vince van Passion- underrated to be sure. Run to your video store, oh wait. I’m so old. Izzit on thenetflix?

  • 12 EshbaalNo Gravatar // Feb 22, 2012 at 12:22 pm


    One of my personal theories as well. It’s so easy to dismiss the work that goes into this stuff when you don’t do any yourself. And yet I have to face elitists who tell me I’m less interested in film or must be less intelligent because I watch MORE movies than they do of a greater variety. ‘Tis a cruel, cruel world.

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