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!