I’ve said it many times, but the early ‘80s roster of horror films is anything if not varied.  As a consumer, if you want a slasher, you have your pick – My Bloody Valentine, Friday the 13th Part 2, etc. If you have a hankering for monsters, there’s The Incubus or The Funhouse.  But let’s say you’re feeling lazy, and you just want something that combines all that, plus a little more? Well, here’s a suggestion: If you only watch one Slasher/Creature Feature/Old Dark House movie this week, make it Hell Night (1981), Tom DeSimone’s wildly entertaining amalgamate that miraculously holds together.

Released in August by Compass International Pictures (the studio that gave you Halloween, and then gave you Roller Boogie – you’re welcome), Hell Night only brought in $2.3 million, barely eking out a profit. And as per the norm, critics weren’t too impressed, with Roger Ebert awarding it one star. (You’re still my boy, Roger.) But in an era when many horror films were by turns downbeat or mean spirited, Hell Night sets itself apart with a perky and old fashioned ‘spooky’ vibe. And while the subject matter may be typically macabre, the tone for the time most certainly is not – in fact, it’s almost chaste. But don’t let that fool you; Hell Night brings the suspense with just a hint of grue to keep the new guard happy. Imagine R.L. Stine spiking his morning coffee and you’re halfway there.

Our story opens at a costume party for Alpha Sigma Rho on Hell Night, where pledges both male and female are put through initiation. (Co-ed? Very progressive.) We meet all of the players: Cute and shy Marti (Linda Blair – The Exorcist), rich and pretty Jeff (Peter Barton – Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter), British import Denise (Suki Goodwin – Voyagers!), and hyper party boy Seth (Vincent Van Patten – everything in the ‘70s). The four have to spend the night in Garth Manor, a notorious haunted house in the area.

On their way over, all the exposition is delivered by Peter (Kevin Brophy – The Long Riders), the head Alpha. Simply put, Raymond Garth strangled his wife and killed his four deformed children before taking his own life. However, the youngest child, Andrew, was never found. After dropping off the foursome and locking them inside the gated estate, Peter and his cronies sneak back to set up electronic sound effects and booby traps to enhance the haunted house experience. Little do they know that someone still lives at Garth Manor, and he’s none too keen on visitors…

I first saw Hell Night when I was eleven, and it made me very tense. Not in that uncomfortable, bowel shifting Halloween way, but in a ‘clutch your date and scream’ sense. (Okay, I was eleven and didn’t have a girl, but I was familiar with clutching my date. I’ll see myself out.) Interestingly, the film isn’t concerned with going for the gross out, and yet there are ample opportunities to do so. Instead, the film focuses mainly on creating a mood of fear and menace, which was more than likely producer Irwin Yablan’s doing, as it worked so well for him on Halloween. (That, and hiring Carpenter. That was a good call.)

So suspense is the order of the day, and that’s harder to pull off successfully – but they do. It’s all about timing; putting the viewer on the edge of the precipice and leaving them there, sweaty and trembling. Again, there are nods to the tropes of the day; a head in the bed here, a 180 degree noggin twist there – but Hell Night ultimately is a PG in an R’s clothing. (At least it would be today.) And that’s okay too, as the filmmakers have so much fun with the material that the extra bloodshed isn’t missed or even necessary.

Credit director DeSimone with not only orchestrating the tension, but aiming far outside of his comfort zone. He started out making gay X rated features in the early ‘70s with such titles as Swap Meat and Duffy’s Tavern, all under the pseudonym Lancer Brooks. You couldn’t write this stuff better. 1977’s crossover hit Chatterbox! put him on mainstream maps which eventually led to Hell Night. I’m not sure how porn prepares one to make horror, but whatever it is, it works. He and screenwriter Randy Feldman (Tango and Cash) imbue the characters with personality, helped along by a game cast, especially Van Patten who practically bounces off the walls as Seth. Another nice touch is having Marti and Jeff already wearing Victorian era clothing due to the costume party, adding an extra layer of Gothic charm to the Hammer-esque Garth Manor. Of course we need a monster in our midst, and we get one reminiscent not of the ‘60s or ‘70s, but rather the sci-fi laden ‘50s. Garth Junior (that’s not a spoiler, is it?) resembles nothing as much as a more limber James Arness of The Thing from Another World. The film is beautifully shot by Mac Ahlberg (Re-animator), with ominous shadows punctured by candle light as our protagonists lurk the hallways – another nice nod to a bygone era.

Adding to the anachronistic vibe, DeSimone makes his boldest stroke by giving us two Final Girls – in the form of Jeff and Marti. There certainly seems to be a friendship between the two, but no sexual chemistry; they sit by a fire and swap stories about growing up, and later on the closest they get to achieving intimacy is spooning. Therefore, according to the tropes of the day, both by default assume the mantle. They search the house together; always pressed against one another as a single entity. When faced with danger, Jeff is the one to take action as Marti just flails and screams – she represents Flight, and he Fight. Which is not to say that both will survive; one may need an above the title credit for that.

DeSimone would go on to take another crack at the Women in Prison genre with the tongue in cheek, ribald Reform School Girls (1986), before setting himself up directing TV for the rest of his career. It’s a real shame he never put his unique sensibilities to further use in the horror field, deepening an already varied resume. Perhaps Lancer Brooks is available?

Hell Night can be purchased on DVD from Anchor Bay via Amazon.

Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE FOOD OF THE GODS (1976)
  • Scott Drebit
    About the Author - Scott Drebit

    Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.