Why ‘Hell Night’ Is Far More than a ‘Carpetbagger Cash-In’

Tom DeSimone’s 1981 horror cult classic “Hell Night” begins, appropriately enough, with a scream.

From there, we’re provided a long tracking shot (back when these things were done without digital trickery), showing us partying teens outside a frat house. While the setting is a college campus, these teens might as well be celebrating in the parking lot of a movie theater showing “Halloween.”

The shot covers highlights like balcony hollering and random dancing, concluding with a couple making out in a car.

Does this movie know its audience or what?

Hell Night (1981) - Official Trailer

We’re introduced to a group of likable teens (or, twenty-something actors playing teenagers) who, as part of a college pledge, vow to spend the night in “Garth Manor.” The leads are a post “Exorcist II”-Linda Blair, a pre-“Young and the Restless” Peter Barton, Vincent Van Patten (the character actor son of Dick Van Patten) and the lovely Suki Goodwin.

An extended monolog (that is curiously devoid of flashbacks) explains that the massive house is empty but rumors suggest a deranged killer may still live there. If the pledges can survive the night, they become Alpha Sigma Rho members. If not, they’ll receive a form fitting body bag that will be zipped over their dead faces.

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According to author Richard Nowell’s terrific “Blood Money: A History of the First Teen Slasher Film Cycle,” “Hell Night” fell under the category of a Carpetbagger Cash-In. What Nowell meant by that was deeming the film a genre latecomer, blatantly seeking the audience that “Halloween,” “Friday the 13th” and “Prom Night” established.

While the aforementioned films were creative and financial groundbreakers, many of the so-called Slasher movies that opened around the third “Friday the 13th” were DOA at the box office.

“Hell Night” was among the fallout.

Hell Night (1981) - Clip 2: The Manor

As the Teen Slasher genre continued to evolve into the likes of Freddy Krueger and Chucky, the established old school trademarks of these films were looking old hat. Nowell notes that, by the time the wonderful “April Fool’s Day” was released in 1986 (from the very studio that unleashed Jason and his vengeful Mother onto the world), the reign of the first wave of  Slasher Bashers (a term coined by the late, great film critic Reggie McDaniel) was ending.

While “Hell Night” is the hardly the least of its famously disreputable flock, it is a decidedly odd entry in the teen horror canon. The aforementioned opening, in which one of the supporting characters explains the back story and rules of Hell Night, is so wordy, you’d think this was Aaron Sorkin’s first screenplay.

This silly but well crafted thriller benefits greatly from Blair, delightful pulling Scream Queen duty in a role Jamie Lee Curtis likely passed on. There’s also some good jump scares in the late going and the subplot involving Van Patten’s surfer teen, struggling to convince the authorities of a murderer on the loose, is funnier than expected.

Randy Feldman’s screenplay is flush with quip-heavy dialog, though I’m willing to forgive the man who wrote “Tango & Cash” for just about anything. Feldman’s scenario essentially takes William Castle’s “House on Haunted Hill” and redresses it as a Teen Slasher, which mostly works.

Hell Night (1981) - Clip 1: Don't Wake Up

The rousing, scare-packed ending more than serves up the thrills (cheap and otherwise) you’d hope but “Hell Night” has a rather long build up to the spooky stuff. There’s also a strange lack of titillation, as there’s no nudity and the actors appear to be clothed during the sex scenes (presumably an early ’80s variation on Very Safe Sex).

The murder scenes are creative enough to earn an R-rating. The first hour still plays like a horror movie you could safely show on TBS with few edits.

Scream Factory’s “Hell Night [Collector’s Edition] [Blu-ray]” is a fun watch for casual horror buffs and Slasher Basher nirvana for diehard fans of all things Garth Manor. An opening credit announces that the film is a 4K scan of the best surviving archival print and the effort to present this in this best possible manner shows.

This silly but well crafted thriller benefits greatly from Blair, delightful pulling Scream Queen duty in a role Jamie Lee Curtis likely passed on.

The movie looks great, and the Collector’s Edition comes with a DVD and Blu-ray disc full of extras. The previous material carried over includes an audio commentary by Blair, DeSimone and producers Irwin Yablans and Bruce Cohn Curtis.

Otherwise, just about every featurette is new and all of the original members of the project participate. Of the many interviews, I enjoyed the joint conversation between Van Patten and Goodwin, Blair’s surprisingly affectionate feelings towards the film (she repeatedly refers to it as “beautiful”) and Barton’s recollection of how the film gave him his career.

There’s also trailers, stills, radio spots, in-depth explanations of how the murder scenes were pulled off and an engaging look at the real-life “Garth Manor” today. Aside from the speaker you’d attach to your car window at a drive-in movie theater while watching this, there isn’t a thing missing from this definitive edition.

“Hell Night” isn’t on the level of “Halloween” and that’s all right. DeSimone’s film is more a sleepover movie than a horror title that will send you away shaking. Indeed, it was a Carpetbagger Cash-In and remains great example of a revved up teen thriller that knew its core audience well.

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