Review Date: September 14, 2003
Released by: Anchor Bay Entertainment
Release date: 8/31/1999
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen: 1.85:1 | 16x9: Yes
John Carpenter's Halloween set the bar pretty high in terms of slasher movies, and after the release of Friday the 13th a couple of years later, the floodgates opened. We were glutted with scores of movies featuring young men and women fleeing from masked stalkers and/or mutant killers. No sorority house, slumber party, or sleepaway camp was safe. Yet in this mass of copycat movies were some legitimate gems, and one of my favorites was the 1981 Linda Blair vehicle Hell Night. I honestly think that despite being an imitation of more well-known films, it's easily better than any Friday the 13th outing, and even gives Carpenter's classic a run for it's money. It was one of the first DVDs released by Anchor Bay Entertainment, and has been available for more than 4 years. If you don't have this one in your collection by now, what the hell are you waiting for?
It's the final night of initiation into the Alpha Sigma Rho fraternity (and their little sister sorority as well, apparently), and the final task for the pledges is to spend a night in nearby Garth Manor. This year's rather small pledge class consists of Marti (Linda Blair), Jeff (Peter Barton), Seth (Vincent Van Patten), and Denise (Suki Goodwin). Leading the foursome to their upcoming night of terror is fraternity president Peter (Kevin Brophy) and fellow Greeks Scott (Jimmy Sturtevant) and May (Jenny Neumann).
Peter regales everyone with the rather spooky history of Garth Manor, in which Raymond Garth and his wife Lillian raised a quartet of deformed children. Finally, Raymond killed his family, then himself, but let his youngest child Andrew survive the slaughter. Yes, you guessed it, no one found Andrew, and he supposedly still lives in the creepy old mansion.
Of course, Peter and his chums set out to scare the pledges, with requisite screams, rattling chains, and ghostly apparitions. Before long however, everyone soon learns that the Garth Manor legends are indeed true, and a freakish killer begins to amass a small quantity of victims from Fraternity Row. The terrified college students seek to escape the horror house, but the spiked gate is impossible to climb over. Will anyone be around for the next Alpha Sigma Rho kegger?
I first saw Hell Night on a horror marathon on cable TV more than 20 years ago. Even then, I could tell that this was a step above the typical film of the genre. It works in several ways, and that's all the more amazing when you realize it was just a low-budget attempt at cashing in on the Halloween/Friday the 13th phenomenon. Yes, all the cliches are here, from the deaths of the more promiscuous teens, to characters hiding in inescapable situations or even running towards the danger instead of away from it, up until the final showdown between the "nice" girl and the killer. But Hell Night rises above these cliches.
First of all, Hell Night actually combines the influence of several popular horror genres, and the mix is just right. Of course, you have the basic framework of Halloween-style slashers, but the mutated killer is reminiscent of Friday the 13th sequels. And director Tom DeSimone (who mostly made adult films before this) even digs back a little further, going to the haunted house genre. Garth Manor is not really haunted (the killers aren't ghosts), but the old spooky dilapidated house is another horror staple that still works here. Lastly, we evoke the memory of Hammer films, by having the characters in elaborate costumes (Linda Blair's ample cleavage also reminds one of the great British studio).
The use of costumes is a major attraction, and I wonder if the effect was intentional. Having movies take place in contemporary settings with contemporary outfits can make the films seem laughable when those styles eventually go out of vogue. Even Halloween, with the bell-bottom pants, can seem dated now. Yet it's not as easy to tell just when Hell Night takes place (OK, the hairstyles are 80s enough to give some sense of time), which is another reason that this slasher rises to the top.
Of course, it's not a perfect film. There are more than a few plot holes, along with the already mentioned cliches. I also have a problem with some of the extended "walking" scenes, which were clearly meant to build up suspense, but they can drag a bit at times. It's not a case of padding the running length either, as Hell Night is nearly an hour and 45 minutes. Even if some of the overlong scenes were trimmed, it would still be well over 90 minutes, a typical running length for a horror film. On top of that, some fans may be disappointed with the small body count and surprising lack of gore. It's no big deal for me, as I think it gives the film a little more class, but I know some viewers really want buckets of blood in their slasher films. Still, these are minor quibbles.
Atmosphere is plenty and deep in this movie. The lighting (well, the indoor scenes, more on that later) is simply outstanding. There is no electricity in Garth Manor, so everything is either candle or moon light. The natural lighting schemes make for a great combination of beauty and eeriness, all at the same time. Everyone involved made an effort to create something more than the paint-by-numbers slasher that was so prevalent at the time. That is even more impressive when you consider that had they just made a simple copycat film, it would likely have performed just as well at the box office. Instead, Hell Night is still very enjoyable today, and as mentioned already, one of the best slasher films of the 80s.
I never thought I'd see the day when Hell Night would be released widescreen (1.85:1, with anamorphic enhancement to boot!), yet here it is. In fact, this was one of the releases that made me decide to buy a DVD player in the first place, and was the very first disc I bought. While I'm impressed with the transfer (and the much-welcomed removal of several boom mike appearances seen in open matte VHS versions), it is extremely dark and murky, in particular all of the outdoors scenes. Now, this could very well be due to the original film elements, as it was meant to have all natural lighting, but at times it's nearly impossible to make out what's going on! Conversely, the indoor scenes are quite stunning, so it's quite possible that the lighting level was intended. But if Anchor Bay is looking for their next title to revisit, I'd like to see how Hell Night would look with a slightly brighter transfer, at least on the outdoor scenes.
Other than the excessive darkness though, the disc looks really nice. It's grainy at times (another reason I wouldn't mind if AB redoes this one someday), but the soft natural colors are quite rich and really enhance the film presentation. DeSimone (along with cinematographer Mac Ahlberg) strived for a great looking film, and I'm sure they're happy that their hard work can finally be seen the way it was meant to.
The sound fares much better here, with a Dolby 2.0 Stereo track. Dialogue is clear, and the rather creepy music sounds fine. Perhaps there is a little room for improvement with the opening song, which is a little thin, but the rest of the movie sounds pretty good. I don't think a 5.1 remix is necessary, except maybe to give a little more depth and ambience with the music cues.
I was even more surprised when I found that there would be an audio commentary on this disc (yet another reason I was willing to plunk down the cash for a DVD player back then). I wondered how Linda Blair would view the movie, as she had tried to escape being pigeonholed as a horror actress after The Exorcist. Hell Night almost seemed as if she had given up on a mainstream career and just returned to the genre that made her so famous to begin with. Luckily, that is not the case at all, and she considers this film to be among her best work.
Also participating in the commentary are director Tom DeSimone, and producers Irwin Yablans and Bruce Cohn Curtis. It's a good commentary, though silent on several occasions, and the participants spend much of their time congratulating themselves on making such a good horror film. But if you can look past the self-promoting, you will learn quite a bit of fascinating production details. One interesting story concerns the length of candles used. As the film was shot out of sequence, there were production assistants who had pre-burned candles so that scenes which take place later in the movie would have candles with shorter lengths than the ones seen earlier on. Another very small touch that helps make Hell Night work so well. Although, it is a little less surprising when you see that Frank Darabont, director of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile was one of those PAs.
I was also interested in hearing about the multiple locations used, which were seamlessly edited to make it seem like the film was shot at one single site. Interiors and exteriors were shot at totally different locations, and other key settings like the menacing gate and rooftop scenes were shot on closed sets. So, when you see Vincent Van Patten run from inside the house, across the grounds, then climb the gate, it's hard to believe that three different nights of filming were required to create the simple sequence.
Rounding up the extra features are a theatrical trailer and two TV spots, as well as biographies of the same four people from the commentary.
Hell Night is an excellent horror film from the early 80s, and that's saying a lot considering the high quantity of good shockers from the era. I can't imagine anyone not liking this great juxtaposition of the modern slasher with significant influences of the older Gothic horrors. Anchor Bay's transfer looks a bit dark at times, but it's miles above any VHS releases (trust me, I've seen the movie on VHS many times). The commentary is very interesting, and I felt a little vindicated that my love for a lesser-known slasher is the result of an earnest filmmaking effort, and that those involved are not at all embarrassed to have Hell Night on their respective resumes. A necessary disc in anyone's horror collection.
Movie - A
Image Quality - B-
Sound - B+
Supplements - A-
- Running Time - 1 hour 42 minutes
- Rated R
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English 2.0 Stereo
- Audio Commentary with director Tom DeSimone, producers Irwin Yablans and Bruce Cohn Curtis, and star Linda Blair
- Theatrical Trailer
- TV Spots
- Cast and Crew Biographies