It only takes one good turn in a horror movie for a young actress to get labeled a “scream queen” and end up cast in scary movie after scary movie. It happened to Jamie Lee Curtis after she starred in “Halloween,” but today’s movie stars the other great scream queen of the 70’s…Linda Blair. When she hit it big in “The Exorcist” she wasn’t exactly the traditional damsel in distress. But as she matured, her cherub face and womanly figure made her a favorite crush of horror fans everywhere. Her appearance in 1981’s “Hell Night” is one that helped solidify her place in horror history.
The film opens with a big campus party being held by the Alpha Sigma Rho fraternity. There are several coeds looking to join fraternity’s or sorority’s this night. But, as you know, that’s never an easy thing. Fraternity President Peter Bennett (Kevin Brophy) leads the party down to the beat-up mansion known as Garth Manor. There he tells the legend of Raymond Garth who, twelve years ago, killed his wife and his litter of mentally challenged and deformed children before killing himself. Only the youngest child, Andrew, survived…but his whereabouts are unknown. After all this build-up, four pledges, Marti (Blair), Jeff (Peter Barton), Seth (Vincent Van Patton) and Denise (Suki Goodwin), are locked behind the gate of the mansion to spend the night.
Overall, the mansion is kind of creepy. You know, lots of cobwebs, no electricity and such. Despite all this, our four heroes quickly start to settle in. For Seth and Denise, this means finding a bedroom and you know what happens next. For Jeff and Marti, this means lighting candles and talking about life. Things start to get a bit crazy, though, when the sounds of screaming are heard upstairs. It doesn’t take long to realize that Peter and his two accomplices, Scott (Jimmy Sturtevant) and May (Jenny Neumann), have rigged the house up with speakers and other switches that create cheesy effects by remote control. At one point, Marti even sees a gruesome ghost floating through the house, but Jeff convinces her it’s just Peter’s pranks.
Peter and his crew start to become frustrated with the lack of response they’re getting from the four pledges. But the disappointment doesn’t last long. It all starts when May is dragged by a pair of gnarled hands into a hidden tunnel and is swiftly decapitated. Peter and Scott soon meet equally yucky ends.
Back inside, the others have no idea of what’s been going on. That is, until Seth leaves Denise in bed to go to the bathroom and returns to find May’s head instead. The other three freak out and try to escape, but the fence is too tall and dangerous to climb. Only Seth makes it out, so he goes to get the cops. The other two are left to try and find what happened to Denise. This leads them to the underground tunnels, eventually coming face to face with the disfigured remnants of the Garth family.
This movie basically takes elements of an 80’s teen slasher flick and a classic 50’s monster in a haunted house movie, throws it all in a blender and gives us a horror milkshake of epic proportions. The movie has some solid scare moments, but they’re the sort that make you jump and then laugh ridiculously at yourself for having fallen for something you saw coming a mile away. The movie does not get bogged down in gore, either. It’s tame enough that it would probably earn a PG-13 were it made today. Down deep it’s just a good old-fashioned creepy house movie.
There’s nothing particularly extraordinary about any of the performances, but the leads all manage to create likeable characters. Blair’s performance is especially fun. She doesn’t play a tough girl, she’s vulnerable…in fact, when she tries to be the tough girl she fails miserably, until the final showdown, of course. I also feel the need to give some props to the uncredited actors who play the monsters. Who they were has been lost in the annals of film history, but they do a wonderful job channeling the spirit of many a lumbering 50’s movie monster.
This movie is just plain fun and it has developed a bit of a following over the years. Many have praised other elements of the film, such as it’s score and cinematography. There’s no denying that there was a unique collaboration between the costume department, who put Miss Blair in an outfit with an extreme plunging neckline, and the cinematographer who made maximum use of camera angles that would…shall we say, accentuate her features.
“Hell Night” is goofy and somewhat cheesy, but somehow it hits all the right notes. It’s got everything…laughs, scares, and Linda Blair. What more could you ask for?