For the last four years, Alamo Drafthouse programmer Zack Carlson has hosted a late-night horror movie celebration called Terror Tuesday and if you are a lover of horror, both esoterically brilliantly and obscurely awful, this night was invented just for you. The Terror Tuesday Report will dissect the movie shown as well as provide a barometer for the audience's reaction; as many of these films demand to be seen with an audience, this proves a vital component to the evening.
This week's film: Hell Night, directed by Tom DeSimone, 1981
If you want to join Alpha Sigma Rho, the most popular fraternity/sorority on campus, you might expect to endure an initiation. What you might not expect is for that initiation to include spending the night in the house where an entire family was murdered! Though honestly, it was the early 80's so how could you not expect something like that? A group of pledges, two men and two women, are the latest rubes to undergo this hazing and find themselves locked in for the evening. It becomes apparent soon after the gates are sealed that the fraternity president has rigged the house with a number of gimmicks designed to send the pledges running scared. But after his scheme is discovered, and all the strings exposed, the pledges find something lurking in the house far more sinister than a phony skeleton in the closet.
There is a great deal to like about Hell Night, but there are also a host of problems. To clarify, I know that most of these films have "problems" but the problems with Hell Night detract from the one and only criteria on which I routinely judge Terror Tuesday films: entertainment value. I like that someone was able to blend the old, dark house subgenre of horror with an 80's slasher in a more concrete way than most who attempted the same feat. I also really love the fact that the true dangers of the house go largely unseen through the majority of the film. And you have to love the kills in this film; creative, satisfying, and a whole lot of bloody fun!
The ending of the film is especially great! The sole survivor manages to find a key to the gate, jumps into an abandoned car, and speeds away. It looks as though she has made a clean getaway until her pursuer appears atop her vehicle. It was actually a pretty intense scare and they sold it really well. But then, the solution she concocts to remove the predator from the roof of the car is inspired, and my kind of 80's horror goodness. She rams him into the sharp prongs of the up-turned gate with such force as to elicit at least a fist pump, if not a round of applause. I would have to file my reaction into the latter category.
I also thoroughly enjoyed Vince Van Patten in this film. He plays the dopey, sex-crazed sidekick who traditionally makes for ideal victim fodder. But the great thing about Hell Night is that its limited victim pool precludes the writer from wanton hacking and/or slashing. Instead, we spend a good deal of time with these kids who are essentially carrying the film. Of the lot of them, Van Patten is by far the most entertaining. I have to agree with Fright Master Zack Carlson that Van Patten seems hell-bent on making a boner comedy while the rest of the cast is making a horror film. His maneuvering through the police station at the end is hilarious; intentionally or otherwise. He is just goofball enough to be funny and just talented enough to not cross into the dark territory of the insipid.
Speaking of insipid, Hell Night stars Satan's lil' darling Linda Blair; now a buxom teenager. If there was anyone more aware of the stagnation of Linda Blair's career at this time...it was Linda Blair. Her frustration with her career translates to petulance on screen that made me grind my teeth. Her mumbling, unsympathetic, and lazy performance is atrocious. I spent the entire film, despite my understanding that she would be the final girl, hoping that she would be the first to die. And bravo to director Tom DeSimone, former porn director mind you, for getting her enormous rack perpetually in frame but I'm afraid I'll need a little more than that.
Linda Blair or no Linda Blair, Hell Night's largest problem lies in its pacing. This movie has a runtime of 101 minutes that feels closer to 260! I know this complaint seems predicated on my own shortcomings in the attention span department, but the fact is that this is a bloated film. Most of the horror stuff, and even the slower character moments, are really sharp and truly effective. But then the film gorges itself on extended segments of teens investigating things. It was like watching the world's most bizarre episode of Scooby-Doo as every ten minutes wrought a new, agonizingly slow "searching the grounds" sequence. And if it were but one scene like this, I could abide it, but this investigatory nonsense became a recurring theme. These scenes lacked any tension, did little to progress the plot, and featured no interesting music or effects. The principal reasoning for these moments was to pad out the runtime and ends up doing far more detriment to the film than would a brisk 80 minute length.
Given some chainsaw editing, this could have been a fantastic 80's gem. Instead, it's a spotty, largely dull slasher with a frustratingly-bad lead actress. I am interested to know if there may be a fan edit of Hell Night available that significantly reduces the scenes of teens wandering in the dark. But if you'd like a second opinion on Hell Night, check out our Horror Squad patron Scott Weinberg's take on it.
For the most part, the movie played incredibly well in this packed house. I will not deny there were a few sleepy faces during the Scooby-Doo moments (all 12 of them!!) but in a strange way, those moments aided the reaction to the film. Because there was so much down time with absolutely nothing happening, when even the smallest scare or lamest joke would peek through, the audience devoured it like starving people suddenly presented with a morsel of food. The jump scare with the fiend on top of the car, for example, got the loudest audible scream I have ever heard at a Terror Tuesday. Fair play Hell Night.