Monday, October 28, 2019

The Frat Pack

A staple of the VHS slasher era, Hell Night is one of those movies that represents so much of the 1980s horror world: deformed killers, haunted house, teenage sex, and Linda Blair. It's been a good 30 or so years since a far-too-young little me watched it, but now that it's streaming on Shudder, it seemed like the time had come for a perfectly seasonal revisit.

Quick Plot: It's Halloween night, and the big Alpha Sigma Rho fraternity and its sister sorority are throwing their annual spooky bash. After a good few hours of drinking and other usual hijinks, frat president Peter sends four pledges to their big Greek test: spend the evening in Garth Manor, a gloriously gothic mansion that once housed an unhappy family whose birth defects led the patriarch to slaughter his kin.

Left alone, our quartet quickly pair off. Pill-popping Denise and surfer dude Seth head to the bedroom, while good girl mechanic Marti and nice rich guy Jeff make more innocent flirty conversation. Peter and some of the other seniors roam the grounds with a few extra pranks in mind, but before they can give the freshmen any real good scares, each is hunted down by a mysteriously large and grumbling figure.

Directed by prolific adult filmmaker (and helmer of the first few days of Savage Streets' shoot) Tom DeSimone, Hell Night is very much a mediocre product of its time. In this case, that means post-Halloween one-crazy-night teen-filled slashers. 

We have our good girl with the gender-neutral first name, her promiscuous bestie fated to die first, the surprise party filled with dead friends, and most of the other hallmarks you'd expect in 1981. It's surprisingly slow in ratcheting up the horrors, which is unfortunate when that involves a whole lot of small talk between pretty dull characters.

As anyone aware of my feelings on Summer of Fear or Savage Streets knows, I adore '80s era Linda Blair. Unfortunately, even here at the height of her scream queen reign, Marti and her pals just don't get to be that interesting. This wouldn't be so bad if the film didn't insist on giving them so many bland conversations. Our hearts go out to Linda Blair as she eventually sprints away from the killer, but no love is really lost for a boring college romance that thankfully never was. 

Thankfully, Hell Night has enough style up its frilled sleeve to remain quite watchable. The killers are barely more memorable than their victims, but between the candlelit hallways, staked gates, and rich Halloween costume palette, the film ultimately carries enough visual punch to stay in our heads.

High Points
There's a reason I remember Hell Night so vividly: the costumes. Setting your film in a decently propped gothic mansion and clothing your stars in flapper wear and crushed velvet really does wonders for the film, making its visual impact so much more interesting than its otherwise rather rote storytelling 

Low Points
There's a reason these kinds of films became dismissively characterized as "dead teenager flicks," and it's the blandness here that shows it

Lessons Learned
Rich capitalists feeds on the life of the downtrodden poor

Fraternities build relationships you'll have your whole life, although if you're spending the night in a haunted house, that life may prove to be very short

It's not a party until the windows break

Quaaludes are murder on the skin

Fun Fact
Perhaps we have to respect Hell Night for being partially responsible for 1988's The Blob: a young Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont served as (respectively) executive producer and production assistant 

Hell Night isn't overly scary or fun, but it's a good-looking slasher perfectly suited to the October horror season. Queue it up on Shudder for an appropriate autumn watch.

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