Horror movies tend to come in one of two fashions. The first is the classic more “highbrow” atmospheric style of something akin to a classic haunted house scenario where the smallest wind howl or next floorboard creek could be a….PRELUDE TO DOOM! On the other hand, the 1980s brought a genre of gnarly gore, cheesy characters, DRUGS, and debauchery to a golden age. HOWEVER, what if a film did BOTH? That’s what’s presented in 1981’s Hell Night.
Its plot is nothing new (a group of college kids pledging to a frat) must stay the night at an old mansion haunted by its deceased owner’s deformed son. HOWEVER, making those accosted by the horrors college students with more juvenile loves and urges (such as drinking, smoking, snorting, and sex…ing) gives Hell Night an especially 80’s feel. However, the mansion is in the middle of nowhere with a locked gate and very sharp fence to the grounds cutting them off from the modern world. The mansion itself is immense with MANY rooms where any number of horrors could jump out of.
It also has a really fun way to set up the characters’ reason and drive to explore the house. This gives the viewer an interesting sense of the geography of the mansion letting them know where and what rooms to avoid without feeling too expository (and boring). The villainous Garth (despite having an awkward connection to a certain classic Dana Carvey character) has really great lore to him too. This lore is very well told and is done as an ominous ghost story while the pledges tour the grounds of the horrors to come.
In addition to not feeling expository, it also focuses on the main characters’ (albeit cartoonish) reactions to help flesh out their personalities more. Again, despite the semi-cheesy acting, the characters all feel very real in their drives and reactions to various situations. That’s hard to talk about without spoiling the movie, but having two groups of college kids trying to get together adds depth too. Linda Blair and her fellow students seem to have deeper conversations about class and status VS the surfing stoner Seth (whose girlfriend always forgets his name) being goofier and more interested in just having sex.
This movie also has a lot of gnarly kills and despite having less of a practical effects team, the kill concepts, editing, and actors still make the kill scenes very memorable. Lastly, the pacing throughout in regards to fun and deep character moments, mood-building, and action without any cannibalizing the other. In conclusion, I’m amazed at how little this movie is discussed despite how well made yet fun it is IMO. The biggest reason that I can think of that it may be buried is that 1981 was probably the biggest year for horror movies. Don’t be afraid to dig this one up!