Hell Night

Hell Night (1981)

Hell Night first published by Little White Lies, as the 132nd entry in my Cinema Psychotronicum column

Tom DeSimone’s Hell Night opens with a shrill scream – a good hint at horror to come, even if, in context, it immediately resolves itself into the joyful squealing of revellers at a frat party. The ambiguity of that opening sonic signifier also extends to the film’s title, which promises genre thrills even as it turns out to be the phrase used by the partying co-eds themselves to denote this annual evening when new pledges are initiated by enduring an overnight stay in a supposedly haunted mansion.

“In 1850, Virgil Garth built this mansion with the gold that was pouring out of his mines,” Alpha Sigma Rho president Peter (Kevin Brophy) explains, before telling a not altogether reliable tale of the latest and last generation of Garths who lived in the place until, 12 years ago, the patriarch Raymond Garth murdered his wife Lillian and at least some of his four deformed children (Morris, Suzanne, Margaret and Andrew) before killing himself. What Peter is revealing here is that the Garth Manor, like the film itself, comes with – indeed was founded on – a long heritage of exploitation, as old Virgil plundered the earth to make his fortune, apparently cursing his family’s subsequent generations. 

Hell Night too traces a legacy of horror degenerating down the ages. The film’s very title, and a scene where a killer is shown slowly sitting up from the floor, point to John Carpenter’s ur-slasher Halloween (1978). As the four co-ed pledges – proletarian Marti (Linda Blair), privileged Jeff (Peter Barton), Californian surfer Seth (Vincent Van Patten) and English good-time girl Denise (Suki Goodwin) – flirt and fool around, as they face pranks from Peter, Scott (Jimmy Sturtevant) and sorority president May (Jenny Neumann) who are intent on frightening them, and as they find themselves under attack from something – or some things – altogether more unequivocally terrifying and determined to kill them one by one, the film places itself firmly in the slasher genre. Of course in 1981 when this film was made, the slasher represented horror’s cutting edge – even if that edge was already being blunted by oversaturation, by-numbers plotting and diminishing returns.

Yet what distinguishes Hell Night from so many other slice-and-dicers is its insistence on casting an eye back over earlier horror traditions. Not only is it set in an old dark house whose gothic trappings are offset by characters costumed to look the part (courtesy of a hazing rite in fancy dress), but specific allusions to titles from other genres serve as breadcrumbs to guide us through its narrative.”When I was a kid, I saw a witch,” says Marti, “You know, I’d wake up and see things.” It is as though Linda Blair, who plays Marti, is reminding us of her most famous childhood rôle in William Friedkin‘s generically rather different The Exorcist (1973). In repeatedly getting Seth’s name wrong and calling him ‘Wes’ instead, Denise conjures the films of Wes Craven, and in particular The Hills Have Eyes (1977) which similarly featured sibling mutants, while another clan of backward brothers is suggested by a grotesque dinner tableau lifted from Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).

Evidently all these films, with all their different subgeneric tendencies, lead to the monstrous hybrid of gothic and slasher that is Hell Night. Blood and devolution are at the film’s centre. Like the family in Jack Hill’s Spider Baby, or the Maddest Story Ever Told (1967), the Garths have slipped into genetic decline in much the same way that their home has fallen into disrepair, and the last surviving scions are misshapen, murderous freaks. Affluent nice-guy Jeff might at first seem the film’s hero – but he has joined the fraternity purely because his father, who was in it before, expects his son to follow suit and continue the tradition – and Jeff, though self-aware and sceptical, is not enough so to disobey or to find his own path. Jeff embodies and perpetuates the prevailing patriarchal order, and perhaps, for all his charm and chivalry, needs to be defenestrated to make way for real, revolutionary change. Meanwhile mechanic Marti, who has earned her place in college and the sorority by her wits alone, and who has the practical know-how to fix her own means of escape, loosens this old-world dynasty’s remaining grip on power, leaving it skewered on the very gate that protects its ill-earned property. “The rich capitalist”, as Marti has observed earlier, “feeds on the life of the downtrodden poor” – but where the wealthy and the entitled fail and fall, she survives. So Hell Night reconfigures the slasher as social struggle, with Marti not just its final girl, but also its working-class heroine – and while she may continue to embrace liberty and equality, Marti learns to turn her back on fraternity. 

strap: Tom DeSimone’s backward-looking haunted house slasher offers a heady mix of co-eds, cosplay and class politics

Anton Bitel