Sunday, July 6, 2014

Census Bloodbath: Hurts Like Hell

Year: 1981
Director: Tom DeSimone
Cast: Linda Blair, Vincent Van Patten, Peter Barton
Run Time: 1 hour 41 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Way back when I was reviewing The Slumber Party Massacre, I professed my intent to follow along with my favorite reviewer Tim Brayton's Summer of Blood feature when he reviews a new slasher movie every weekend. As you might have noticed, I fell behind, largely because the last three films he took on were difficult to obtain if your DVD purchasing budget is below the double digits.

When I discovered he was to be reviewing Hell Night this week, I was psyched. Not only is it one of the more popular non-franchise slasher films, but it was from the slasher watershed year of 1981 and I had never seen it. Knowing nothing other than the fact that it starred a post-Exorcist Linda Blair as a sorority girl, I was rarin' to go on this adventure with Tim.

The poor man.

I am mystified by the popularity of this dull, gore-free mess of a film. Now I have seen some terrible slasher films in my time, many far worse than Hell Night, but usually the fan-beloved slashers have some merit to them, whether it be a cheesy 80's sensibility or at least some great kills. Hell Night has nothing besides a barely competent Linda Blair shaking her boobs in fear, and even with that it's a bland affair.

Clearly she needed to break free from her earlier, more innocent roles like Regan MacNeil.

But before we get to the heavy duty complaining, let's volley up a little bit of plot. It's Hell Night at the Alpha Sigma Rho fraternity/sorority and five new pledges are to be locked up in Garth Manor - the site of a vicious family murder/suicide leaving behind one mentally unstable son - overnight for initiation.

These pledges are Marti Gaines (Linda Blair), who is an obvious enough Final Girl thanks to her star power, but just in case there were any doubt, she is a virtuous and smart girl who doesn't care for sororities and also an accomplished mechanic; Jeff Reed (Peter Barton - Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter's Doug), the son of an upper-class family whose father is forcing him to join his fraternity; Seth (Vincent Van Patten), a sex-crazed surfer who loves to hunt; Denise (Suki Goodwin), a British hottie whose pure sluttiness is so overpowering that she doesn't even get a name until 50 minutes in; and Boomer Michaelson, aka "Boom Mike," a small oblong fellow who enjoys acrobatics and like to hang out in the top of the frame every other scene or so.

Since having four kids in a house with a crazed murderer isn't nearly enough for a slasher film in the height of the genre, there are also three pranksters - higher-ups in the frat/sor that are playing tricks on our main foursome. They aren't important and they're knocked off pretty quickly, but one of them is played by Jenny Nuemann, the killer from Nightmares, so that's something.

In terms of where to do your killing, this sure beats a rinky dink old theater.

What follows is a particularly cut-and-dry slasher, the kind that would be produced in abundance preceding the climate change of A Nightmare on Elm Street. There is not a single shadow of a doubt about who the killer is or who will live to see the end of the film. There are only two breaks from formula, subtle ones that I only noticed because I've been spending so much time with the darn things. 

Instead of the girls receiving lengthy stalking sequences and the boys getting quick shock deaths, it's the other way around. I'm not about to speak out for gender representation on the behalf of a film that reduces a female mechanic to a quivering wreck about 20 minutes in, but hey, I'll take what I can get.

The second break from formula is one of the few moments where I can see even a speck of the verve and creativity that so many others seem to find in this film - the car that breaks down (This is a horror film. There is always a car that breaks down.) is actually fixed and rendered usable. Incredible! Call it Chekhov's Wrench.

Unfortunately, the adherence to formula that fills the rest of the moments in Hell Night is unspeakably tedious and unremarkable. Mountains of needless exposition are ladled out during visually unenthusiastic walking sequences, and any moment of "tension" is stretched and stretched until every last bit of flavor is gone.

It's annoying because all the promotional stills make it look so cool.

The single most damning element is that during the death scenes you can't tell what the hell is happening. The blame for this can partially be laid on the crappy VHS transfer I was watching the movie on, but the real culprit is the editing, which muddles even the simplest reveals and mutilations compounded by halfhearted gore wherever it should count the most. If you can't even tell how people are dying, the slasher, she don't work so well, you see?

It's demure, especially by the standards of the gorefests of the early 80's. With its quick cutaways and darkened frames, this film feels more like an MPAA-neutered entry from the waning period toward the end of the century rather than a classic smack dab in the middle of the subgenre's Golden Age.

But no! 1981, darn it! I tentatively held out hope that even without great gore maybe it would make up for lost time with some sleazy exploitation or at least a forest of feathered hair. But no. Seth runs around in his underwear a lot, which is great, but the sex scenes are as musty as a candy rolling around in the bottom of a grandmother's purse and the 80's seemed to give this film a pass, rendering it timeless. Timeless crap, but timeless nonetheless.

No flesh, no blood, no fun.

And Marti spends probably a quarter of the film in a bedroom doing absolutely nothing and steadfastly refusing to be interesting. I can think of far more interesting things this film could have done with Linda Blair and a bed.

What, this isn't what you were thinking of?

Thankfully, the last five minutes or so are well directed (by Tom DeSimone of Good Hot Stuff, Swap Meat, Skin Deep, and Bi-Coastal, among other such family-friendly films) although far from revelatory. These final moments and several bits of flair that lightly sprinkle the middle third of the film are the only things Hell Night has going for it.

The leading lady is wan and whimpering, the gore is barely a spatter, and it made my mind wander so much I began to suspect it might actually be a subliminal hypnotism tape. I can't honestly in good faith recommend this film to anybody anywhere at any time. But at least it was better than To All A Goodnight.

Killer: Andrew Garth
Final Girl: Marti Gaines (Linda Blair)
Best Kill: Scott gets his head twisted around in the only even remotely interesting gore effect.
Sign of the Times: People actively understand an in-depth Leave it to Beaver reference; May's party outfit is a cheetah-print dress and a Madonna ponytail.
Scariest Moment: Seth has to climb over a tall fence with sharp spikes at the top.
Weirdest Moment: Seth walks through an open door in a police station, in which there is a table piled with guns and steals one.
Champion Dialogue: "These quaaludes are murder on my skin."
Body Count: 7; including the killer.
  1. May is decapitated with a machete.
  2. Scott has his head twisted around backwards.
  3. Peter is impaled on a scythe.
  4. Denise is killed... somehow. Her body is found in the basement.
  5. Seth is shot with a shotgun.
  6. Jeff is thrown to his death.
  7. Andrew is impaled on the gate spikes. 
TL;DR: Hell Night is a pale specter of a slasher film, always remaining dull and flavorless in the worst possible places.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1348

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