Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Halloween Havoc: HELL NIGHT (1981)

After the landscape-altering success of FRIDAY THE 13th (1980), horror movies changed in a lot of ways. Most of the significant changes occurred after the introduction of the sequels, but ‘81 and ‘82 saw a slew of deformed or inbred killers hit the drive-ins. At first glance you’d think FRIDAY THE 13th PART 2 (1981) would take the credit for cementing the deformed, animalistic killer motif (particularly with the backwoods slant as Jason wears denim overalls and a plaid shirt). Interestingly Tobe Hooper’s THE FUNHOUSE (1981) actually predated Steve Miner’s first sequel and HELL NIGHT (1981) came out three months afterwards. Other notable films such as HUMONGOUS (1982) and JUST BEFORE DAWN (1982) are equally inspired by Jason Voorhees, but you could also make a case that THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977) and ANTHROPOPHAGUS (1980) played equally important roles in both the FRIDAY series and it’s subsequent offspring.

Legend has it that the Garth Manor was the scene of a grizzly crime back in the ‘50s. The Garth family’s children were all born deformed or one case so mentally retarded that he was like an animal. One night Mr. Garth snapped and killed his entire family and hung himself. When the police came and collected the bodies, there was one that they couldn’t find and it is believed that Andrew still lives somewhere in the mansion to this very day. Of course, you know what that means. The local fraternity and sorority chapters decide to use it for a pledge initiation! Apparently they’ve never heard of a pledge paddle.

Is somebody missing an Osmond?
Four pledges Seth (Vincent Van Patten), Denise (Suki Goodwin), Jeff (Peter Barton) and Marti (Linda Blair) are locked in the mansion and all they have to do is stay the entire night. Sounds simple enough, right? The frat boys have the house rigged with a variety of scares, including self-locking doors, phantom sounds, ghosts and dummies. And I’m not just talking about the Van Patten kid. During the night Fraternity presidents Peter and Scott (Kevin Brophy and Jimmy Sturtevant) and Sorority sister May (Jenny Neumann) skulk around outside the mansion and in its elaborate subterranean tunnels setting off the elaborate tricks they have set up. Unfortunately this Hell Night, the legends of the missing Garth boy are about to be proven true.

HELL NIGHT could easily be written off as just another Canadian slasher flick riding on the coat-tails of FRIDAY THE 13th, but this is head and shoulders above the rest largely in part to infamous gay porn director Tom DeSimone (who also gave us the 1972 3D soft-core flick PRISON GIRLS). DeSimone made a handful of mainstream movies after semi-retiring from porn and before moving on to directing TV and with HELL NIGHT he shows a real talent for blending an old fashioned haunted house thriller with a post-FRIDAY sensibility. His use of light and shadow, clever editing and masterful camera work makes it all the more of a shame that he didn’t continue in this vein. Unlike many other slasher films that came along later, the suspense sequences actually work and some of them work extremely well. While I’m handing out kudos, there would be no small oversight if I failed to mention that the score was composed by John Carpenter alum Dan Wyman and the producer is none other than Irwin Yablans. Yablans has been described as a workman-like producer who has had his mitts on some damn fine horror films including (most famously) Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978), not to mention TOURIST TRAP (1979), PARASITE (1982) and TANK (1984)... Yeah, well ok, point taken. But he’s still cool.

DeSimone’s predilections are fairly obvious here as the film starts out with the weakest wet t-shirt scene in the history of cinema where the girls are wearing heavy, dark colored t-shirts. Boat officially missed. Also, Linda Blair’s assets are safely tucked away and for that matter the most amount of flesh on display is from the Van Patten kid who spends an awful lot of screen time running around in nothing but his boxer shorts. Linda Blair fans (that’s like everybody, right?), won’t be totally disappointed as, in spite of the fact that she is supposed to be a car-fixin’ tomboy, she is gussied up to the nines in her turn of the century Halloween costume which leaves room for many bosom-heaving scenes of terror. Also, the costume is an interesting choice as it reflects the theme of film; that of an actual gothic horror film with a modern twist.

Now this is a lair!
If made today, the thought process for the very creative shots and lighting, the careful crafting of the atmosphere and suspense and the thoughtful costuming of the characters wouldn’t even make it to the table. If it sounds like I’m waxing a little too poetic about this film, go watch the recent remake NIGHT OF THE DEMONS (2010). There isn’t an ounce of subtlety to be found, not even any attempt at anything other than shrill characters who do nothing but act as crass as possible, except for the virtuous, virginal heroine. That’s all you got? Catty “bitches” who have loud conversations about how their crotches itch because of a bad wax job? After that cynical, half-assed crap, it should be easy to appreciate how DeSimone does so much with so little and does it really well.

I will admit that some of the comic relief comes across as a bit forced, in part due to the fact that some of the supporting cast isn’t quite up to the task. On the other hand, there’s a few moments that are pretty unintentionally amusing too. When Seth escapes and finally makes it to the police department, they think he’s pulling a frat prank and tell him to take a hike. Noticing that a hall door is open, unguarded and right in the middle is a table with several shotguns lying on it. Seth sneaks in, steals one and jumps out the window. Whaaaaa? Not only is the room empty except for a table full of shotguns, but nobody is watching it and the window isn’t barred? Oh, those wacky Canadians! Even so, this movie is definitely worthy of classic status and it’s a damn shame DeSimone’s only subsequent horror efforts were for the agonizing FREDDY’S NIGHTMARES TV series. That show that managed to kick the legs out from under the most talented horror filmmakers in the industry, so I’m not holding it against him. I’m sure it sounded good on paper... Four times.

Oh and just like no Halloween is complete without Linda Blair, no discussion of Linda Blair is complete with out... well, a couple of things. For those who only read this write-up in the hopes of seeing some of Blair’s bodaciousness, here ya go. Best. Issue. EVER.

Ok, so it doesn't have much to do with the movie other than sharing the title, but every time I see the title this song gets stuck in my head.

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