Discover this cutting-edge, Gothic-inspired ’80s slasher
Starring Linda Blair as a textbook final girl, Tom DeSimone’s 1981 Hell Night offers an effective blend of horrors old and new. What Peter is revealing here is that the Garth Manor, like the film itself, comes with a long heritage of exploitation, as old Virgil plundered the earth to make his fortune, apparently cursing his family’s subsequent generations. Share this
Tom DeSimone’s Hell Night opens with a shrill scream. “The rich capitalist”, as Marti observes earlier, “feeds on the life of the downtrodden poor”. So Hell Night reconfigures the slasher as social struggle, with Marti not just its final girl, but also its working-class heroine. 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. Published 26 Jul 2021
Share this But where the wealthy and the entitled fail and fall, she survives. As the four co-ed pledges – proletarian Marti (Linda Blair), privileged Jeff (Peter Barton), Californian surfer Seth (Vincent Van Pattern) 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), and as they find themselves under attack from something altogether more unequivocally terrifying, the film places itself firmly in the slasher genre. What distinguishes Hell Night from so many other slice-and-dicers is its insistence on casting an eye back over earlier horror traditions. Hell Night is available on Blu-ray fro the first time on Blu-ray via 101 Films’ Black Label from 26 July. 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. Hell Night too traces a legacy of horror degenerating down the ages. And while she may continue to embrace liberty and equality, Marti learns to turn her back on fraternity. 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. And Jeff, though self-aware and sceptical, is not enough so to disobey or to find his own path. The Garth family has 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. “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 before killing himself. Affluent nice-guy Jeff might at first seem the film’s hero. 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. “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 role in William Friedkin’s generically rather different The Exorcist. It’s 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. 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. 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. 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. 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 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. 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.