Any College, U.S.A. - Greek Row is rocked by a wild, wild night of costumed partying. A contingent from Alpha Sigma Rho splits form the festivities and brings four pledges to a house shrouded in horror. And what a house it is:
Previously owned by the Garth family, the mansion has been empty ever since Mr. Garth killed his entire family (including some seriously deformed children) before hanging himself. The four pledges must spend the night herein to prove their worthiness. The gate is locked behind them, and a long night begins.
The 1981 film combines two sub-genres of horror, melding the then-fashionable slasher horror with the somewhat outmoded spooky house horror. Watching the film I was struck by the effectiveness of the location shooting - between the lovely, well-dressed sets and the costumes affected by the partygoers, the film plays like a strangely time-tripping, almost Gothic effort.
It's a modest film, to be sure, but it comes by its passionate cult honestly, balancing some genuine shocks with some quietly realized characters and plot details. Some details are left for us to figure out (the details of what really went down at Garth Manor twelve years ago are hinted at but never pieced together - a remake would surely kill its pacing by over-explaining these matters). The weirdly conservative morality of the slasher model is nicely upended when the bullies are killed first.
Stock characters exhibit reservoirs of decency, including a sex-crazed goofball (Vincent Van Patten, natch) who comes thru in the end, sneaking into a police evidence room to retrieve weaponry to bring to the rescue. Even the inevitable sex is put off by characters who wanna get to know each other first.
I watched this (and I'm glad I did) on assignment from the Final Girl Film Club, run by the recently relocated Stacie Ponder. A discussion surfaces there now and again debating whether 1977 or 1981 is the better year for horror. Hell Night is a compelling argument for 1981: a deft balance of two horror formulae, making effective use of a few locations, and telling a simple story with a smart eye to detail and a surprisingly deep capacity for atmosphere.