Drive-In Mutants: Hell Night (1981)

Every month we discuss some of the best and worst cult films ever made, from the hits, classics, underground, grind house, and utterly obscure, from Full Moon, and Empire, to Cannon and American International, it’s all here, minus the popcorn, and car fumes.

Hell Night
1981
Compass International Pictures
Directed by:
Chuck Russell
Starring: Linda Blair, Vincent Van Patten, Peter Barton, Suki Goodwin

The Plot is Afoot! It’s Hell Night, the night before classes officially start, and Marti and her friends have been challenged by Alpha Sigma Rho to stay overnight at the dreaded Garth Mansion. The Mansion has a long history involving a deformed family, murder, and suicide, and the classmates are intent on making their night terrifying.  Taking the challenge, soon they begin to realize they’re being terrorized by the deformed owner of the manor, and are unknowingly locked in the mansion thanks to the steel gates. Now they have to escape and make their way back to town, or fight for survival and hope for a rescue.

The Damage: It’s a damn shame that Linda Blair was nominated for a Razzie in 1981 for “Hell Night,” since her performance here isn’t bad. Hell, it’s quite good as she manages to once again hit that rare chord as a final girl who is also insanely hot. Too many times in the eighties did we have horror movies with whiny final girls who were in the avenue of a plain Jane, but Blair is very good as the simple college girl who runs around from a deformed freak in a dress that perfectly shows off her buxom body. Paired with her cherubic face, it’s a perfect formula for a character we can root for. Blair returns once again to the horror fold for “Hell Night,” a damn fun and very underrated Halloween horror movie. Chuck Russell’s film has taken on a life of its own as a cult gem, and feels a lot like an extended episode of “Tales from the Crypt” or an EC Comic.

I can easily picture the classic poster for the film rendered in to a Vault of Horror comic book cover. Though “Hell Night” is admittedly cheap looking, it also packs in a ton of dread and eeriness to it, taking the premise which is mostly a one setting premise, and places a group of hapless college students smack dab at the door step of a brutally creepy mansion in the middle of nowhere. Presenting a hint of self-awareness and some fun creeps here and there, “Hell Night” is set on Hell Night, the last night before classes begin, where a group of freshmen are hazed by their classmates.

After a raucous party in town square, they’re led to Garth Manor by the frat Alpha Sigma Rho, and are challenged to spend the night at the mansion. Garth Manor has a long history involving its wealthy owners, inbreeding, and a patriarch who murdered his wife and deformed children in front of his son Andrew, and then murdered himself. Andrew, as legend explains, is said to roam the grounds haunting it. Blair, as Marti, agree to stay overnight with her small group of friends and are unaware that classmates are running around in the dark playing pranks on them and are hell bent on terrifying them.

Of course, things go awry when we learn that the deformed mongoloid Andrew is actually living in the mansion and begins slowly mutilating any and all of the college students he comes across. What makes “Hell Night” such an eerie out of the box horror film is the way Chuck Russell films the mansion, making it feel like the scene of some really bad fever dream. It also doesn’t help that Andrew knows the house better than anyone, so he always threatens to pop out of a hidden doorway, small crevice or hole, dragging down the students and making their bodies in to decorations for the grounds.

One really unnerving scene finds Marti and friend Jeff having to take a very long and terrifying walk back in to the mansion in hopes of waiting out Andrew. Despite being barricaded in a room, Andrew emerges from the floor draped in a rug, silently stalking them as they linger oblivious to his impending attack. Director Russell transforms the mansion in to a character all its own, making it a series of really dangerous obstacles including a hedge maze and a long row fences with sharp spikes that can impale anyone reckless enough to try and climb it. Andrew himself is a merciless and relentless horror movie monster who rampages through his victims without a second thought.

There are a ton of vicious deaths, and the battle for survival between Marti and Andrew is amped up in tension the more the body count rises. Blair is very well fitted in the role, giving some great screams and shrieks. She brings a lot of vulnerability and innocence to the character, and we root for her as she is stuck within the walls of the mansion and has to figure out how to get back in to town before Andrew figures out a way to trap and kill her. “Hell Night” is a movie that doesn’t fall in to the trappings of the slasher craze of the eighties, pairing the gorgeous Linda Blair against a very creepy horror villain who mangles his victims more than gashes them with a machete or an axe.

I appreciate how director Chuck Russell doesn’t really play too many games with his audience. While he is a fan of jump scares and frights here and there, he also holds true with a very straight forward narrative, and an actual resolution. The End is the end. Or is it? Yes. It is.

Blood: There are some great murders and maimings of inept college students, including snapped necks, a ton of impalings, and a fun decapitation in the first half.

Boobs: There is some skin shown by Suki Goodwin, and while Blair stays in her long puffy dress for the entire film, you can’t help but notice her heaving bosoms. Even the movie poster includes it as an element worth noting.

Beast: There’s the “gorked out” deformed son of the former manor owner, Andrew, who is a lumbering, angry, and vicious killing machine who doesn’t take likely to intruders. The mansion is his weapon, as he sneaks around in various tunnels and hidden doors and is absolutely relentless.

The Rundown: I hope a great movie company like Shout! or Arrow bring us a wonderful Special Edition soon, since “Hell Night” is overdue for a Deluxe Edition that can expose new audiences to what is a bonafide creepy and spooky horror survival tale. It’s short, simple, and remarkably eerie, with a Gothic horror tone that fits just right.

 

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