Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Census Bloodbath: Gorked up


And once again we welcome you, to our October Switcheroo
Where Brennan Klein deigns to review nice old sci-fi, like I would do.
But pretending to alliance, Brennan sends me 80s violence!
Cardboard Bloodbath, Census Science, demands psychic realignment.
Oh we have funrequisite links.  Here's hoping that not too much stinks.
Poetry blows, J. Slasherfan thinks. Give me TITS and DEATH, that's my kink!

Directed by Tom DeSimone
Written by Randy Feldman

Probably the most obvious way to begin any discussion of the 1981 slasher film Hell Night is to note that it stars Linda Blair of Exorcist fame, all growed up; and you might as well begin that way, because there aren't actually that many ways to begin that discussion, as there isn't that much of a reason to have it at all, for despite its small and undoubtedly Blair-driven cult following, it really doesn't amount to anything much more than a pile of rather beige slasher cinema product, flogged into a booming market with only its ex-child horror star to differentiate it.  That is, in fact, a shame, because it feels like it ought to have plenty to differentiate it, from the hope that the talent of one of its executive producers, Chuck "The Blob, Nightmare on Elm Street 3" Russell, might rub off on it, to its Gothicky, old dark house setting; though another, even apter way to describe Hell Night is a collection of small flaws and omissions that add up to nothing much in particular.

In fact, it never really gets better than its first ten or so minutes, and while stating, "this slasher is at its best when still introducing its 'characters' and dumping its exposition," should rightfully instill some level of trepidation, I do mean it as a genuine compliment: we begin amidst an enormous party that seems to have sprawled out across the length and breadth of the campus of an unnamed college in an unspecified stretch of America, though probably somewhere in the Northeast.  The manner of attire suggests "Halloween party" and at some point Randy Feldman's screenplay probably did indicate this, until somebody pointed out that October 31 is probably too late for the film's framework of a fraternal initiation ritual, so instead it's an elaborate boozy costume ball in September, which isn't exactly implausible so let's let that go.  That party, anyway, plays out underneath the opening credits in a variety of long-take tracking shots through a massive crowd in the quad, where a bonfire (!) has been set, the better to warm oneself while drinking and carousing on a cool September or October night, and to circle one's rad motorcycle around, and altogether it prompts a question that I wound up asking myself for the entire 101 minutes of Hell Night, which is whether Hell Night has good cinematography.  For the moment, it absolutely does, as a result of things I usually complain about, to boot: Hell Night is shot on that cheap-ass turn-of-the-80s filmstock that vastly overresponds to onscreen light sources, and paradoxically also seems to require giant off-camera arclights for any nighttime photography to pan out, but for the moment it uses that to capture a really delirious sensation of being right in the middle of a collegiate bacchanal, everything soft and fuzzy, and allowing all the disorienting glares of firelight and practical light (and, as noted, off-camera arclights, careening off metal and mirrors) to bound across the frame, itself filled with bizarrely-costumed revelers played by extras who seem to be having a genuinely good time pretending to have a good time.  The softness, anyway, continues throughout, and as the action moves inside there's a very successful evocation of a boisterous but not un-cozy frathouse, suffused with boozy warmth (and grace notes of minor characters puking on trophy cases).  Cool proto-hair metal opening credits song, too.

Well, it's here we meet our instigator, Peter (Kevin Brophyman, I wish his character's name were Brophy, imagine hearing that thirty times, it'd be great), president of the AΣP fraternity, who has convened these festivities in commemoration of the induction of a new crop of Greek pledges for AΣP and their sister sorority: Jeff (Peter Barton), a sensitive richie trying to pretend to be middle-class; Denise (Suki Goodwin), who at least manages to make her "drugged-out slut" archetype appear to constitute a two-dimensional character rather than one; Seth or, as he's affectionately known by Denise, who keeps forgetting his name despite openly inviting him to have sex with her, "Wes" (Vincent Van Patten); and Marti (Blair), our obvious Final Girl, though for what it's worth it's very easy to presume that she and Jeff fucked.  As is tradition, our pledges are driven out to the old Garth Mansion, and compelled to stay the whole night in this spoooooky house, for as Peter explains, local legend has it that the the Garth family decayed root and branch, and the last heir to its fortune was finally driven to homicidal madness by a cognitively disabled wife and the abnormal offspring he'd sired upon her, whereupon he murdered them all before committing suicide.  Not all the bodies were found, however, and two of his sons were left unaccounted for, and some say that Morris and Andrew Garth still roam the secret passageways and catacombs between and beneath these unhallowed halls.

Peter, believing that they're entitled to one good scare, hangs around with his confederates May (Jenny Neumann), a bitch, and Scott (Jimmy Sturtevant), a creep, using their remote console to conjure the appropriate frights, for example, some obvious-but-obnoxious screams piped in over the PA system they've wired into the mansion, or the rather more threatening mechanism for remotely locking various doors.  Most chintzily, they strung up a skeleton in one of the closets.  Most impressively, Peter knows how to use one-way mirrors to cast some pretty terrifying illusions, though, you know, maybe not all of them are illusions.  And while Marti, Jeff, Denise, and Seth are at first content to get some peace and quiet, it doesn't occur to them that the reason Peter and his friends have given up their nocturnal campaign so readily is because they're already dead, and Marti, Jeff, Denise, and Seth are next.

Wait.  Is that a turtle?

So that's not a bad set-up.  As far as what's been summarized goes, the most rankling thing might just be that we have to accept that these must be some pretty damned exclusive Greek organizations to have an incoming class of only two pledges apiece, and, with not too much charity, we can accept this as necessary for reasons of storytelling economy and just plain financial economy, since Hell Night won't really demonstrate an effects budget sufficient for killing a cast of seven, let alone the cast of twenty or thirty it should have.  But it is, you know, fine; the more pervasive problem, then, is that virtually none of what it does have is used well.

It likely gets the most mileage out of the cast itselfquality over quantity, you might sayand though I'm not sure I want to commit to these being quality characters, they're agreeable as far as slasher casts though.  Even Peter and his jerk friends are more like normal jerks, occupying roles in a scenario where such jerkishness is expected and even desirable.  Meanwhile, their "victims," if not as a rule ably-performed, are likeable, particularly Seth and Denise, whose mutual shallow horniness is pretty enjoyable in a (very) low-rent college comedy sort of wayI like the part where Seth, prompted to explain surfing, pantomimes using Denise as the "board"; I would be remiss not to mention that Denise represents one of the last contemporary depictions of quaalude useplus they spend about a third of the movie in their underwear, which certainly isn't a demerit.  (The bad news is that when it does get to a sex scene it's the film's fiercest flirtation with actual incomptence, rendering it as a shadow-play against "candlelight" upon a far wall but editing this in such a fashion that it appears they, at maximum, dry-humped their way to Seth creaming his underpants.)  But Blair, probably inevitably, turns in the best performance, her Missouri accent doing substantial work on her behalf to create a character that reads as naturalistic and rounded even though her character traits amount to 1)being skeptical of college hedonism and 2)an ability to "fix cars," the latter of which comes into play in a finale both irritatingly-contrived and irritatingly-vague, wherein "car problems" can be solved immediately under stress with "knowledge."

But they don't have a screenplay that can support the character-driven comedy their movie seems to be aiming for; accordingly, their interactions are the same as the character interactions as any given slasher movie, namely filler, and its dopey and un-nutritious filler even for a slasher.  And they certainly don't do their job of hiding the more substantive problems.  As noted, this isn't a very gory or even very slashery slasher; it's not wholly without merit on this count (there's a halfway-decent decaptiation to kick things off, and we likewise get a nice "dinner party of the dead" scene later, that I'm not sure quite squares with Peter's exposition of the Garth urban legend), but it's certainly never recommendable on the basis of bloodletting alone.  Worse, our slasher villain is offensively boring in his particulars, to the extent he has "particulars" in the first place: if the Garth scion reminded you of, for example, Clark Ashton Smith's "The Nameless Offspring," or if you felt it at least promised something gross, this killer shall prove an enormous disappointment.  Andrew Garth, we're told, is a freak so nightmarishly horribleso inutterably gorked, as Peter puts itthat he helped drive his father to murder-suicide; of course, when we see him (and, unwisely, we're allowed to see him in close detail), he's basically just a tall guy in tattered clothes, "disfigured" by a make-up design that only wouldn't seem lazy if a fifth-grader with indifferent parents did it for themselves to go trick-or-treating.  (The man who played him goes uncredited and seems to have avoided insisting upon any credit since.)

The setting doesn't fare much better: Hell Night's exteriors had the benefit of access to the Kimberly Crest Estate, a real Gilded Age mansion that has a nicely foreboding quality at night, but director Tom DeSimone doesn't do too awfully much with the soundstage interiors, or maybe does too muchthere's so little normal coverage of the interiors and such an emphasis on getting to the claustophobia-inducing acute angles immediately that it never feels very sprawling, or very eaten away by the years, or anything, and barely feels bigger (or scarier) than my own underlit house in exurban Pittsburgh.  It's old and worn-out but not exactly the House of Usher.  (Oh, and as for being trapped there: Peter has placed a five-dollar pad lock on the gate that wouldn't survive two minutes of attention from a rock; that's just the start of the nitpicking we could do.)  It's just not a very interesting Gothic fastness, and doesn't enter "interesting's" vicinity until the revelation of secret passageways allows for some choking atmosphere in the depths.

Mac Ahlberg's photography does work, I said, or at least well enough to keep me asking if it works, with a lot of sheets of black and strong efforts made to conjure a mood by way of the blooming, gauzy candelight and our party's edge-lit silhouettes, supplemented by blue-tinged "moonlight"; it's cheap, but not unhandsome, though rarely do DeSimone or editor Anthony DiMarco seem to know what to make of it.  An instructive shot is when Ahlberg allows Jeff, armed with a pitchfork, to emerge from a pure black void prongs-first, the reflective tips of the fork suddenly appearing like daggers out of the murk, which looks amazing but nothing about the staging around it, or even the editing of this particular shot, indicating that DeSimone or DiMarco were aware that it looked amazing, or maybe that this cool image should be given to an important character instead of our heroine's ineffectual boyfriend.  Wikipedia also informs me that the foliage Marti runs around is supposed to be a hedge maze, something I did not pick up from watching the movie.

The fundamental thing, though, just comes down to pace: this probably has no right to be 101 minutes long in any configuration, but definitely not with the screenplay it has.  There's a frown-incuding "hurry up and wait" quality to it, rushing like mad to get our four pledges inside the Garth house, so that we effectively have no first act at all, barely ten minutes having elapsed before our cast have been stranded in their dour environs.  And yet having rushed to get here, everything afterwards feels incredibly dragged out, with barely any subsequent narrative convolution at all to revive things.  The most striking thing is that it essentially does nothing whatsoever with its "real scares supersede fake scares" plot, despite having set up a dynamic for Peter to cry wolf while his pledges roll their eyes and ask him to tell them another one; instead, they get their 101 minutes by resorting to a Scatman Crothers subplot for Seth that sends him successfully over the gate to unsuccessfully acquire help, and it's hard not to figure that the movie would be significantly improved if he'd simply fallen on the spikes and his corpse stayed there for the rest of the movie.  Instead, our underpopulated and perfunctory slasher becomes even more underpopulated and perfunctory, involving long "scary" walks through darkened corridors and across darkened yards, whilst a roaring, "I-like-John-Carpenter-but-don't-understand-his-music" score courtesy Dan Wyman attempts to build something Halloween-esque in its intensity.  It's a nice try, but it's a rare occasion that anything on the screen justifies his effort.

Killer: Andrew Garth with some help, I guess, by Morris Garth
Final Girl: Marti
Best Kill: Scott has his head twisted 180 degrees
Sign of the Times: Our generation just wasn't cool enough for 'ludes, I'm afraid
Scariest Moment: When Andrew Garth slowly, slowwwly rises from a hidden trapdoor underneath a rug from beyond the focal plane while Marti and Jeff discuss their options in the foreground, which is either Halloween homage or a compositional-element-for-compositional-element rip-off, depending on your tolerance for such things
Weirdest Moment: When they kept asking "where's Denise?" and I kept saying "what, do you mean the rest of her?", after finding a severed head in the bed Denise had been sleeping in, because DeSimone and DiMarco didn't linger on the shot long enough for any normal viewer to be able to differentiate Blonde No. 1, menaced in the previous scene, from Blonde No. 2, who was decapitated like forty minutes earlier
Champion Dialogue: "Why?  Her behind is her best part!  We should've kept her behindand left the rest of her."
Body Count: 8
1. May is beheaded
2. Scott has his neck broken and is dangled over the side of the building
3. Peter gets a scythe in his gut
4. Denise vanishes, driving the plot somewhat, though she almost undoubtedly died immediately
5. Morris Garth gets gunned down
6. Seth is ambushed, having let his guard down having believed he killed their assailant
7. Jeff is thrown from a window
8. Those fuckin' gate spikes finally do something when Andrew Garth is impaled upon them
TL;DR: Hell Night squanders its resources, which aren't that extensive in the first place, on behalf of an extremely slow and undistinguished genre exercise.

Score: 5/10

Cardboard Science on Popcorn Culture
2014: Invaders from Mars (1953) The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Them! (1954)
2015: The Giant Claw (1957) It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) The Brain from Planet Arous (1957)
2016: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Godzilla (1954) The Beginning of the End (1957)
2017: It Conquered the World (1958) I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) Forbidden Planet (1956)
2018: The Fly (1958) Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1958) Fiend without a Face (1958)
2019: Mysterious Island (1961) Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
2021: Robot Monster (1953) Queen of Outer Space (1958) The Cyclops (1957)

Census Bloodbath on Kinemalogue
2014: My Bloody Valentine (1981) Pieces (1982) The Burning (1981)
2015: Terror Train (1980) The House on Sorority Row (1983) Killer Party (1986)
2016: The Initiation (1984) Chopping Mall (1986) I, Madman  (1989)
2017: Slumber Party Massacre (1982) Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987) Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
2018: The Prowler (1981) Slumber Party Massacre II (1987) Death Spa (1989)
2019: Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge (1989) Psycho III (1986) StageFright: Aquarius (1987)
2020: Night School (1981) The Fan (1981) Madhouse (1981)
2022: Hell Night (1981) Return to Horror High (1987) Cutting Class (1989)


  1. Ah, I think I was hoping you'd appreciate this more than I did, as it does enjoy a reputation as something of a B-tier classic that I really don't understand. Even Tim appreciates it, in a profoundly mystifying turn.

    Oh well, live and learn. However, I do think sitting through this film is worth it for the scene where Seth just wanders around the police station and happens upon the table where they keep their pile of loose guns. Handy!

    1. Oh man, I forgot to even mention that. The movie has a gun pile.

      I mean, it's cool, 5's not painful, and at least we're in accord. I did go back and read Tim's review and... well, it's a free country!