Thursday, March 1, 2012

In short: Hell Night (1981)

It's the night of one of America's most mysterious fertility rites - pledge night in a college town. But before they are allowed to sacrifice dogs to the moon and run naked and bloody through the town's streets (that's what you do on pledge nights, right?), the four pledgees (that's the theological term) of Alpha Sigma Whatever have to spend a night in the local spook house, or rather spook mansion. Twelve years ago, a father murdered his disabled children - well, all but one of them, his wife and himself there. The surviving kid - as well as some of the dead bodies - of course went missing. Supposedly he still lives somewhere hidden away inside house.

The vigil of the student quartet - good girl and horrible actress Linda Blair, nice guy Peter Barton, loose girl Suki Goodwin and radical surfer dude Vincent Van Patten - is soon disturbed by frightening noises and screams. Clearly, not even college students trying to get into a sorority are dumb enough to believe the noises are ghosts, and not their future sorority brothers and sisters. Our heroes are right about it, too.

But, quite unexpectedly except for this being a horror movie, there's someone or something else creeping through the house, something of a rather murderous disposition and surprising physical resilience.

As regular readers know, I'm not the biggest fan of the slasher sub-genre in general, perhaps because I have seen too many films in the genre which can hardly be distinguished from each other. Sure, I like the really good examples of the genre (like the original Halloween and the original My Bloody Valentine), as well as the really weird ones and the accidentally atmospheric ones a lot, but the genre's middle-ground has never done much for me. Tom DeSimone's Hell Night is pretty close to what I think about as the sub-genre's middle ground, yet even my cynical, jaded disposition can't resist the film's simple but heart-warming charms.

Hell Night is a lot like I imagine a slasher made by William Castle to feel - made with a sense for a quick buck as well as an eye for atmosphere, and just oozing the good-naturedness and cynicism of a house of horrors at your favourite carnival.

There's something to be said for a slasher not actively hating its protagonists,too. Hell Night even seems to like its future victims of horrible deaths, or at least it looks at them with a sympathetic eye that clearly does not find much wrong with them wanting to have a bit of fun, or telling each other stories of their elf and witch sightings. Of course, they're getting killed off anyhow, for that's what the audience has paid to see.

So, even though the film has a solid body count, this is not one of those horror films delighted by its own mean-spiritedness, nor is it one out to make its audience feel like victims of a car crash. Hell House really just wants you to have a good time watching teens (or "teens") talk silly nonsense, walk through an impressive old dark house, and get killed in somewhat bloody and violent ways; it's going about this so sweetly that it's hard to disagree with its ambitions.

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