Starring Linda Blair, Peter Barton, Suki Goodwin, Vincent Van Patten
Directed by Tom DeSimone
Distributed by Scream Factory
1981. Prime time for the slasher film, when studios were more than content to pump out one after another since production cost was often so low. The downside, though, was that many wound up being formulaic and, eventually, forgotten. Time has allowed the cream to rise to the top of that crop and while Hell Night (1981) isn’t among the best it does stand out due to some novel choices made by director Tom DeSimone and executive producer Chuck Russell, the man responsible for some of the most consistently entertaining horror films of the ‘80s. A dilapidated mansion, oozing with gothic atmosphere, stands in place of a college campus or generic forest setting. Characters are dressed in formal costume; a stark departure from typical ‘80s teen garb. The film is half haunted house, half crazed killer and there is a not-entirely-unexpected-but-definitely-welcome twist at the end providing a solid jolt to a beleaguered climax. Fans are rightly excited to see Hell Night makes its debut in HD, though the final product is still compromised despite Scream Factory’s best efforts.
It’s Hell Night, every fraternity brother’s favorite evening; when new recruits are tormented in hazing rituals from, well, Hell. Peter (Kevin Brophy), president of the vaunted Alpha Sigma Rho house, comes up with the brilliant idea to have four pledges – Marti (Linda Blair), Jeff (Peter Barton), Denise (Suki Goodwin), and Seth (Vincent Van Patten) – spend the night in a decaying mansion. But this isn’t just any old house, as Peter regales a rapt audience – this is where former owner Raymond Garth killed his wife and three malformed children before hanging himself, sparing only the life of his son, Andrew, who was rumored to reside within the place after the murders. The pledges enter Garth Manor and quickly pair off, with Marti and Jeff getting intellectual while Denise and Seth take a more physical path.
A few hours pass and Peter returns with some of his bros, planning to initiate a few good scare pranks they set up earlier that week. The chuckles don’t last long, though, because Jeff and Seth quickly find the shoddy wiring and poorly placed speakers rigged upstairs. What they don’t know is that there is an actual killer on the loose, and he just decapitated one of the girls. Leaving the labyrinthine home proves difficult, with Marti & Jeff getting lost within the catacombs beneath the estate, evading their mongoloid menace however possible. Seth, meanwhile, has to scale a massive spiked fence if they hope to get any help way out here. Wait, didn’t Peter mention something about Andrew having a sibling?
The production team on this picture was a beast, and I’m convinced that’s the chief reason why it came out any good at all; specifically, the involvement of Chuck Russell and Irwin Yablans. I give a bit less credit to director Tom DeSimone, who up to that point (and after it) filled his filmography with lots and lots of gay porn; storyline and direction are usually secondary in that market. Hell, they even had Frank Darabont running around set as a P.A. which is just a cool fact because nobody listens to P.A.s on a film set. Music is just as important, too, and composer Dan Wyman is a synth master who worked with John Carpenter on his early films. His score here is reminiscent of those lo-fi masterpieces.
Solid atmosphere and rounded characters make all the difference. Instead of a roster of stereotypical sophomoric faces the bulk of the film focuses on four individuals with personality and a bit of depth. Blair makes a good turn as the bookish good girl type, while Barton is a charming match for her mentally, showing interest in more than just a drunken hookup. Denise and Seth are both superficial, and their interactions inject the most humor into the film. Denise continually calling Seth “Wes” is one example. A good horror film gets the audience invested in who lives and dies, and while I won’t go so far as to say these are exemplary characters the script does make them three-dimensional and not so paper thin.
The 1.85:1 1080p image is sourced from a 4K restoration of an archival 35mm print with standard definition inserts. This is a step up from Anchor Bay’s old DVD but not by leaps and bounds. Colors attain greater saturation and definition is tightened but the picture looks awfully soft too often and the jump between HD and SD footage is plain as day. The print displays vertical scratches and white flecks. Black levels are decent but there is clear room for improvement across the board. To their credit this is the best image Scream Factory was able to produce but fans should temper expectations going in because this is not a pristine picture by any means.
There is nothing wrong to be found with the English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track, which does a fine job of carrying the dialogue alongside Dan Wyman’s sinister synth soundtrack. Direction is limited and the presentation is routine, but no problems were detected and the track capably supports the feature. Subtitles are available in English.
Here is where Scream Factory does their best to make up for the shortcomings of the a/v presentation: a ton of extra features.
An audio commentary track features actress Linda Blair, director Tom DeSimone, and producers Irwin Yablans & Bruce Cohn Curtis.
“Linda Blair: The Beauty of Horror” – This is a recent discussion with the actress, who covers her run in the genre in addition to diving deep into this film’s difficult production.
“Hell Nights with Tom DeSimone” – Shot on location at the Garth Manor (actually Kimberly Crest Estate in Redlands, CA), DeSimone reflects back on shooting the film there over 35 years ago.
“Peter Barton: Facing Fear” – The actor offers up expected discussion, covering his career in horror and navigating the Hollywood scene.
“Producing Hell with Bruce Cohn Curtis” – This covers more of the behind-the-scenes work that went into making the movie.
“Writing Hell” – Screenwriter Randy Feldman offers up some insight into his process for creating the story and writing the script.
“Vincent Van Patten & Suki Goodwin in Conversation” – The two actors, who have not seen each other in quite some time, sit down together for a back-and-forth discussion.
“Kevin Brophy & Jenny Neumann in Conversation” – This is another chat conducted the same way as Van Patten & Goodwin.
“Gothic Design in Hell Night” – Art director Steven Legler talks about his process for turning Garth Manor into how it is seen on film; evoking the right chilling atmosphere.
“Anatomy of the Death Scenes” – Pam Peitzman, make-up artist, and John Eggett, special effects, scrutinize each of the film’s kill scenes and discuss what went into achieving them.
“On Location at Kimberly Crest” – DeSimone guides viewers on a tour of the “Garth Manor” as it can be seen today.
A theatrical trailer, two TV spots, a radio spot, and a photo gallery are the remaining features.
- NEW 4K Scan of the film taken from the best surviving archival print
- NEW interviews with actors Linda Blair, Peter Barton, Vincent Van Patten, Suki Goodwin, Kevin Brophy and Jenny Neumann
- Audio Commentary with Linda Blair, Tom DeSimone, Irwin Yablans and Bruce Cohn Curtis
- Original Theatrical Trailer & TV spots
- Blu-ray Disc Exclusives:
- NEW interview with Director Tom DeSimone
- NEW interview with Producer Bruce Cohn Curtis
- NEW interview with Writer Randolph Feldman
- NEW – Anatomy of the Death Scenes with Tom DeSimone, Randolph Feldman, Make-up artist Pam Peitzman, Art Director Steven G. Legler and Special Effects artist John Eggett
- NEW – On Location at the Kimberly Crest House with Tom DeSimone
- NEW – Gothic Design in Hell Night with Steven G. Legler
- Original Radio spot
- Photo Gallery featuring rare, never-before-seen stills
“Hell Night” overcomes being lumped in with standard slasher fare thanks to dripping atmosphere, unique production design, and characters that elicit some empathy. The a/v presentation leaves much to be desired but a plethora of bonus features softens that blow.