"There's a visceral response to horror. If I invite a bunch of people over and we're sitting around and I tell a joke, one person may laugh, one may be offended, a third may be ambivalent. But if somebody runs in with a horrible mask on and starts to scream, we'll all jump and shout."
The quote comes from Irwin Yablans, executive producer of Halloween. Together with Bruce Cohn Curtis, they produced Roller Boogie in 1979. When it came time to cast Hell Night, the team gave the lead to the star of that disco opus, the talented Linda Blair.
Blair could never quite shake the public's image of her in The Exorcist. Immediately after the success of that film, she made a few well-received TV movies, including the controversial Born Innocent and Sweet Hostage.
After the failure of Exorcist II: The Heretic, she found herself stuck in a myriad of low-budget exploitation B movies. However, Hell Night gave her one of her best post-Regan MacNeil roles and was one of the more winning slasher releases of the early 80s.
Director Tom DeSimone began his career making adult films. "Considering the budgets and conditions, I learned to shoot fast and from the hip," he recalls. Hell Night was the follow-up to Chatterbox, a comedy he helmed in 1977.
A raucous costume party at the Alpha Sigma Rho fraternity signals that it's pledge week. The president is Peter Bennett (Kevin Brophy), a real ladies man. He's busy trying to come onto a girl from the sister sorority when Scott (Jimmy Sturtevant) tells him everything is set up for the ceremony.
Peter notices a new pledge named Marti (Linda Blair) in the middle of the crowd. She sees him staring at her and asks May (Jenny Neumann), the head of the sorority, who he is. May tells her and says he lives all year for hell night. "This is when he really puts it to the pledges," she adds. Marti starts to get cold feet but is convinced to go through with it.
Two buddies, Seth (Vincent Van Patten) and Jeff (Peter Barton), are watching all the action. Seth sets his sights on Denise (Suki Goodwin), who's dancing up a storm.
When everyone is sufficiently buzzed and with torches in hand, Peter has them all drive up to a huge abandoned mansion called Garth Manor to start the initiation. The front gate is padlocked, so he shoots the lock open with a pistol.
In order to be a member of Alpha Sigma Rho, one must spend an entire night in the place. The catch is that 12 years ago, Raymond Garth murdered his entire family and then committed suicide.
Peter gives a tour of the grounds and tells the students more about the mansion's history. He says it was built in 1850 by Virgil Garth with his gold fortune - and four generations of the family lived there until the murders over a decade before.
Raymond, his wife Lillian and their four children occupied it at the time. The first child they gave birth to was a Mongoloid they named Morris. The second child, Suzanne, turned out to be hideously deformed as well. The Garths were so private, they never installed any modern utilities, including gas, electricity and phones. Margaret, the third child...couldn't see, hear or speak.
Finally, a fourth was born. His name was Andrew and he didn't talk for the first fourteen years of his life. The boy only grunted and groaned like an animal. Raymond decided he had enough and assembled his family in the parlor, where he killed everyone except Andrew - and then hung himself. Or so it was believed.
Besides the father, police only found three other corpses. Some people think the youngest son is still living in the house. The students all enter the gothic mansion, which is lit only by candles.
Aside from Marti, the other three pledges are Seth, Jeff and Denise. They are not to leave the confines of the estate. Even if they wanted to, the gate is too high for them to climb over. Before he and the rest of the students leave, Peter tells them the only way to escape is to shoot their way out with a gun he leaves with them.
Marti asks the other three if they believe the story and Seth says Peter is "full of shit." Jeff, however, tells them the murders really happened.
Inside, Denise informs the group she's equipped with the good stuff: a flask of liquor and some Quaaludes. Seth, the loopy surfer dude, is thrilled. They hook up, while Marti and Jeff pair off.
With the fireplace going, Marti finds out from Jeff that he lives in a wealthy neighborhood. She pretends to be bemused, but she's only playing around with him. Jeff tells her his father was the one who wanted him to join the fraternity and asks Marti what her reason is for being there.
She says she made a deal with May that if she supplied all the English Lit notes, she would get any room in the sorority house, free clothes and a used car.
Meanwhile, the other couple have already discarded most of their clothing. Although Seth would rather get to the screwing immediately, Denise asks him to tell her about his surfing lifestyle.
Peter returns to the grounds with May and Scott so they can begin the process of scaring the daylights out of the four students. The place is wired with all sorts of goodies.
A loud scream through the house gets the attention of the pledges and they all gather together. "Somebody's trying to mindfuck us," Seth says. (His new partner Denise repeatedly refers to him as "Wes.")
It appears the screaming is coming from above them and is actually being remote-controlled from the outside by Peter. Jeff and Seth find the speaker in one of the bedrooms and disconnect it.
While setting up another trick, Peter tells May to go around the house and start a diversion. She does and someone grabs her leg from one of the vents running along the outer wall. She's yanked down to a room in the basement and decapitated.
The fake screams continue and Marti is bothered by it. She's left alone while Jeff and Seth try to find the source. Just then, a gust of wind blows a pair of glass doors open and some of the candles go out.
Marti tries to find her friends but gets locked into the main parlor and hears moaning. A three-dimensional ghost figure appears and starts walking towards her. Even though she knows it's a joke, she's frightened and pushes her way into the other room.
Seth goes back upstairs to Denise, who he says is waiting for his body. Marti describes what she saw to Jeff and he calls out to the pranksters to quit what they're doing. They go outside and Jeff finds the switch that controls the doors.
But the fun is just beginning. For the next phase, Peter enters the house through a secret entrance with a monster mask and Scott goes up to the roof. While setting up the next trick (a dummy attached to a rope), Scott hears someone. He thinks it's Peter, but it turns out to be some kind of hideous creature. The thing kills him by breaking his neck.
Marti wonders why she keeps hearing screaming if all the speakers are disconnected. Jeff opens a closet and a skeleton jumps out at him. It appears the entire house is rigged with some kind of trick. Marti suggests they go to bed - separate beds.
Seth and Denise have already fallen asleep when Denise hears a knocking sound at the door. She gets up and there's nothing there. Unable to go to sleep again, she opens the drawer to a vanity dresser, where a fake snake pops out. She then looks in the mirror and briefly sees Peter wearing his mask on the other side. "Those Quaaludes are murder on my skin," she says to herself.
Peter calls out to Scott and May but gets no answer. He climbs up a ladder to the roof and cranks up a machine which was to lower the dummy down to one of the bedroom windows. Instead of bringing up a mannequin, Scott's body is attached to the rope.
He quickly climbs down the side of the house and runs to the gate. As he tries to unlock it, the key falls on the ground. Suddenly, the creature grabs him. Peter temporarily escapes but is captured in some bushes and murdered with a scythe.
Marti is having trouble sleeping. She'd rather talk to Jeff about ghosts and witches - and whether they're real or not. The two are clearly attracted to each other and Marti goes over to his bed where they make out.
It's precisely what Seth and Denise have been doing, although they've gone further. After some playful cuddling and fooling around, Seth gets up to go to the bathroom. Denise is left alone on the bed and is horrified when she opens her eyes and sees the creature standing over her. It covers her mouth so no one can hear her.
After admiring himself and his prowess in the bathroom mirror, Seth goes back to the bedroom. Denise is under the blanket and Seth lies down next to her. He feels something odd and when he lifts the cover, May's head is underneath. He screams (a good scream too, especially for a guy) and Marti and Jeff hear him. They rush to the room and see the grisly sight.
Seth tells them he doesn't know where Denise is and tries to leave the grounds. The gun they were given only shoots blanks, so he attempts to climb over the gate to get to the police station. Marti tries as well, but has no luck. Finally, Seth makes it to the other side, with only a few cuts.
Jeff and Marti go back into the house to find Denise. During their search, they come across Scott's body hanging outside one of the windows. "What do we do now?" Marti asks Jeff. He says they should wait for help. Looking down into the garden, he sees a light. He tells Marti he's going to check it out because it could be Denise, but Marti is afraid. She worries it could be Andrew Garth.
Jeff tells her to stay put and he goes outside, where he picks up a pitchfork for protection. He bumps into Peter's body and is horrified. He then picks up a flashlight that his friend dropped, not realizing the key to the gate is still in Peter's hand.
Seth makes it back to the frat house, where everyone is sleeping or passed out. The only students he sees are a car full of revelers, but they ignore his pleas to stop. At the police station, nobody pays attention to him.
The officers are irritated by all the commotion caused by Alpha Sigma Rho and have little time for another student from the fraternity. When Seth tells one of the cops that kids are getting murdered, he's told they've been getting away with murder all night.
With no hope for assistance, Seth loads a shotgun and steals it. He climbs out a window and heads back to the house. On the way, he robs a car from someone. When the guy tells him he's going to call the cops, Seth says they can find him at Garth Manor.
The other two are waiting for him. Unbeknownst to them, there's a secret door on the floor and Andrew has made his way into the room.
Marti turns around just in time and screams. Jeff takes the pitchfork and plunges it into the creature. When they lift up the rug, there's no one there. It escaped through the opening in the floor to the basement. "He's still alive and he's down there someplace," Jeff says. He also says he's going after him to finish the job and tells Marti that Peter is dead. The girl doesn't want to stay behind and they both go down the stairs.
The cobweb filled basement is a labyrinth of cave-like tunnels and hidden rooms. They come across Denise's body, along with two other mummified corpses, seated around a table. There are rats crawling all over the place. Andrew appears and chases them through a tunnel. Jeff and Marti find a staircase which lead to an exit.
The Garth son is on their tail and he tries to grab Jeff, who strikes him with the pitchfork. The two pledges make it outside just in time, but Jeff's leg is injured. They go back into the house (yet again) and hole up in one of the rooms.
Seth arrives at the gate and sees someone running past it. One of the bars on the gate is broken and he walks through it and onto the grounds. The creature attacks him and tries to kill him. Seth manages to grab the shotgun and shoot it, making the killer fall back into a pond below. When he goes to check up on it, Andrew jumps up and Seth shoots him again. To make sure he's dead, Seth then pulls him out of the water.
He runs into the house and calls out for Marti and Jeff, saying that he killed him. From a balcony on the second floor, his friends watch in disbelief as something grabs him. Seth disappears and Marti and Jeff hear a shotgun blast. The weapon is rolled out onto the middle of the floor and Marti says she's going to get it.
She tries to see if Seth is still alive but gets no response. The creature jumps out at her and she runs back up the stairs. She and Jeff lock themselves in a room but the creature breaks through the door. Marti manages to climb out the window but Jeff isn't as lucky. The Garth boy lifts him up and tosses him out the window to the ground below.
Marti makes it to the roof and climbs down the ladder on the other side. She's nearly grabbed by the creature but she breaks free. On the ground, she sees Jeff's body - and then another body by the pond. Confused, she rushes back towards the house but the killer comes out after her. It's clear now there are two Garth sons that were living in the mansion.
Frantically, she runs through the garden, where she finds Peter's corpse. She notices the key to the gate in his hand and tries to take it. The rigor mortis is a problem, but she finally manages to get it.
Marti gets to the gate and escapes to the other side. She relocks it and tries to drive off in the car that Seth stole. The engine doesn't start so she quickly hotwires it. But she doesn't get far. She crashes into the gate, knocking it over. After stalling, she gets the vehicle going again.
The Garth son is on top of the car and he smashes the windshield. He tries to get Marti and she finally figures out what to do. She sees the broken gate and steps on the gas. She drives quickly towards it and impales the creature on the gate's spikes.
Exhausted from her ordeal, Marti spends the rest of the night in the car. She steps out at dawn and has to walk by the corpse, which has been on top of the vehicle the entire time. Hell night is over and Marti walks away, crying and tired...yet victorious.
Hell Night is a fun ride, with Linda Blair leading the way. She's wonderfully vulnerable as Marti and the rest of the cast is just as attractive and ethusiastic.
Darkly shot, with the grounds of Garth Manor providing sufficient fodder for a creepy atmosphere, it's all supported by an exciting plotline. The film nicely blends elements of the William Castle gimmicky haunted house flick, with the slasher style of the early 80s. It's a blast all the way.
Cinematographer Mac Ahlberg shot the film in an unusually elegant style. It was the beginning of a prolific career for him in the genre. He would go on to do wonderful work on everything from The Seduction to Re-Animator and Dolls. (The latter two were part of a successful collaboration with director Stuart Gordon.)
This was the feature film high point for director Tom DeSimone, who found himself making exploitation movies such as The Concrete Jungle and Reform School Girls. He would eventually prosper in television, where he helmed shows including Pensacola: Wings of Gold and Freddy's Nightmares.
Hell Night is yet another reason to ask the question why we didn't see the affable, believable Linda Blair more often throughout the years since. Who knows? Surely she's the gem in this crown, hooting, hollering, running from the Garth monster.