Hell Night came out in 1981, perhaps the peak year for the slasher movie.  In many respects, it attempted to raise the level of class in this critically detested subgenre of horror: the potential victims were college kids instead of high schoolers, bloodshed was downplayed in favor of suspense and the usual, anonymous suburban or rural settings were replaced with a mansion that offered an unexpected and welcome gothic atmosphere.  What resulted was a middling success… but it was interesting enough to become a cult item with slasher fans.

The film begins with a dual fraternity/sorority initiation presided over by unctuous frat bro Peter (Kevin Brophy).  On the female side, the initiates are party girl Denise (Suki Goodwin) and working class Marty (Linda Blair).  On the male side, there are rich kid Jeff (Peter Barton) and party-hearty surfer Seth (Vincent Van Patten).  Their initiation task requires them to spend a night in Garth Manor, a shuttered mansion that was once the site of a family’s shocking murder/suicide.  Peter and his co-horts intend to scare the initiates with noises and funhouse tricks but the audience quickly learns that a malevolent force remains in the house… and soon both the audience and the Greek system cadets are put through the stalk & slash paces.

There’s a lot that works in Hell Night: the well-chosen leads are more likeable than the usual slasher movie cannon fodder, the film invests more time in getting the audience interested in the characters and the mansion location really gives the film an old-fashioned horror atmosphere, thanks in part to slick, glossy lensing by the legendary Mac Ahlberg.

However, there are also some issues with Hell Night that hold it back from classic status.  The script by future Tango & Cash screenwriter Randolph Feldman has some issues that could’ve been solved by a few rewrites: despite a clever plot setup, the film suffers from a slow midsection that allows the story to drag and neither the dialogue or characterizations are as clever as they would liked to be.  There’s also a plot issue involving one character’s attempts to get help that really cripples the film’s plausibility – and the obvious final girl, Marty, is allowed to be too wimpy too often, an element that really dates the film for female horror fans.

On the production side, director Tom DeSimone achieves and sustains a strong atmosphere with Ahlberg’s help and shows a nice grasp of staging shocks.  Unfortunately, his pacing gets a little too slack when he attempts to build slow-burn suspense: at 104 minutes, the film is at least 14 minutes too long for such a simple plot and small number of characters.

However, Hell Night still rates as a fun programmer because it finishes as skillfully as it begins: the final twenty minutes offer an effectively deployed plot twist and some well-staged setpieces, including an energetic finale that makes effective use of one the mansion’s key visual attributes.  Combine that with the strong setup and the film’s likeable elements and Hell Night ultimately adds up to a mid-tier slasher that offers nostalgic fun for the subgenre’s devoted fans.

DVD/Blu-Ray Info: fans can retire their old Anchor Bay DVD of this title because Scream Factory has produced a spiffy new blu-ray/DVD combo for the film’s following.  The transfer was struck from the best remaining print of the film, with a few standard-def inserts for some brief missing bits (these appear to be mostly around reel changes).  Even with those caveats considered, the results improve dramatically on the old DVD.  Better yet, there are scads of new bonus features, including interviews with the director, most of the leading cast and several key crew members plus commentaries, trailers, etc.  Slasher fans will want to add it to their high-def collection.