Monday, February 13, 2012

Final Girl Film Club: Hell Night

Before I get to the glory that is Hell Night, I'd like to take a moment to thank our hostess, the talented Ms. Stacie Ponder, not only for giving us lesser bloggers a bit of free publicity, but also for this kick-ass stick figure rendering of Chromeskull stabbing Lena Headey in the head:

I see you are jealous, as well you should be. This is the custom artwork drawn directly on the back cover of my deluxe edition of Stacie's Slashers 101 mini-comic. The good news is, you don't have to spend the remainder of your days wallowing in envy--you can totally order your own over at Final Girl. I suggest you take a moment and do that right now. I can wait...

Done? Which slasher did you order? Dr. Decker from Nightbreed? Gahh! Why didn't I think of that? Now I'm freakin' jealous.

Anyhow, on with the review!

 Hell Night (1981, dir. Tom DiSimone)

The Verdict: Hell Night is a fun, but uneven, foray into cheesy 80s horror that works best when it (however lamely) attempts humor rather than horror.

Hell Night pours on the awesome so thick that within the first five minutes you will be convinced that it is the end-all be-all of 80s horror. Unfortunately, the film cannot keep this pace up for long. In fact, the film is at its best before any of the horror elements come into play. The movie begins with one of those mythical, end-of-the-world-blowout, 20-keg frat parties that you could only believe were real back in the 80s. Girls flash their cleavage while bringing drinks and smokes to drunken jocks who puke on trophy cases and throw kegs through the picture windows. Motion pictures exist precisely because parties like this do not.

Awesomely overblown period setting, check. But what about the characters? We've got Surfer Dude who comes dressed as Robin Hood and wise-cracks his way through the party while ogling Party Girl, who is dressed as a flapper and dancing provocatively, and who is perpetually carrying a small pharmacy somewhere on her person, despite the smallness of her outfit. There's also Frat President, who is a pig, but a charming, affable pig who gets points simply for the time, effort, and obvious passion he puts into scaring pledges shitless on the big night. Next there's Sensitive Guy, who is the more serious-minded type. You know, the guy who is in a frat but isn't really a "frat guy." Sensitive Guy is clearly set up to be the love interest for our Final Girl, Linda Blair.

Ah Linda Blair, I finally understand my friend Shannon's obsession with you. When we meet Linda's character, she is observing the party in a knowing, above-it-all manner that shows she's the smartest, most confident, flat-out coolest girl in the room. Her baby-fat cherubic face is the perfect counterpoint to her sultry baritone voice and wise-beyond-her-years demeanor... can you tell I was crushing on her something fierce?  The funny thing about Linda Blair is this movie is that in the beginning, she doesn't quite fit in with the rest of the cast. She's just a little bit too good as an actress, and she's clearly slumming. In the early scenes, Hell Night shows you tantalizing glimpses of the actress Linda Blair might have become had her career not been derailed by drug convictions (how quaint it seems that in the 80s a drug problem could turn public sentiment against an actor). Alas, as the film goes on, her performance deteriorates, mostly because the filmmakers don't give her anything compelling to do or even remain true to the character they've set up, More on that later.

Hell Night's greatest strength is its humor, although I was never quite sure if it was legitimitely funny, or so bad that it was funny. If you're being generous, you might consider the script a clever send-up of the frat-boy mentality. Or you could argue that the filmmakers possess a frat-boy mentality and any laughter is at their expense. Ultimately though, it doesn't matter. With it or at it, I laughed a lot.

Take for example, this bit of dialogue:

Lackey Nerd: "What a twat. We should have left her behind."
Frat Prez: "What for? Her behind's her best part. We should have keep her behind and left the rest of her."

Tell me, if you can, whether or not this is genuinely funny, or so lame it's hilarious? I'd say it's a bit of both. Imagine this joke as delivered by me and Jack Nicholson:

It could totally work, but the ham-fisted set-up and delivery take it over the edge into lamedom. The cumulative effect, however, is a joke that works on multiple levels, and is perfctly suited to the aesthetic of Hell Night.

Where Hell Night falters is whenever it attempts to build tension. When the pledges finally get locked in the murder/suicide house, the audience gets all these agonizingly slow scenes where people are creeping carefully along corridors, and you can tell by the way the shots are framed that nothing is going to happen. Rather than perched on the edge of your seat, you're sitting back waiting for the scene to end so you can get to the kills.

Speaking of which, the kills are pretty damned cool in that low-budget, infinitely inventive kind of way. At one point, a mongoloid twists Lackey Nerd's head around backwards. Within seconds, you realize the inherent cheapnesss of the effect. All they did was begin the head twist, cut, put the Lackey Nerd's jacket on backwards, then continue the twist. Such a simple effect, but in the seconds it takes to realize how it was done, you've already gasped and cringed at the brutality you thought you saw.

Alright, here's my biggest gripe of the movie. When we're introduced to Linda Blair's character, she comes off as this super-cool above-it-all outsider girl who isn't quite sold on the sorority life, yet is gaming the system for its potential benefits. During her conversation with Sensitive Guy, she shows herself to be highly intelligent, independent, and possessed of those masculine traits (being an auto-mechanic) that make her every guy's dream girl. I was sold. My firm expectation was that she would be one of the most kick-ass final girls of all time.

And then...

She spends the rest of the goddamned movie being a goddamned damsel in goddamn distress. I mean, goddamn! Okay, perhaps that's an exaggeration. She has her moments, particularly near the end of the film, but for the most part she gets frightened, yells for help, seeks comfort from Sensitive Guy, rinse, repeat. The only time she shows a spark of her potential inner bad-ass is when Surfer Dude's shotgun clatters to the floor with the Dude himself nowhere in sight. Sensitive Guy cowers near the staircase while Linda insists she's going to get that gun. Coincidentally, this is the only scene in the film that even hints at tension, and gave me a pretty good jump scare (belated spolier alert).

I can't end this review without a huge shout-out to the best thing about Hell Night, Linda Blair included: Surfer Dude. This man deserves a standing ovation for perfectly capturing the gleeful cheese that Hell Night represents (go ahead, stand up and applaud, I'll wait). Every moment you watch him on the screen is a moment that God subtracts from the span of your days. Every lame joke that spews forth from his pseudo-mustachioed lips utterly kills. And it's not that he's partiularly good, it's just that his enthusiasm is infectious. When he excitedly describes what it's like to surf to Meg, well, a less-luminous being would have ground the movie to a halt, but between he and Meg (her naughty interludes are half the fun), the screen lights up. Am I over-selling this? Anyway, he's really fun to watch, especially when they give him lines like, "The world's gone crazy!" in earnest.

So, for all it's faults, I've got to give Hell Night 2 enthusiastic thumbs up, with one caveat: This is a film best enjoyed with a roomful of rowdy, drunken friends to carry you through the slow parts.


  1. Great review. I also ordered the special edition of Stacie Ponder's Slashers 101. I got me a drawing of the attack on the folks on the raft from The Burning. It's rad.

  2. You and Jack definitely do the "left her behind" gag better than the Hell Night cast.

    Great review, as usual, Marvin.

  3. I gotta watch this. Always down with 80's horror. It's the best kind. Just watched Linda Blair in Rollerboogie not to long ago. She is awesome, and damn cute.

  4. Dave, Thanks. Also, post that shit. I probably won't appreciate it as much as I should since I haven't seen The Burning (-500 pts. street cred).

    BIQ, Thanks also. It's mostly Jack thought. I could have been replaced with Hello Kitty. I that case I would have left in the "What a twat!" part. Hello Kitty's like that.

    BROWN!, You'd dig it the most. Funny thing about the Linda Blair pic I used. I stole it from someone's site where they were using it to illustrate how hideous she was. I think they need to rethink their sexual orientation.


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