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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

Hell Night  (1981)

Reviewed for by Dustin Putman

The Film
3 Stars
(Release Date: January 2, 2017) – The increasingly violent and exploitative slasher cycle was in full force when "Hell Night" reached theaters in August 1981. While the film closely adhered to the subgenre's tried-and-true formula, dropping young adults into an isolated setting and pitting them against a homicidal maniac, director Tom DeSimone, writer Randolph Feldman, and producer Irwin Yablans (coming off the success of 1978's slasher watermark "Halloween") sought to give the proceedings a classier sheen of welcome personality and suggestion. Headlined by a more-winning-than-ever Linda Blair (by this point seven years removed from receiving a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for 1973's "The Exorcist"), "Hell Night" effectively builds tension from its familiar premise and cares about its characters even as it bumps them off. This is easily one of the stronger entries of its era.

It's Hell Night at Alpha Sigma Rho, and four pledges—sensible Marti (Linda Blair), nice guy Jeff (Peter Barton), fun-loving Seth (Vincent Van Patten), and Quaalude-popping Denise (Suki Goodwin)—have just one test to pass in order to be accepted into their respective fraternity and sister sorority: spend the night locked within the gates of Garth Manor. The site of a family murder-suicide from years' past, legend has it a deformed surviving son still roams the grounds, ready to pick off anyone who dares step foot on the property. Before the sun rises, the pledges—and a trio of members out to scare them—will discover just how real this frightful tale truly is.

Thick in atmosphere and funhouse-style thrills, "Hell Night" makes a generally unoriginal setup feel fresh. The snappy script shows interest in what its characters have to say, building them and their relationships—like the cursorily romantic one between Marti and Jeff—enough that the viewer genuinely likes them. It doesn't take long for mortal danger to reveal itself, and as the body count rises so does the expertly crafted suspense. Adroitly using all corners of the frame—in one terrific scene, the villain gradually reveals himself in a thoroughly unexpected way—and the sumptuously gothic exterior of Garth Manor (really the Kimberly Crest House and Gardens, located in Redlands, CA) to its fullest, "Hell Night" displays a keen understanding that every detail can positively contribute to a horror picture's affecting outcome.

Linda Blair brings intelligence and strength-under-pressure to "final girl" Marti, culminating in an exciting climactic showdown and a appreciable final beat of emotional consequence and empowerment. It's moments like this that lift the film above the norm. "Hell Night" may not break new ground the way 1974's "Black Christmas" and the aforementioned "Halloween" did before it, but it does share, and succeed, at the same mission statement: to earn every one of its legitimate jolts and scares while treating audiences with the respect they deserve.

Read Dustin's Theatrical Review

Blu-ray Picture/Sound

"Hell Night" has traveled a troubled road on its way to the Blu-ray format, first due to rights issues and then in regard to its transfer. Using the best 35mm print of the film the company could find, Scream Factory has made a new 4K transfer that really sheds light (and plenty of moody shadows) on the beauty of its cinematography and overall classy visual style. This is certainly as good as the picture has looked on home video; no more do the nighttime scenes cloak the action in indecipherable blackness, but provide an organic depth to the image and a newfound atmosphere to its frightful goings-on in and around Garth Manor. The film was naturally shot softly so do not expect the razor-sharpness of a movie made in 2018. Still, surprising details emerge throughout, from background textures on red bricks, timeworn walls, and in the rocky underground maze of the Garths' lair, to perspiration, fine lines and blemishes on the characters' faces. In addition, grain is consistent and pleasing, and black levels are solid even in rare moments of crush. Age-related print damage is apparent throughout in the form of speckling, dirt, and an occasional faint vertical line which pops up from time to time, but these are the results of the previous owners not taking care of the print. Also worth noting are standard-def inserts interspersed here and there due to missing footage on the 35mm print; fortunately, they are primarily reserved for scene transitions and prove largely unobtrusive thanks to a terrific color timing job which helps it to better blend with the HD footage. It is obvious Scream Factory has done everything possible to make the best of challenging circumstances. I suspect viewers will be immensely happy with the results. On the audio front, the English Mono 2.0 DTS-HD MA offered is about what one would expect from a cleaned-up, mid-level slasher from 1981. It doesn't have the sonic power or immersion of a new film and there may be a faint crackle heard from time to time, but otherwise this is a strong showing. Dialogue is clean and clear, and the score is well-defined within the mix.

Blu-ray Features
  • Audio Commentary with Actress Linda Blair, Director Tom De Simone and Producers Irwin Yablans and Bruce Cohn Curtis
  • NEW "Linda Blair: The Beauty of Horror" Featurette (35:21, HD)
  • NEW "Hell Nights With Tom De Simone" Featurette (26:57, HD)
  • NEW "Peter Barton: Facing Fear" Featurette (20:50, HD)
  • NEW "Producing Hell with Bruce Cohn Curtis" Featurette (14:10, HD)
  • NEW "Writing Hell with Screenwriter Randy Feldman" Featurette (25:51, HD)
  • NEW "Vincent Van Patten and Suki Goodwin In Conversation" Featurette (26:53, HD)
  • NEW "Kevin Brophy and Jenny Neumann In Conversation" Featurette (23:01, HD)
  • NEW "Gothic Design in Hell Night with Art Director Steven G. Legler" Featurette (22:50, HD)
  • NEW "Anatomy of the Death Scenes" Featurette (21:43, HD)
  • NEW "On Location at Kimberly Crest" Featurette (6:48, HD)
  • Theatrical Trailer (2:56, HD)
  • TV Spots (1:05, SD)
  • Radio Spot (0:32, HD)
  • Photo Gallery (8:32, HD)
Bottom Line
"Hell Night" fans, take note: every dream you could ever possibly have dreamt has been fulfilled when it comes to a features-packed Collector's Edition Blu-ray release of this well-loved early-'80s suspense-slasher! In prepping this long-awaited title for its high-definition premiere, Scream Factory knew what a passionate following it had built over the decades. To give it anything less than the deluxe treatment would have been a disappointment. From the film's new 4K transfer to over four hours of bonus content, Scream Factory has gifted it—and us—with the lavish presentation it deserves. This wildly impressive disc comes highly recommended to everyone, and is a MUST-OWN for horror fans.

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© 2018 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

[Blu-ray Review] Cursed Films (2020)

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