Hazing is now considered a taboo aspect of college fraternity and sorority life. But in 1981 it was still very much alive and well on campuses around the country. This sets the stage for the cult slasher film Hell Night from director Tom DiSimone and writer Randy Feldman.
Peter (Kevin Brophy) is the head of the Alpha Sigma Rho fraternity. Every year during their annual costume party the fraternity initiates new pledges. Since taking over the organization, Peter has carried on the tradition of making pledges deal with more than just simple abject humiliation and excessive drinking. He combines the annual costume ball with the anniversary of a gruesome murder suicide at the nearby Garth Mansion, where 12 years earlier eccentric millionaire Ramon Garth murdered his wife and four deformed children.
Now Alpha Sigma Rho requires a select group of pledges (only four in the film and no fraternity could thrive with just four pledges) to spend the night in the creepy, abandoned mansion. As a procession leads the pledges to the estate, Peter tells the tale of the murders and the legend that one of the Garth children survived and still haunts the manor.
Marti Gaines (Linda Blair), Jeff Reed (Peter Barton), Seth (Vincent Van Patten) and Denise (Suki Goodwin) are the pledges required to stay in the mansion until dawn if they wish to join the organization. (Oh and yeah, they don’t really explain why two women are joining a fraternity, but roll with it.) Peter makes a show of blasting the lock holding the estate’s gated entrance closed with a pistol. Then, the lock busted, he allows them entry. He warns that the walls are unclimbable and that the only way out will be to shoot the lock off the high, barbed gate themselves as he hands the pistol to Jeff.
The four pledges quickly pair up into typical slasher movie archetype couples. Marti and Jeff are the good girl and the nice guy and Seth and Denise are the stoner dude and the party girl. They enter the mansion and Seth and Denise set off to find a bedroom where they plan to drink and copulate the night away. Meanwhile Jeff and Marti build a fire in the mansion’s study and get to know one another in a less carnal way.
Of course, Peter isn’t done with them. The fraternity president and his two helpers, May (Jenny Neumann) and Scott (Jimmy Sturtevant) have the house wired with gags to scare the pledges. As the trio move around the grounds of the manor, Peter cautions his cronies to beware of the pitfalls around the estate. The whole area is apparently honeycombed with hidden underground passages and he doesn’t want them fall in.
Peter’s group start to terrorize the pledges, using various tricks including hidden speakers emitting screams, ghost projectors and self-slamming doors, to a literal skeleton in the closet. Unfortunately for the erstwhile frighteners, Jeff quickly figures out most of the tricks Peter tries on them and they begin to ignore the pranks.
Frustrated that he’s not scaring the pledges, Peter sends May to distract them while he sends Scott to the roof to rig a monster dummy to drop outside one of the windows as a big scare. May doesn’t get very far before a pair of grizzled hands reach out of the ground and drag the girl screaming into the underground tunnels. In true slasher film style, she’s quickly beheaded by a deformed giant of a man. Apparently one of Garth’s sons did survive and though the fraternity has apparently been using the house to scare pledges for years, this year the hidden resident decided to take exception.
Shortly after killing May, the Garth family killer sets his sights on the other intruders. He finds Scott on the roof of the building and breaks his neck. Then Scott’s body is hung from the roof in lieu of the fake body he’d been preparing.
Peter, annoyed that his friends aren’t helping anymore, goes looking for them only to find Scott’s dangling corpse. Peter panics and tries to escape, running to the gate where he pulls out his keys and tries to open the lock. The Garth killer has other plans though and chases the fraternity president through the grounds before killing him with a scythe to the chest.
Now only the four pledges inside the manor are left and little do they know there is a real killer stalking them all.
Hell Night is a fairly standard 80s slasher flick. That said, while the film doesn’t deliver any huge surprises, it is still a fun one to watch. Director DiSimone edged away from the hard, graphic gore popular in similar films of the day and went more for building tension to deliver the scares. He also attempted to add a more gothic feel to the film by having the pledges start at a costume party so pledges are all dressed in period wear that matches the candlelit abandoned mansion where the action happens.
There is also a nod to more classic horror films of the 50s when Van Patton’s character Seth escapes and runs to the police for help only to be turned away as another annoying kid from the college. The cops never believe the kids in these films, but that’s OK, in true do it yourself style he steals a shotgun from the cops and heads back to help his friends. But other than that, Hell Night doesn’t break any new ground in a genre that was already filled with tropes by the film’s 1981 release. Still, there is something charming about the movie. All the actors are talented and the production value, while not expensive, makes up for its lack of budget with excellent use of interesting, and creepy, locations. So if you want a good, if less well-known, slasher flick, check out Linda Blair and Peter Barton in Hell Night. But be warned: pledging for Alpha Sigma Rho can be murder!