Hell Night (1981) Retrospective

SUMMARY

During a college costume party, Peter prepares to initiate four new pledges into Alpha Sigma Rho. The four consist of Jeff, a boy from an opulent upbringing, Marti, an intelligent girl from a poor background, Denise, a promiscuous, heavy drinking party-girl, and Seth, a stoner and surfer from California. The group are forced to spend the night in Garth Manor, an abandoned mansion once owned by a man named Ramon Garth, who murdered his wife and three deformed children; following the murders, Garth hung himself. While Garth had a fourth child, Andrew, his body was never found and legend states that Andrew still lurks within the mansion.

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Peter and the rest of the students drive the four pledges up the mansion, leaving them alone at the gates. Seth and Denise leave Marti and Jeff alone to go have sex. The two discuss their contrasting backgrounds, before the windows in the parlor suddenly burst open and an apparition frightens Marti. In reality, Peter, along with two other students: May and Scott, have set up scares all over the mansion to frighten the pledges. While walking around the side of the house, May is pulled down a hole, where she is murdered by an unseen assailant, who violently decapitates her. Following this, Scott is also murdered by the same figure on the roof. Peter attempts to prank Denise, but she is oblivious to his efforts. He goes to search for Scott, only to discover his body strung up on the roof. He flees and attempts to escape through the fence with his key, only to be attacked by an unknown assailant. He runs into a nearby hedge maze where he and the audience realize there are two assailants. Unable to find his way out, one of them murders him with a scythe.

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In the house, the four pledges quickly discover the tricks and pranks set up around the mansion for them. Seth and Denise return to the bedroom to have sex and consume drugs; Seth leaves Denise alone to use the restroom, only to return and discover May’s severed head under the sheets. Panicked, Seth jumps the mansion gates to alert the police. Marti and Jeff also discover Scott’s body, before Marti locks herself in one of the bedrooms, while Jeff goes to investigate a light in the hedge maze. He enters the maze, where he finds Peter’s remains. He flees back to the house to inform Marti of the murder, and the pair theorize that Andrew Garth could be behind the murders.

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While their backs are turned, a large figure begins to emerge from the floor behind them. Armed with a pitchfork, Jeff wounds the assailant, who seemingly disappears. They remove the rug, only to discover a trap door through which the assailant has fled. The couple descends into the tunnels below, in which they discover Denise’s corpse, along with the preserved remains of Garth’s family members. Suddenly, a large and disfigured man appears and pursues them. Jeff attempts to subdue the man, who knocks him down a flight of steps, badly injuring him. Another killer appears, surprising the couple. The Garth brothers corner Marti and Jeff, but they are able to escape through a concealed door, fleeing back to the bedroom.

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Seth finally arrives at the local police station, begging for help. The police do not take his claims seriously, believing him to be drunk, and ask him to leave. Seth pretends to leave the police station, only to take a shotgun and some bullets, before escaping through a window. He hijacks a vehicle from a civilian, informing him that he is going to Garth Manor. Seth arrives back at the mansion, where he is ambushed by one of the Garth brothers; the two struggle, before Seth shoots and kills the man. Alerted by the noise, Jeff and Marti meet him in the entryway of the mansion, where the other killer appears and attacks Seth, dragging him into an unlit corner of the room. Marti and Jeff are frightened by gunfire and Marti attempts to recover the shotgun. Andrew Garth emerges from the darkness and pursues Marti and Jeff through the house and back to the bedroom, where they barricade the door. Jeff urges Marti to escape out a window. Before he can follow suit, Andrew breaks through the door and hurls him to the ground below, killing him.

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A frightened Marti enters the hedge maze, where she finds Peter’s corpse. She pries the keys from his fingers, before escaping. She is able to get through the gates using the keys, before attempting to escape in Seth’s stolen vehicle. She successfully hot-wires the vehicle, but is ambushed by Andrew who jumps on the roof of the vehicle. He smashes the windshield and a struggle ensues, resulting in one of the spiked gates being knocked over. Marti sees the gate and accelerates, impaling and killing Andrew. Marti loses consciousness. Waking in the morning as the sun rises over the mansion, Marti emerges from the car with Andrew still impaled, and walks away.

Irwin Yablans Bruce Cohn Curtis
Irwin Yablans Bruce Cohn Curtis

DEVELOPMENT/PRE-PRODUCTION/PRINCIPAL PHOTOGRAPHY

Compass International Pictures was an independent American film production and distribution company founded by producers Irwin Yablans and Joseph Wolf in 1977, best known for their involvement in the production of numerous horror films between 1977 and 1981. Their first, and most notable film release was Halloween in 1978 with Falcon Films. The company closed down in 1981, before re-emerging four years later under the name Trancas International Films as an affiliate of Universal Studios.

Chuck Russell, who would later direct A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987), served as executive producer on the film. During the production, producer Bruce Cohn Curtis urged the filmmakers to implement an extended chase sequence for Linda Blair’s character after seeing Jamie Lee Curtis’s chase sequence in Terror Train (1980); this was the basis of the chase sequence that takes place on the mansion rooftop.

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Hell Night was filmed in a little over four weeks in the late fall-early winter of 1980. It was originally budgeted at approximately $1 million but the grueling shoot of six-day weeks which went through Thanksgiving, Christmas and even New Year’s ended up going nearly $400,000 over. DeSimone remembers he and Blair spending Thanksgiving on the set, sitting in steel folding chairs and eating turkey off of paper plates. The first two weeks at Redlands, which were night shoots, were especially difficult. The entire crew was housed at a local Howard Johnson. Although they were supposed to sleep during the day to be ready for their 4 P.M. to 6 A.M. shoot, anybody who has ever worked nights on a film knows how physically draining this can be. You’re exhausted during production but when the work day is finally over early in the morning it’s nearly impossible to get a good night’s sleep. To make matters worse, DeSimone’s script was stolen during the first few days of shooting. Gone were his copious script notes detailing specific camera angles and cast direction. It was months of hard work down the drain. So each day, instead of getting some well deserved sleep, DeSimone was forced to return to his room to try and remember what he had previously written. There were also the technical difficulties inherent in night shooting. In keeping with the plot of Hell Night, which makes a point to emphasis that Garth Manor has no electricity, only candlelight and the characters’ flashlights provide any illumination. Cinematographer Mac Ahlberg, whose diverse career includes Chained Heat (1983), Striking Distance (1993), The Brady Bunch Movie (1995) as well as various episodes of The Wonder Years (1988–93), was forced to use a special lens suited for low-light situations. Unfortunately, this lens made the film more susceptible to sunspots which are apparent in a few of the scenes.

DeSimone does express some frustration that Hell Night’s first murder a graphic and elaborately constructed decapitation was nixed by the producers before it even got to the censors. In the current version of the film, May (Jenny Neumann) has her head lopped off while waiting to scare the pledges. Almost immediately after the blade makes contact with her neck, there is a cut to another scene. DeSimone originally wanted the camera to linger on her head, held up by the killer, while her body collapses to the floor. Her eyes and mouth would remain open, as her brain would not yet have processed the shock of having its head separated from its body. The effect which was extremely painful for Neumann, who was required to insert her neck through a faux wall at an unnatural angle worked all too well. It was gruesome, shocking-and cut from the final print.

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In comparison to its contemporaries, Hell Night is rather tame. Although DeSimone had no desire to make a film which relied more heavily on gore than thrills, he was also well aware that the MPAA was getting tougher and that the explicit murders which were shown in earlier slasher films had no chance of making it to the screen in Hell Night:

We knew we were making a slasher film, however, we wanted to get away mostly from the gore and try to scare them with scares, rather than repulse them with guts. A lot of our murders, although they’re kind of horrific, you don’t really see that much. There isn’t that much bloodletting in our picture. – DeSimone

 Hell Night’s only sex scene, which was shot on New Year’s Eve when everybody was preoccupied with the holiday, was a point of contention for both DeSimone and Vincent Van Patten, the actor who plays Seth, a good looking, easygoing surfer. Apparently, Van Patten wasn’t easygoing enough. He abruptly announced that he wouldn’t do a sex scene with Suki Goodwin, the Lolitaish Euroslut who, in the film’s longest running joke, keeps referring to Van Patten as Wes, not Seth. Goodwin was willing to do the scene topless, but Van Patten, who was worried about upholding his family’s reputation.

 

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BEHIND THE SCENES/INTERVIEWS

Interview with Director Tom DeSimone

First off you started working in pornography, were you hoping to work in legit films?

DeSimone: That was always my goal, even as a child. I started making 8mm films when I was ten and continued on all through high school. Mostly using friends, family and table-top models for my projects. It was always my intention, if I would be so lucky, to go to California and work in movies.

What was your first mainstream one you worked on?

DeSimone: First real mainstream movie was ‘CHATTERBOX’. I had an old story outline for an X-rated comedy called ‘LIPS’. A producer saw it, liked it and we joined forces and it became ‘CHATTERBOX’. American International did the theatrical releases

Tom DeSimoneWhat inspired you to direct ‘Hell Night’?

DeSimone: The same producer who did ‘CHATTERBOX’, Bruce Curtis, was a friend of Linda Blair. They worked together on ‘BORN INNOCENT’, a TV movie she did for him about girls in the lock up. He came across the script for ‘HELL NIGHT’, talked her into doing it and then contacted me. We always said we wanted to work together again after ‘Chatterbox’.

Was there any familiar faces that came to audition but weren’t right for the parts?

DeSimone: None that I can remember. We had Linda locked in and agents sent out other players. Bruce, the producer, wanted to work with Vince Van Patten so he called him in. Peter Barton was suggested by his agent and we read him and liked him as well. All the others were auditioned and got their parts based on their ability.

What was your reaction when Linda Blair auditioned since she was a big name in horror films back then?

DeSimone: There was NO audition for Linda. She came with the deal. If she wasn’t in it, there wouldn’t have been a film.

Were you a fan of any of her films?

DeSimone: Of course, I loved the ‘EXORCIST’.

What was she like to work with?

DeSimone: She was very professional, fun to be around and was always very generous to everyone. She threw a big Christmas party at her home since we were all required to work over the holidays.

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You also had some other people involved who worked in ‘Halloween II’. Were you a fan of Carpenters work and wanted this film to have a similar feeling to it?

DeSimone: I never saw any of the ‘Halloween’ series, believe it or not. The producer, IRWIN YABLANS, had produced the original ‘HALLOWEEN’ and he was one of the producers on ‘HELL NIGHT’.

Were you aware after all these years this flick became a cult classic?

DeSimone: It still surprises me.

What time of the year did you shoot the film and where?

DeSimone: We shot in November and December and all the night exteriors around the mansion were done in Redlands CA. It was a long tedious four weeks of cold, damp nights. Work was slow because of the weather and the actors were wearing fairly skimpy costumes and not well dressed for damp nights.

The interiors of the mansion were done somewhere else, in Pasadena in an old home we stripped bare and filled with cobwebs and candles. The tunnels under the house and the rooftop were sets on a soundstage in Hollywood at Raleigh studios. We ended up shooting four weeks in Redlands all night exteriors. Then two weeks in the house for all the mansion interiors and the final two weeks on the stage doing the tunnels, the roof and one bedroom where the monster comes up through the floor.

What was the experience like doing the whole film?

DeSimone: It was hard work. We had many problems with the weather, the location and during the first week of the shoot, some bystander stole my director’s script and all my directing notes, etc. were gone. I had to work each night at the hotel to try to redo all my notes and diagrams and charts and stuff. After that happened we closed the sets to all bystanders. No one was allowed to get near the working area after that. Then the town began to get annoyed with the commotion and the crowds that came each night and we were pretty much asked to get done and get out of there.

Do you have any memorable experiences you’d like to share with us?

DeSimone: In spite of all the tedium and sweat…every film is like a family and the hard times are balanced out by the good memories. I recall we were shooting over the holidays and on Thanksgiving night, we stopped shooting around midnight to break for meals and the producers had a big Thanksgiving dinner prepared with all the trimmings and some entertainment. I recall sitting across a long table out in the cold, eating off of paper plates and looking at Linda who was also enjoying the meal and we said to each other. “The glamour of Show business…if people only knew”

What was the toughest scene to shoot?

DeSimone: The scene where Jenny gets her head chopped off. It was supposed to play as follows: The monster was to grab her hair, pull her up against the wall, swing the blade and cut her head off…but instead of her head falling off, as in most horror films, I wanted the body to drop out of frame and see her head still in his hand, with her eyes open and her mouth screaming. We rigged a special wall where she could put her head through a hole and then we put a fake body up under it. We attached her neck to the dummy using mortician’s wax to look real and to make it easy to cut.

She had to lay on her stomach on a long board behind the wall with her head sticking out. But she had to hold her head up, through that hole, for a long time while we rigged the body and made the neck. She was very uncomfortable. Then we had to practice the blade swing to be sure her face wouldn’t get hit. It was a long, slow process and very painful for her. Finally we got it done perfectly and it played just great. I was a shocking scene. Unfortunately, when the censors saw it they said it was just too gruesome and it may have lost us the ratings… so we had to cut it. Now in the film, as soon as the blade hits her neck, the scene cuts away and you never see the body fall and her living head still screaming. It was a big disappointment to me.

I understand that Peter Barton was injured when he had a scene with his character Jeff Reed was thrown down a flight of stairs and in reality he was limping like his character. When this incident happened did you stop shooting for a few days and how did you cope with this issue?

DeSimone: Yes, Peter hurt his ankle on the long stone stairs he fell down during his struggle with the monster. He was able to work OK but we had to be careful on what he was expected to do each day after that.

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Before this film Peter wanted to retire from acting but Linda encouraged him to do this one which made him successful for future work like ‘Friday the 13th The Final Chapter’. Could you see this film helping him rise to a successful career in future work?

DeSimone: I thought Peter was very good and easy to work with. He was disappointed when he came on the film because he had just lost out on a big film with Zefferelli and was depressed over losing it. Linda and the producer convinced him to stay on and he did.

I also enjoyed the performance by Vincent Van Patten as Seth. His death scene was never shown on film. Did you ever shoot his death scene but was too graphic for its theatrical release and will we ever see a special edition of the film?

DeSimone: No, it was decided to kill him off camera, in the dark so that we wouldn’t know if there was another monster or not waiting at the bottom of the stairs when Linda goes for the gun. We wanted people to wonder who grabbed him and what actually happened. When Linda gets to the gun and the monster jumps out at her it’s one of the biggest screams in the film each time I watch it with an audience. We made the right choice I think.

Another great actor was Kevin Brophy as the head sorority of Alpha Sigma Rho named Peter Bennett. How did you enjoy working with him?

DeSimone: He was a lot of fun and we became great friends after the picture wrapped.

Have you ever thought of casting him in your future projects?

DeSimone: If I had one I might have. Sometimes even though an actor is good and you like them, they’re just not right for a part. He did work again for Bruce, the producer, on ‘THE SEDUCTION’

A lot of these films are coming back as sequels like ‘Sleepaway Camp’ and ‘My Bloody Valentine’ due to the fame they had. Will Hell Night ever see a sequel with another psychotic sibling from the Garth Manor that was never discovered to wreck havoc? This would be totally exciting if it is.

DeSimone: The producer is working on a sequel at present. Not sure when or if it will ever get done.

LOCATIONS

Except for the few scenes for which sets were built, Hell Night was shot in two locations. The exterior of Garth Manor was shot in Redlands, California. The owner of the mansion had just died and the town was in the process of turning his home into a museum. Since town officials refused to grant the crew entry into the mansion, they were forced to shoot the interiors in a Pasadena home which was inhabited at the time. The owners, however, allowed the crew to come in and redecorate the house. This was perfect for DeSimone, who had always envisioned a strong Gothic element, evidenced by his decision to combine the traditional Greek hell night with an old-fashioned costume party.

The film was shot on location at Kimberly Crest Mansion
The film was shot on location at Kimberly Crest Mansion

 

SPECIAL EFFECTS: Ken Horn Make Up Effects Artist

 That was definitely my most challenging film,” says Horn with a lot of effects. Originally the script had been written so that you would only see the hands of the killer, never his face. Then they changed their minds during the shooting, and the lady they had doing the makeup wasn’t prepared to do their monster. I was recommended for the job, and it was between me and one of the makeup effects labs. But they wanted us to come out to where they were Shooting and do a sort of test, doing a monster makeup straight out of the kit, and the lab wanted money up front, just to out there. I went out there and did the test for them, using the kung fu expert they’d hired-who turned out to be blond and not too-ugly-and got the job.

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I hired Tom Schwarz to help me out with what turned out to be a lot of work. We came up with the ghost that chases Linda Blair around the house, and the monster, Andrew, and we had about a week to fully design and build the appliances for Andrew’s family. At the same time we had to work with the director on some of the effects that they wanted.

For instance, they first scene you see with our work in it is a scene where a girl’s head is chopped off. They didn’t want to use fake heads for any of the effects the same production company had some trouble with that sort of thing on their previous film, Fade To Black, and you really have to have the time to build a first-rate head to get away with it. We got together with the set people, who built a platform that allowed her head to poke out of the wall of the set, and we built a false body, so that when they hit that neck, we’d release the body, which would fall from her neck, leaving the killer holding the head, as she opened her eyes and screamed. We did a similar thing for a scene where Vincent Van Patten finds a severed head on a bed-her head was actually put through a hole in the bed, and we attached a lake, chopped-off neck that we’d built.”

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Another of the unsettling scenes in the film was in the form of a tribute to The Exorcist, the film debut of Hell Night’s star, Linda Blair. “They wanted a character’s head to twist around completely,” says Horn, and they wanted to use the actor, rather than a dummy, so we made wax hands for him, and the costume people made a costume of him that would allow him to be turned around inside it, back to front and front to back. There were about six different shots and angles done on that, and the editing department helped out a lot-it looked pretty good.”

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At the same time as Horn collaborated with the other departments in planning the effects, he was devising the look of Andrew and his misanthropic family. “Andrew’s brother was played by a stuntman, and we just worked out of our makeup kit for his look. Before we came on they had done a scene where they’d show him in silhouette, using a wig that they’d bought, so we had to use that wig to match things up, along with the ugly face we’d given him, and a lace hairpiece for a beard.

“Everybody was pleased with the master we came up with, which consisted mainly of simple appliances-only larger one on the right side of his head, a smaller nose appliance, a lip appliance, false upper and lower teeth, and a wig cap. The rest was makeup right out of the kit.

CAST/CREW

Directed
Tom DeSimone

Produced
Irwin Yablans
Bruce Cohn Curtis

Written
Randy Feldman

Starring       
Linda Blair
Vincent Van Patten
Peter Barton

Music
Dan Wyman

Cinematography
Mac Ahlberg

Linda Blair as Marti Gaines
Peter Barton as Jeff Reed
Vincent Van Patten as Seth
Suki Goodwin as Denise Dunsmore
Kevin Brophy as Peter Bennett
Jimmy Sturtevant as Scott
Jenny Neumann as May West
CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
racksandrazors.com
Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, 1978-1986 Adam Rockoff
Femme Fatales v08 n08
Fangoria #27

 

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