Youtube Film Club: Hell Night (1981)

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The ISCFC’s tour through the early years of slasher movies continues with a perhaps slightly forgotten Linda Blair effort from 1981. Some less kind commentators have suggested the only reason for its existence was to raise more money for “Halloween 2”, this being produced by the same people, but we’ll give anything a fair crack of the whip here.

We start at a rather fun-looking party, where they bothered to hire enough extras to make it look busy. It’s “Hell Night”, which I believe is the final night of fraternity / sorority initiation ceremonies, so called because the police are bombarded with fake reports and the town goes to hell. Or something like that, please don’t expect too much from me, I’m English and approaching middle age. There are four pledges – Marti (Linda Blair), Seth (Vincent Van Patten), Peter (Kevin Brophy) and Denise (Suki Goodwin); all they need to do is spend the night in the spooky old Grant Mansion.

 

On the way, in a rather well-shot scene with a large group walking up a country road with flaming torches, we’re given the history of the Garth family, which ends after the usual twists and turns with the father killing the rest of the family as their sons were all deformed. One son allegedly survived, and is rumoured to live in the place still. So, there’s plenty of pranking going on at first, as the fraternity and sorority folks outside try and freak out the pledges. But then, refreshingly quickly, someone starts bumping off the people outside, unbeknownst to the people inside, and we’ve got ourselves a movie.

A decent, sensible group of heroes?

A decent, sensible group of heroes?

A quick word about the characters, as they make the movie. Denise, who’s English, has brought Quaaludes and Jack Daniels (and would have brought cocaine if she’d not been frisked on the way in), and is a lot of fun. This and an appearance in a TV show the following year represent her entire movie career, and it’s a damn shame as she was both beautiful and a totally decent actress, although perhaps too naturalistic in an era that didn’t like that. Peter and Marti are every dull final couple you’ve ever seen in a horror movie, but inhabit the characters well, actually making you care about them (Peter’s reaction when finding out Marti is a skilled mechanic isn’t to laugh or sneer, but to ask her to fix his car, which I liked). And then there’s Seth, the wonderful Seth.

 

Seth and Denise have some fun together, but when he leaves to use the bathroom, he comes back to find her gone and a different severed head in his bed. Now, right here is where the legend of Seth kicks in. Rather than sit around and freak out, or go looking for the rest of this woman, he gets the hell out of there and warns everyone else. Then, with the movie barely half over, he gets the hell out of the locked mansion (climbing over the fence) and goes to get help. When the police refuse, presumably sick of pranks, he takes a shotgun from the station, hijacks a car and goes back to the house to help out his friends. Good work Seth! But his awesomeness is not over – he fights off and kills the deformed murderer, and walking back into the house, shouts “score one for the good guys!” before… getting killed by a previously unknown second deformed brother! Seth takes no shit, is totally respectful towards Denise when she says she wants to talk rather than have sex (while still being a partly typical bro-type guy, and feels like a more fully formed, human character airlifted in from a different movie. We love Seth, and he’s in the top tier of awesome horror characters.

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A word about the police. Can you imagine the families of the dead kids not suing the pants off the cops for refusing to investigate someone coming in screaming about murder?  I would have that guy’s job in an instant, and this represents the second movie we’ve seen this week where the police refuse to come and help murder victims (along with “Final Exam”). What’s the worst that happens if you investigate and nothing’s there? Arrest the kids for wasting police time, maybe? How many kids actually run into a police station reporting murder, for a laugh? It can’t be that many.

 

Things are shot well, and the pace is very different to recent slashers we’ve watched. The cast realise there’s a monster after them really early on, compared to such snoozers (relatively speaking) as “Graduation Day”, where the discovery is barely in time for the end credits. It’s interesting to know who the killer is for most of the runtime, which makes it a little more like a monster movie and a little less like a slasher. This is fine by me. And congrats to them for making a little go a long way, with the sets, tunnels, and so on, which all look great. The gore, too, which is minimal but really effective, plus a couple of jump scares which are actually scary and not just annoying.

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It could have been ten minutes shorter, maybe, and it’s not the most original idea in the world, but with a decent sense of humour, some great characters, and fine sets, they made a solidly above-average movie, which is no given in the murky waters we’re currently paddling in. It seems weirdly less sexist than the swathe of slashers that emerged later in the decade too, with no T&A and the women giving as good as they got.

 

Rating: thumbs up

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Witchery (1988)

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Before we even get going with the excitement of this review (spoiler: it’s not exciting), I wanted to remind you that this is part of perhaps the oddest film series ever. The first two “La Casa” movies you might recognise, American movies rebranded for the Italian market, then 3-5 were made specifically to be part of the series, only renamed for the English-speaking world; 6-7 you also might recognise. “Fun” fact: part 7 is entirely unrelated to part 6, apart from sharing most of the crew; and part 6 was made before parts 3, 4 and 5. So, the “La Casa” series.

 

La Casa = Evil Dead (1981)
La Casa 2 = Evil Dead 2 (1987)
La Casa 3 = Ghosthouse (1988)
La Casa 4 = Witchery (1988)
La Casa 5 = Beyond Darkness (1990)
La Casa 6 = House 2: The Second Story (1987)
La Casa 7 = House 3: The Horror Show (1989)

 

Now, this movie wasn’t just known as “Witchery” or “La Casa 4”, to further add to any confusion. Round the world, it’s been known as “Ghosthouse 2”, “The Haunted House”, “Witchcraft: Return of the Exorcist”, “Evil Encounters” and simply “Witchcraft”; this is in addition to a ton of non-English titles, which when translated mean a whole heap of other things (“Démoniaque presence”, the French title, might be my favourite).

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There are many truisms in the movie industry – “all prequels are rubbish”, for one. But a very important one is “if David Hasselhoff is the best actor in your movie, you’re in trouble”. He’s acting opposite someone who appears to have been heavily dosed with sedatives, or maybe was a lump of clay that was fashioned into human form and animated with the barest breath of life; she is Leslie Cumming, and they are Gary and Leslie, a couple who are visiting an abandoned hotel on a small island off the coast of New England so she can study witchcraft (the abandoned hotel there being the location of many burnings back in the old days) and he can take photographs. I wanted to shake Leslie awake almost constantly, but she’s not helped by the direction – she seems to think vaguely reading a book while laid on a bed is how actual students do it, and she does that thing that happens in the movies but never in real life where she occasionally walks slowly down a corridor, doing a weirdly exaggerated glance into each open doorway. And she’s a virgin, which is important to the plot but came across to me more that she’d only been created yesterday and didn’t know what sex was.

 

But before we even meet this dynamic duo, we’ve got an old-timey witch flashback to get through. A witch is chased through a house, all the doors are locked, she jumps out of a window to her death…then Linda Blair wakes up! It was all a dream or a vision or whatever it’s called when it actually happened. Anyway, she’s the daughter of a rich-ish couple (mother – overacting and unpleasant; father – pervert) who are about to buy that very same hotel and turn it into a private club; also, she’s both pregnant and has a young son, a son who must have been related to one of the producers as he certainly wasn’t hired due to his ability to act.

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Wrapping up this “they made it through all the auditions? Really?” cast are Linda the architect (Catherine Hickland, occasional soap actress) and Jerry the real estate agent’s son (Rick Farnsworth, in his one and only acting role). Despite Linda having a boyfriend back in the city, or maybe because they filmed it out of sequence and no-one bothered to pay attention, she’s ready to hop into bed with Jerry from the first time she sees him.

 

You may find yourself becoming more annoyed as you watch this, as I was. When Gary and Leslie see the boat with everyone else on it approaching, Leslie chooses that moment to tell Gary that she was turned down when she asked for permission to go to there for research; so she just decided not to tell him and go anyway…you know, to read books in a derelict building and not do anything. The rest of the cast don’t mind them being there; lucky, because when the boat’s skipper is killed and the boat sent out to sea, they’re trapped together anyway.

 

Now, there’s a plot to this, but I’ll understand if learning about it makes you mad. Apparently, the witch from the beginning who, remember, has been dead for some time, needs all of the people there in order to do some sort of ritual involving the opening of three doors. One is related to greed, one to lust, and the other…no, I got nothing. She definitely specifies that she needs virgin blood for some part of it, although that’s not the third door. Let’s have a minor detour into virginity!

 

When it comes to stuff like this (magic and suchlike) it’s almost always female virginity that’s required – that the movie had a young male virgin and could have done away with Gary and Leslie completely is never even considered. The word’s history is tied in to ownership of women’s bodies, the giving away at marriage indicating ownership has been passed from father to husband; and, of course, there’s no medical test for it (hymens can break from riding a horse or a bike) so it’s really just men wanting to make sure they control women – plus, there were no penalties in olden times for men who had sex before marriage.

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None of which really matters when it comes to looking at “Witchery”, I suppose. The witch has a sparkly jewel on a pin, or something, which gives her powers, or hypnotises people, or something? Eventually, after a heck of a lot of nothing happening, she starts using the jewel and killing off the residents of the house to fulfil her evil plan – although her endgame remains frustratingly opaque. Her powers mean that she locks the door and turns off all the lights when the people on the mainland manage to rouse themselves from their torpor long enough to come and check on them; rather than landing the helicopter and checking the island out, they just circle it a few times and then head off home. This is because there’s a horrible storm which stops boats going there, although when we see the sea it’s millpond-calm and there’s no wind at all. Oh, and it flips from the darkest night to a sort of dusk to bright daylight in approximately 20 seconds at the end, too.

 

I’ll say one good thing for it – the gore effects, by and large, are pretty good. There’s not too many of them and there’s the odd stinker, but they’re decent. There’s also a pretty horrifying Satan-rape scene where Satan’s weird gooey mouth looks particularly gruesome. But then…you think of that, and remember that Leslie for absolutely no reason pronounces Satan “Sah-ton” and you get annoyed.

 

Okay, that’s enough of all that. You will 100% have more questions at the end of this movie than you did at the beginning. Where’s the dad of Linda’s kid(s)? What was the jewel pin thing all about? What was the witch’s endgame? Why, if the final scene (no spoilers) is real, did the witch do any of the stuff she did in the last ten minutes? Why didn’t Linda Blair get killed when she got the jewel used on her, and got sucked into the weird red vortex that kept showing up to usher people to their doom? Why were four people killed to open three doors? And what was the third door?

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A thoroughly pointless and stupid movie.

 

Rating: thumbs down

 

PS  – a chap called Harry Spalding has a writing credit on this movie – his last ever credit, and 8 years after the penultimate one. He also wrote a 1964 movie called “Witchcraft” and 1966’s “The Earth Dies Screaming” (great title), so I’m going to take a guess that this script sat in a cupboard for a very long time – or he sued when he realised it was the same as one of his old movies.