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Hidden Horrors of Peacock: Linda Blair's Post-Exorcist Slasher, Hell Night
After The Exorcist, Linda Blair tried out a fun initiation slasher.
Welcome to Hidden Horrors of Peacock, a monthly column spotlighting off-the-beaten-path scary movies available to watch right now on NBCUniversal's streaming service. From cult classics to forgotten sequels to indie gems you've maybe never heard of, we've got you covered.
Why Now Is a Great Time to Revisit Hell Night
Initiation horror is still a thriving little subgenre, but it was particularly potent in the 1980s, as teen and college sex comedies like Animal House and Porky's were also all the rage at the box office. There's something about the communal experience of high school and college life, maybe since you're all in it together even if you hate each other, that creates an allure there; and in the horror space it's easy to exploit that allure to great effect. After all, if all the people who are your supposed friends have already gone through said initiation, what's the harm in you going through with it as well, right?
Though it didn't necessarily nab a ton of attention when it first arrived in 1981, Hell Night is, in retrospect, a film that manages to do this particular kind of horror very well. Tom DeSimone's film, featuring star Linda Blair's return to horror after the first two Exorcist films, plays with a lot of the familiar college horror ingredients, then infuses layers of dark comedy and haunted house tropes into the fun. The result is an '80s slasher that might not rank among the best ever made, but still serves as a bloody good time, particularly if you've got The Exorcist on the brain this time of year.
Blair stars as Marti, one of four pledges hoping to secure a spot in a sorority at her college. To do that, she first has to spend the night in Garth Manor, a spooky abandoned house that has, in the years since its owners died, become home to the initiation rites of the sorority, and its partner fraternity. The story goes that a horrific murder-suicide wiped out the family that used to live there, but legend has it that two bodies were never found, and that a pair of deformed monsters might still be dwelling somewhere in the Manor. With this spooky story firmly in their minds, Marti and fellow sorority pledge Denise (Suki Goodwin) pair up with fraternity pledges Jeff (Peter Barton) and Seth (Vincent Van Patten) to take on the challenge of spending just one night, "Hell Night," in the house.
You can see where this is going, right? The president of the fraternity (Kevin Brophy) and his friends have rigged up the house with all sorts of Halloween goodies, from skeletons popping out of closets to projectors that send apparitions into rooms and hidden speakers that pipe screams throughout the house. But little does anyone know that the rumors are true, and that monsters are still lurking beneath Garth Manor, waiting for fresh prey.
As is usually the case with horror films like this, it's the turn that makes thing work, the shift from a few pranks to actual danger, and despite a few stumbles in terms of clunky scripting, DeSimone's film pulls that off. When the monsters come out, and things shift from spooky mansion story to all-out slasher, we can feel the suspense kick in as we watch people get picked off one by one. As the film factors in all the different threats presented by the house, up to and including the sharp wrought-iron gates that are locked out front, we get the sense that we're in good hands when it comes to the scares and the gore, and it all stands on very solid ground, including a couple of great kills and a memorable finale.
But what makes Hell Night stand out, what makes it work even beyond the realm of campy, fun '80s slasher, is the way in which it deals with class, wealth, and resourcefulness within its narrative. Randy Feldman's script sets Marti up not just as an innocent sorority pledge, but as a girl from the wrong side of the tracks surrounded by rich kids, convinced that they're all looking down on her and that they're all corrupt on some level or another. That the film even dares address this in 1981 is refreshing, but that it does it within the framework of a story set in a massive mansion –– the very seat of wealth and upper class posturing –– makes it surprisingly incisive. There's a lot to mine there, even if we are all mostly focused on the scares.
So, as we head toward Halloween, give Hell Night a look. It's streaming right now on Peacock, and it's a nice look into Linda Blair's career beyond The Exorcist that allows her to be a memorable final girl.
The Exorcist: Believer arrives in theaters everywhere Friday, October 6.