Happy Hell Night (1992)
"They'll be screaming their heads off!"
Twenty-five years ago at Winfield College, deranged priest Zachary Malius murdered seven frat boys and was locked away in the local asylum to spend the rest of his life. But when the same fraternity stages a prank to break into the asylum and take a photo of Malius, they inadvertently set him free to continue his psychotic rampage.
An early 90s slasher which looks like it originated a decade earlier, Happy Hell Night is about as generic as you’ll get for the sub-genre and clear evidence that no one involved here got the memo that the slasher film had long died by this point. This was released in the slasher nadir, a weird time for the sub-genre which was a whole four years before Wes Craven rebooted it with Scream and a far cry from the glory days of the early 80s slasher classics like Friday the 13th and My Bloody Valentine. It’s a strange void in which any slasher entries look like a fish-out-of-water.
There must have been something going on in Canada in 1992 to do with the Catholic Church and abuse (hmm, that’s a surprise to find the two things linked) as both this and Prom Night IV: Deliver Us From Evil feature killer priests. I do admit there’s something a little more unnerving about the religious and supernatural connotations of murderous priests, especially when they’re possessed by evil, but when they’re simply generic bogeymen, it wastes the whole angle. But then reason and purpose isn’t Happy Hell Night’s speciality. It’s a film in which character motivations are purely there because the genre insists on them being there and in which things happen purely because they have to happen in that order to stick close to formula.
Director Brian Owens only made this one film in the hot-seat and it shows. Happy Hell Night is dull, fairly devoid of any atmosphere and it’s by-the-numbers approach doesn’t even manage to stir the blood at least once. Whilst he can clearly shoot some effectively spooky images inside dark corridors and crypts, there’s no grasp of horror whatever. There are some peculiar choices of flashbacks and timeline changes in the opening fifteen minutes (from 1992 back to 1969 and then forward to 1989), transitions between scenes are weak, and editing isn’t great. The script is all over the place and there are too many plot holes and inconsistencies. It is a technically-poor film to watch and that’s always a big cardinal sin for me – if you can’t get film school 101 right, what hope does anyone have of a decent final product?
At least some of the slasher elements work. Malius looks like he could be a great slasher villain – until he opens his mouth. Actor Charles Cragin looks the part with his bald head and doll-like eyes and his introduction, torch-lit standing in a crypt holding the severed remains of one victim whilst the bloody corpses of the others lay around him, is superb. He’s also been possessed by a demon which gives him plenty of supernatural powers (though mainly powers which all slashers have such as the ability to move between places almost instantly and the ability to survive more punishment than a normal body could tolerate before death). But then once he is freed, the script has him spouting off ridiculous Freddy Krueger-style one-liners such as ‘No sex’ which, coupled with his slightly helium-tinged squeaky voice, makes him sound utterly ridiculous. He also likes to use an ice pick to kill people for no apparent reasons other than it looks cool and it isn’t a generic knife. There’s no real motive to why he targets fraternity students, other than it was all the rage for slashers to do so and thus he needs to follow the same genre tropes.
Happy Hell Night does have a moment or two where you’ll sit back and think that things should have been better. There is a genuinely eerie moment when a statue of Christ on the cross comes to life and starts screaming before falling and shattering on the floor which hinted at the potential that Happy Hell Night could have fulfilled had it been in the hands of a more competent crew.
Sam Rockwell is credited with a role, even though it must amount to four words. Darren McGavin, famous for portraying news reporter Kolchak in Kolchak: The Night Stalker 70s TV show, plays the same character but in the twenty-five years later part of the film. He’s in the film purely for exposition purposes and kindly lets everyone know what is going on so we don’t have to do any real hard work in trying to figure it out. The rest of the cast look far too old to be attending college and I’d be surprised if many, or any of them, found much work in the following years.
Taken in the context of its 1992 release, Happy Hell Night isn’t good, and it isn’t bad either. There are better slashers. There are worse slashers. It was just made in a graveyard period for the sub-genre and it shows here. The black hole of oblivion awaits this slasher. Hard to find and rightly so.
Happy Hell Night
Director(s): Brian Owens
Writer(s): Michael Fitzpatrick, Brian Owens, Ron Petersen
Actor(s): Darren McGavin, Nick Gregory, Franke Hughes, Laura Carney, Charles Gragin
Duration: 84 mins