Written by: Michael Fitzpatrick, Brian Owens, Ron Petersen
Directed by: Brian Owens
Starring: Nick Gregory, Frank John Hughes, Charles Cragin, and Darren McGavin
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"You didn't get laid, but you definitely got screwed. Kappa Sig."
As the calendar rolled over into the 90s, the horror genre experienced some growing pains, if not a little bit of aimlessness. Where the previous decade was largely defined by slasher movies, audiences had already moved on even before the 80s ended, with even the reigning titans seeing diminishing box office returns with each new outing. Itís no wonder they were either killed off or put on hiatus, leaving a void filled by a vast array of horror movies. But some folks didnít quite get the memo, of course, so you still had stuff like Happy Hell Night, a Canadian slasher suffering from an 80s hangover. Its production coincided with the relative decline of the Canadian film industry, once a proud scene responsible for all manners of cult movie weirdness. But those halcyon tax shelter days were so dried up at this point that the crew behind Happy Hell Night had to secure funding from a Yugolslavian production company to make this, a last-ditch effort at riffing on Halloween in the early 90s. One thingís for sure: Happy Hell Night is the absolute best Canadian-Yugoslavian slasher movie ever made.
But in the grand scheme, itís really just yet another one of these things. On Halloween Night 1963, Michael Mye--er, Zachary Malius (Charles Craigin) butchers some fraternity pledges at Winfield College. 25 years later, he remains incarcerated, having not spoken a word or showing much life at all during that time. When some of the frat boys over at Winfield catch wind of the story, they decide itíll make for a killer Hell Night initiation if a pledge were sent over to the asylum to snap a picture of Malius. The prank predictably goes awry when the fiend isnít as catatonic as he seems; soon enough, heís free from captivity, brandishing a trusty hand-sickle and looking to mow down anyone in his way as he carves a path back to Winfield, where a Halloween night party rages.
Happy Hell Night obviously feels more than a little familiar. Itís an unabashed body count movie that prioritizes splatter as Malius racks up an impressive, gory body count. A majority of his victims are fairly anonymous, with most of them existing to go through the slasher movie routine of goofing off, drinking, or fucking (or some combination of these three) before meeting a grisly end. In this respect, Happy Hell Night is such old hat that it might as well have just been released in the 80s. With the exception of the updated fashion, very little of it screams ďĎ90sĒ in a way the more memorable movies of this era do (of course, I guess that makes sense since itís technically set in the late-80s, not that youíd know that either, really). But itís solid enough once it gets going since Malius weaves an impressive path of destruction that gives the effects team ample opportunity to craft some fun gags (like a clever bit where he drives the sickle straight through the roof of the car and into a girlís head). This is a fairly nasty, downright messy slasher at times, one that scatters limbs with reckless abandon.
You might find yourself wishing for a stronger attachment to the characters who are separated from all those body parts, though. Most of them barely register as actual characters before theyíre hacked aside, and the trio that gets most of the screentime find themselves in a messy love triangle. Eric and Sonny Collins (Nick Gregory & Frank John Hughes) are a couple of brothers (like real brothers, not just frat brothers) beefing because the latter stole the formerís girl, Liz (Laura Carney), an entanglement that creates a lot of cheap drama but ultimately goes nowhere. You get some shouting matches and some fistifuffs, but they understandably have bigger problems to deal with once itís obvious an escaped mental patient is trying to kill them. Happy Hell Night isnít really much worse than your typical slasher movie in this regard, and it even scatters in the obligatory but memorable goof of the bunch in Ned (Ted Clark), an awkward dweeb who hosts his own public access show when heís not watching weird porn in his dungeon/dorm room. His juvenile exploits faintly echo the raucous, party movie vibes youíd expect from a Halloween night slasher.
Happy Hell Night doesnít commit to that bit, though. For the most part, itís fairly straight-laced, if not weirdly self-serious for the umpteenth movie about an escaped mental patient slaughtering nubile college students. Sometimes, this works: Cragin is a startlingly strange presence as Malius, a disgraced priest whose body is barely recognizably human. With his chalk-white face and piercing, sunken eyes, he looks more like Nosferatu, which is something you donít often get from a genre that usually delivers masked madmen. The eventual lore that emerges around him is fairly distinctive too: letís just say Happy Hell Night takes an unexpected supernatural detour towards the end, when top-billed Darren McGavin strolls in for a few minutes to deliver some crucial exposition (requiring a flashback where his character is played by a young Sam Rockwell!). It all builds to a baffling climax that leaves the fate of at least one character in question completely as the movie drifts into its end credits to the beat of an incongruously upbeat pop tune, confirming that the whole thing is pretty silly, no matter how much it postures otherwise.
Plus, there are times when it decidedly goes in the other direction anyway: Malius is preposterously omnipresent even by slasher movie standards since heís capable of appearing wherever and whenever itís convenient to the plot. Even Jason Voorhees admires the virtual teleportation on display here. On the other hand, Iím pretty sure Freddy Krueger would roll his eyes at the one-liners Malius dishes out whenever he dispatches a victim. ďNo TVĒ he hisses after knocking off someone watching TV, and so on. Itís one of those odd quirks that highlights the tonal clash on display: for a slasher who looks so sinister and weird, this particular tic feels a little too playful. So it goes throughout Happy Hell Night, a movie that tries to walk a tightrope of genuine suspense and atmosphere (an intense stalk and slash sequence in an attic is a highlight) while honoring the nonsense conventions of a slasher movie. There are many stumbles along the way, but I donít know that it ever plummets.
Thereís something to be said for that, too. Happy Hell Night is something of a rarity for this era because itís just a solid slasher. Far from a complete disaster but probably just as far from being exemplary, it lands firmly in the middle of the pack while remaining just distinctive enough. Most of its faults (thinly-developed characters, a thinner plot) can be found in other slashers, which probably shouldnít be an excuse, but slashers operate on their own continuum. Just give me one with a cool killer, some memorable gore, and some strange embellishments, and I can look the other way with just about everything else. Happy Hell Night often makes it easy to look the other way and accept it as proof that it was still possible to just make a cool little slasher movie in the early-90s. Whether anybody really wanted one is another story altogether, but Iím glad somebody was looking out for those of us who needed another All Hallows Eve slasher besides Halloween or even Hell Night. Not every movie can be the first choice or even the second choice. Sometimes, theyíre just Happy Hell Night: a solid third-string benchwarmer who gets some occasional time on the floor.
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