It has been more than three decades since Hell Night premiered in the summer of 1981, and it has only slowly developed a cult following over those years. Truth be told, I don't know if even now it has a reputation as generally being a crap slasher film from an era when crap slasher films were ten for a dollar, or generally being one of the most effective of all early slasher films. Since it is clearly the latter, I like to think that history is correcting itself, but not nearly with enough speed. Hell Night, I find, belongs in that rare company of slasher films that aren't just good by the standards of their subgenre, but manage to round the corner to being legitimately good works of horror cinema. But it still doesn't have any kind of reputation or name recognition outside of the genre faithful, among whom I find that knowing it and enjoying it is a mark of particular taste and knowledge. Being a Hell Night fan is, maybe, the slasher film equivalent of being a brandy drinker: any drunk college kid can become obsessed with pounding back the cheap beer of the Friday the 13th series or the decent microbrew of the Nightmare on Elm Streets, but it takes commitment and a refined palate to make it as far as this movie.

And by all means even "the brandy of '80s slasher films" puts an limit on what the film can be. I mean, there's the brandy you get from a really nice wine shop, and then there's the brandy you can pick up at the supermarket alongside milk and Doritos.

The plot is gleaming boilerplate: the Alpha Sigma Rho fraternity chapter at a school in Anytown, U.S.A. is celebrating its annual Hell Night, when that year's incoming pledges have to survive an ordeal in order to be inducted. How, exactly, ΑΣΡ fucntions is a little foggy, given that they only have four pledges, and two of them are women, but whatever, it's a slasher film. Chapter president Peter (Kevin Brophy) describes it to his victims thus: on the edge of town, there is a great estate called Garth Manor, a huge mansion with sprawling, forested grounds, and 12 years ago, this was the site of a brutal slaying. Raymond Garth, the descendant of generations of Garths living in that palatial home, killed his wife and three of their four children, all of them grossly deformed. The only survivor was teenaged Andrew Garth, who witnessed the murder of his family and his father's suicide, and who went missing, along with two of the corpses. And now, Garth Manor is the annual home of ΑΣΡ's final ritual before initiation into the fraternity.

And so Peter leads the four pledges - Jeff (Peter Barton), Seth (Vincent Van Patten), Denise (Suki Goodwin), and last but plainly not least, Marti (Linda Blair), who between her masculine name, her rather dismissive view of the trivialities of the Greek system by this point in the process, her fuller backstory, and above all the fact that she's played by The Exorcist's own Linda Blair, is obviously going to be our Final Girl - to Garth Manor, where they will chat, flirt, take Qualuudes, and think about screwing. And unbeknownst to them, where they'll have to endure a whole night of rather impressively sophisticated haunted house trickery perpetrated Peter, the frat's token nerd Scott (Jimmy Sturtevant), and one of the frat's sisters, May (Jenny Neumann). And unbeknownst to them, the whole lot of them are going to have to survive a night under the watch of a great hulking, groaning man-shaped object, who we don't know is Andrew Garth, but it's certainly where the smart money lies.

Where Hell Night shades into genius - and that's probably a strong word for it - is not, clearly, in how it up-ends the narrative tropes that had already begun to crystallise for the newly-forming slasher genre. Rather, it's how the film deepens those tropes, presenting what might very well be the most richly-characterised group of victims of any Dead Teenager movie of its generation. Marti is perhaps no more layered than any of the other top-notch Final Girls of 1981, though unfairly Razzie-nominated Blair is a strong enough actor to make more of the part than most of the largely anonymous performers filling the same functional role. The surprising thing is that the other three pledges are rather impressively layered themselves, despite Seth and Denise both feeling like they should, by all rights, be grating one-note stereotypes (Airhead Jock and Slut, respectively). First-time screenwriter Randy Feldman, whose next credit wouldn't be until Tango & Cash, eight years later, weaves a surprising amount of character detail into the film, staging actual conversations between the kids, ones that both implicitly and directly reveal all sorts of interesting tangents: Jeff's obvious discomfort with his familial wealth, Seth's apparently willful choice to be a dumb jock to avoid having expectations set for himself. It's a little thing, but it means that once the killing starts, we're going to have a lot more connection to these characters than just wanting to see them die hideously.

And indeed, the film does not show them dying hideously: other than a sickle to the gut, and a decapitation so ginger and brief that it almost registers on a subliminal level rather than a conscious one, Hell Night stays away from particularly explicit violence. Part of that, undoubtedly, was the culture: after the first rush of slasher films in 1980, the moral watchdogs started barking and most of the second-wave films in '81 were toned down considerably (the quintessential example being, of course, Friday the 13th giving way to the comparatively chaste Friday the 13th, Part 2). Even by those reduced standards, though, Hell Night is a violence-averse film, so much so that I wonder if that's part of why it doesn't have more visibility among casual slasher fans.

What it does have, though, is a fairly amazing degree of tension and atmosphere for a cheap genre quickie. This was, as far as I can tell, the first actual movie in the career of director Tom DeSimone, after spending the preceding decade and a half making gay pornography. Without, admittedly, having seen any of them, I think it's unlikely that they were a very good crucible for learning the tricks of making a good horror-thriller in a spooky old mansion at night; and yet DeSimone and cinematographer Mac Ahlberg come up with some very fine lighting ideas and acute camera angles to give Garth Manor an inflated sense of foreboding, scale, and inscrutability. And that on top of DeSimone having tread so lightly on the character scenes, allowing them to breath and give us a decent sense of who the characters are - at 101 minutes, Hell Night is wildly long for an early slasher, and should probably be regarded as criminally indulgent, but the mixture of weird atmosphere and nuanced character drama ends up working so well that it feels far briefer and swifter than many slashers whose only purpose in life was to separate teenagers from money.

There are some absolutely terrific individual scenes: a well-staged Final Girl flight with a climax sold through inductive visuals, and a great sequence where Peter flees through the garden, having found Scott's body (spoiler alert: the secondary characters all die), and Dan Wyman's poundy thriller score drifts off, leaving nothing but heightened nighttime sounds to both comfort us (if the music is done, things must be safe) and unnerve us (why are the crickets SO LOUD?) at the same time. Or the cut from the killer's POV, staring at Denise in bed, to a wide shot that shows his great beefy mass staring down at her blankly, passively.

In fact, I'm tempted to say that the only thing which really hurts Hell Night is that, ultimately, it's just a slasher film: it's just about watching a bunch of kids get picked off. That they are more complex as characters; that the film is more invested in creating tension and mood than in squirting stage blood on actresses' boobs; that the script frequently develops the already clichéd plot points in odd, slantwise directions that come across like they're already deliberate choices, even in 1981, to up-end the audience's expectation for who, what, how, and when in a slasher movie; that all of these things happen is enough to make Hell Night a respectable, greatly enjoyable example of a genre that even in its better moments tends to feel a little slummy and disreputable. But it doesn't quite have the creativity of A Nightmare on Elm Street, or the impact and excellent filmmaking of its 1981 colleague The Burning to actually transcend that genre.

The question could easily be asked, though, if genre is really something that needs transcending. The problem with slasher films, after all, is that they're typically shoddy and sleazy, exploitation made with more mercenary instinct and lazy storytelling. None of those apply to Hell Night at all: it does not pander with either violence or nudity (the sex scenes are well-grounded in story logic and possess no nudity to speak of), it makes something close to sense if you never remember to ask yourself why it took 12 years of frat hazing for Andrew Garth to finally decide that this was the day to start killing pledges, and it's fairly obviously the work of a filmmaker who wanted to put all of his creativity and care into something that wasn't another gay porno, and proved that he had no mean amount of talent in the process.

I am tempted to call it, on account of all that, a slasher film for people who don't like slasher films; but it's really even more like a slasher film that could make a person like slasher films that never did before. It is not ashamed of what it is, and it is the absolute best version of that thing possible.

Body Count: 8, a decently robust number for the period.