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Happy Hell Night
1991 (2004) - Brisun Entertainment (Anchor Bay Entertainment)

review by Aric Mitchell of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Happy Hell Night

Film Rating: C+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A+/B+/D+

Specs and Features

87 mins, NR, anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, single-layered, keep case packaging, theatrical trailer, animated film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (16 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0 mono), subtitles: None, Closed Captioned

Make no mistake - just because names like Darren McGavin and Sam Rockwell are attached to a film doesn't mean you'll wine and dine on good acting. In fact, Rockwell doesn't even get a line and McGavin is working from a script with the worst of dialogue. And while Happy Hell Night is a black eye to the careers of both men, a poorly acted 90 minutes of leaps in narrative logic, and the possessor of motion pictures' most repetitively obnoxious hard rock theme song, I actually recommend it.

Director Brian Owens collaborated on the script to this forgotten entry in the horror asylum with writing partners Ron Petersen and Michael Fitzpatrick, so he can't be blamed entirely for the huge story holes, but he does come off as a bit of a split personality that keeps the film from being all it could have been. With talents like a young Rockwell and a veteran McGavin misused, he also manages to neglect bit players Jorja Fox (C.S.I.) and Ted Clark (Wrong Turn), who are the only other noteworthy faces, relegated to obscure roles that occupy only a small portion of the proceedings.

With those patches of directorial absent-mindedness aside, you can finally hone in on the film's qualities. I say Owens has a split personality because one minute he completely misses out on the talent at his fingertips and gives all the good roles to lackluster actors, who have gone on to do nothing else with their careers. He gives McGavin lines that make the once Oscar-worthy (A Christmas Story, anyone?) actor seem like a TV Movie of the Week standby. But then, he can switch directions and film legitimately suspenseful scenes, such as the escape of Zachary Malius and some effectively creepy flashbacks.

Owens' unwillingness to try something unique is forgivable here, because he uses a standard but fun backdrop for the film's events. Zachary Malius (Charles Cragin) is one of the scariest, most effective horror villains to grace TV or movie screens, and that's no exaggeration. He's a psychotic priest with pale skin, a bald head and ominously black eyes, that manages to break out of the State Asylum 25 years after butchering seven college students belonging to the Phi Delta Kappa fraternity on Hell Night (Halloween, 1963). A quarter of a century later, the demonic humanoid escapes his bonds in the middle of an initiation charge gone wrong. Now that he's out, he kills without rhyme or reason and the explanation offered in the film's climax doesn't do justice to some of its most suspenseful stalk-and-slash moments. But despite its many failings, I can see myself revisiting Happy Hell Night many times on those dark and stormy nights, when I just need something scary to watch. The technical hang-ups are not enough to totally negate the rich atmosphere, explicit gore and horrifying presence of Cragin in the central role.

As for this DVD presentation, Anchor Bay does an outstanding job of paying tribute to the film with an exquisite video transfer on par with the best releases from all major studios. Let's face it - this company is a blue-collar Criterion Collection when it comes to restoration of film prints. In this case, we get perfect coloring schemes throughout with no grain and a gorgeous widescreen presentation, anamorphically enhanced for 16x9 televisions in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The contrast is amazing, with no difficulty whatsoever in scenes of darkness, of which there are many. The audio presentation is a Dolby Digital mono, and it's just right for the needs of the film. The balance between dialogue, rainstorms and the dull entries of blades cleaving flesh and scraping bone are consistent, leaving viewers with the very satisfying knowledge that you can pick a volume and keep it there. And if you're like me, you'll want it loud.

The only disappointment on the entire disc is the lack of extras, save for a restored widescreen trailer that serves to ease your mind after being greeted by a cheesy animated menu (the menu does nothing but play the shameful chorus to the aforementioned vocal monstrosity that is the film's theme song). The trailer serves up a haunting look at a promising film, heavy on atmosphere with nary a spoiler in sight. There's really nothing else to be had here, but given the failed sense of timing in the initial release of this picture (it came in 1991, just missing out on the 80's horror craze), Happy Hell Night is a film that's lucky to enjoy any kind of re-release at all.

With a more opportunistic director and a little stronger writing effort, we could have had a horror classic in Happy Hell Night. Unfortunately, the film falls short in that regard. Still, compared to the swarm of horror films that attacked the 1980's, this one could have had much more commercial success had it been released a few years earlier (and thus warranted a heavier dose of extras here). Unfortunately, Happy Hell Night has been largely forgotten in retrospect. But if you like Anchor Bay's body of work, or horror films in general, you'll do yourself a favor and pick this disc up. And if you do fall into either of those consumer categories, I guarantee you won't watch it just once.

Aric Mitchell
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