Frat Fright 1988
aka Happy Hell Night aka Hell Night
Directed by: Brian Owens
Starring: Charles Cragin, Frank John Hughes, Laura Carney
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Before we get started, I have to tell you that Frat Fright is Happy Hell Night (released in the UK simply as Hell Night in 1991). Unfortunately, a lot of web sites have them listed as separate features and to add to the confusion one print says that it was directed by Brian Owens and the other by editor David Mitchell, but they are exactly the same movie. I already owned the UK VHS of Hell Night and bought this copy after seeing it on eBay, because I thought it was a rare gem. It even had two listings on the IMDB back then, but they deleted the one for Frat Fright, which means my review that I posted under that flick also disappeared.
It was a joint development between Canada and Serbia (then part of Yugoslavia), with thirteen producers working on the concept. THIRTEEN – I mean that must be some kind of record. The shoot wasn’t the easiest and saw Brian Owens heading over to film some exteriors in Eastern Europe, whilst Mitchell did other parts in Canada. This must be the explanation as to why they were given credits on the separate versions, but I still haven’t managed to discover why it had two releases on different labels. I know that it was originally packaged as Frat Fright in 1988 (much earlier than most sites would lead you to believe) and so I can only assume that the crew wanted a second bite at making some money and so they repackaged and distributed it again four years later.
The synopsis of a killer priest stalking teens is pretty much a duplicate of Deliver us from Evil (Prom Night 4), so I wonder if this was the inspiration for the final Prom Night chapter? As both were Canadian productions, it’s hard to believe that it was just a twist of fate, but I have browsed everywhere and with very little information available, I can find no concrete link. Continuing in the vein started by its counterparts from the same decade, there’s an early appearance from a ‘soon to be’ superstar. Here, it’s a young Sam Rockwell, whose emotional four-word performance must have made an impression on some of the right people, because his career took off at the speed of a Concorde soon after. If the future protagonist of the wonderful Sci/Fi flick Moon wasn’t enough, we also see a young Jorja Fox AND Frank John Hughes!
Phi Delta Fraternity has a dark secret. 25 years ago a deranged priest murdered and mutilated 7 college students and a local girl on campus. The killer was caught and remains imprisoned in a local asylum. The massacre has been kept under wraps and has become the stuff of urban legend. Now in the present day, Eric Collins (Nick Gregory) and a group of fun-loving frats are preparing for the annual hell night celebrations. It’s tradition for the local colleges to hold a competition where an award is given for the best prank performed by a pledge from each faculty. Phi Delta has held the title for the past three years and doesn’t plan on loosing it tonight. When the kids find out about the gruesome slayings from a quarter of a century earlier, they decide to send in Sonny (Frank Hughes) – Eric’s younger brother – and Ralph to take a photograph of Malius, the psychopath, in his cell. You don’t need to be a genius to guess that things don’t go exactly to plan and the wrong person leaves the institution. So with a psycho-priest heading for the campus where so many kids are partying, what will become of the celebratory frat boys and their friends?
Frat Fright starts with some familiar `he just sits there… waiting‘ dialogue that will immediately lead you to believe that this is yet another mindless Halloween clone. The script bolts on a few spicy supernatural shenanigans later though that add an innovative twist to the standard plot outline and give it a unique slant. Although the talk of spells and re-animation is a little far-fetched to feel anywhere near believable, Frat Fright earns credibility for trying something different. In the prologue scenes, Father Cane (Irfan Mensur) finds Malius splashed in blood and holding dismembered body parts in a dimly lighted basement. These parts are shot so well that they deliver an air of genuine creepiness and I was impressed at how quickly the film had built a subtle tone of menace. When the killer priest tries picking off the last four teens in the dark mansion one by one, the pace becomes tauter and we are treated to some subtle shades of tension. There may be a lack of experience in the more technical elements, but some strategically planned shots and good use of the shadows from the director manage to keep you on your toes and away from the eject switch.
Aside from a lack of professional lighting, the (thirteen) producers manage to overcome the small funding extremely well. There’s some cheaply entertaining gore, which includes hands and arms getting ripped off and one murder ends rather sharply in this version, never showing us the results, which possibly means that it suffered at the hands of censorship intervention. I never expect great performances from a cheap slasher movie and Frat Fright is no exception to that rule, because most of the characters come across as amateur and poorly coached. You’d think the (thirteen) producers would have made the most of their Serbian connections to cast more gorgeous Slavic women to up the eye candy factor, but we only get a few minutes of Tatjana Pujin and Gala Videnovic doing very little. Fans of T&A will get their fulfillment though, because there’s the usual amount of bouncing lady lumps and thighs.
What I found most disappointing about Frat Fright, and it’s something that I rarely enjoy in late-eighties entries, was the killer’s unnecessary one-liners. They work in a movie like Nail Gun Massacre, because the film itself is so unintentionally comical that they suit the tone. Frat Fright on the other hand had a chance to be something that’s nearly impossible to find in a horror movie lately – scary, but the poor attempts at humour ruined any chance for the director to make the most of his threatening bogeyman. A psycho priest as an antagonist has been used a few times, most recently in Deliver us From Evil and Goodnight Godbless. I would say that Zachary Malius is the scariest of those bogeymen, because his bulging black eyes and aura of invincibility give him a powerful presence. It’s a shame that the chirpy quips ruin his impact and I truly believe that they made a mistake with that approach.
In fairness, this is by no means without its charms, but I wouldn’t rush to watch again. It’s another example of potential not being realised, which is a shame. There are many better entries floating around, but none that had an antagonist quite as potential-laden as Frat Fright.
Final Girl: √√