Genre icon Linda Blair celebrates her birthday on January 22nd, and coincidentally this past 22nd was also the day when it was announced that Fox has ordered a pilot for a TV show based on Blair's most famous film, THE EXORCIST. These events got me thinking about Blair's career overall, and the possibility of having a Face-Off between two movies in which she played the lead role. She made several horror and exploitation films after THE EXORCIST, but the two most popular are likely the 1981 slasher HELL NIGHT and the 1984 revenge thriller SAVAGE STREETS. They're very different, but I think it will be fun to see how they fare in a head-to-head battle...
As part of a hazing ritual, four pledges to the Alpha Sigma Rho fraternity and its sister sorority are forced to spend the night in Garth Manor, the long abandoned site of a legendary mass murder and suicide. The plan was to have them endure a night of harmless pranks, but soon the pledges and the pranksters are being knocked off one-by-one by a mystery guest. It's a perfectly simple and straightforward slasher plot.
The Scars are a dangerous gang, but that doesn't stop Brenda and her friends from trashing their convertible after they nearly run over Brenda's deaf sister Heather. That kicks off a series of violent encounters between the two groups that leaves one of the girls dead, another raped and beaten, and drives Brenda to deliver some vengeful street justice. It's like DEATH WISH goes to high school, with Linda Blair instead of Charles Bronson.
Blair is very likeable in the role of Marti Gaines. Smart and soft-spoken, she is your average good girl next door heroine, but not quite the awkward virgin some heroines can be. She's not one to rush into sex - while the other pledges are off doing some "nice to meet you" humping in another bedroom, she makes her love interest sleep in a separate bed - but not sex-less. She does make out with the guy. She's not the toughest, but you know she'll find a way to pull through.
Brenda is the very definition of a tough heroine, and it is very impressive just how naturally her foul-mouthed attitude seems to come to Blair. At times the actress comes off as a bit too low-key and soft-spoken as Marti in HELL NIGHT, but she so fully inhabites the role of Brenda that you almost start to wonder if this character is closer to Blair than others she has played. You will believe that sweet little girl from THE EXORCIST can kick some ass.
An urban legend about Garth Manor proves to be true when terribly deformed survivors of the mass murder/suicide that took place there twelve years before show up and start killing off the college students. The creepy, ugly, mute Garths aren't given any personality to speak of and they're not built up much by other characters, it's not even clear who's who, so it's no wonder why they didn't get a franchise. For this film, however, they work perfectly, and they handle the attacking and killing like pros.
The Scars are violent, sexist morons with absolutely no regard for human life. They're very easy to hate, and this movie certainly does its best to make you detest them. One of the four guys is presented as being slightly less terrible than the others because he's just a wimp who gets pushed around by them, but he's so spineless that he doesn't garner any sympathy. The others are sort of interchangeably evil and unbalanced, and you can't wait for them to get their comeuppance.
HELL NIGHT doesn't have very many kills for a slasher and when they do happen there isn't a whole lot of splatter, but they are still quite satisfying. There's a quick-cut decapitation, a cleverly executed head twist, and a bloody scythe impalement. That's good enough for me.
Once Brenda loads up on weapons and goes hunting Scars, you'll be cheering every injury they receive. You may also be left wishing there had been more to their death scenes. Although a crossbow and bear traps are employed, these kills feel a little lacking. At least Jake goes out painfully.
HELL NIGHT was produced by Irwin Yablans, who also produced John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN, and you can tell he and director Tom DeSimone were trying to replicate some of that success here. This film is one the classier slashers, one that has a focus on character interaction and suspense. Its one failing is that it's a little too into sustaining suspense, sometimes dragging scenes out too long, resulting in a 101 minute running time that would have benefited from some trims.
SAVAGE STREETS was originally going to be a Tom DeSimone film starring Cherie Currie, but production was shut down after a few days and DeSimone and Currie were replaced by Danny Steinmann and Blair. If you've seen Steinmann's FRIDAY THE 13TH: A NEW BEGINNING, you know what to expect from this one - fun, vulgarity, copious amounts of nudity, and a whole lot of sleaze. Call his movies sleazy and Steinmann would take it as a compliment. This is pure exploitation entertainment.
It was a good fight and HELL NIGHT and SAVAGE STREETS are both highly entertaining films, but in the end it was my love of slasher movies that helped HELL NIGHT pull ahead and take the victory. There's hardly anything I'd rather watch at any given time than a simple little slasher, and in the villain department mute brutes are more appealing to me than scumbag teenagers. SAVAGE STREETS does feature the adult Blair at her best, though.
Do you agree with these results, or do you think the revenge film should have trumped the slasher? Share your thoughts in the comments section below. If you have a couple of movies in mind that you would like to see duke it out, you can send Face-Off suggestions to me at CodyHamman@joblo.com.