The 1980s were a booming time for horror films, and one of the great joys of any particular past cultural boom is going back and finding things that slipped between the cracks. In my experience, horror fans in particular excel at and delight in this act of cinema archaeology, chipping away layer upon layer of obfuscation until they arrive at something new hidden beneath the more obvious horror landmarks. It’s how you get from, say, Friday the 13th to Microwave Massacre, or how you get from Scream to Cherry Falls.
We pass these discoveries along to each other with the gleeful energy of a paleontologists who just uncovered a new dinosaur, shouting our finds from the rooftops not because we want to prove some kind of genre superiority, but because we want to share what we’ve unearthed, and see if someone else in another corner of the planet just happened to dig up the same fossil. There’s great joy to it, because if you’re willing to go digging, you find buried treasure.
One Dark Night, which entered wide release 40 years ago and has seen a resurgence in recent years thanks to streaming and a boutique physical media release, is definitely one of those hidden gems. Made for less than a million dollars and trafficking in certain comfortably familiar horror tropes, director and co-writer Tom McLoughlin’s film about a high school initiation gone wrong is a masterclass in how to build to a terrific horror climax, a great example of maximizing your budget and the kind of throwback creepshow that will have fans of ‘80s horror fist-pumping with glee by the end. Simply put: If you love this era of horror, and you haven’t seen this one, go dig it up right now.
One Dark Night stars Meg Tilly as Julie, a teenage girl with something to prove. Though she seems to have a great high school life as a warm, cheerful young woman who’s dating the local basketball star (David Mason Daniels), Julie is nevertheless preoccupied with the idea of getting into The Sisters, an exclusive little club of girls run by her boyfriend’s jealous ex (Robin Evans). If she can survive the initiation, Julie believes she will have proven to everyone around her that she’s not weak, or cowardly, or in any way worthy of scorn, something that’s perhaps tied to a lonely home life the film merely hints at. So, she agrees to head out for an all-night stay at what turns out to be the local mausoleum, where the rest of the Sisters plan to scare her with a variety of pranks in the hope that she’ll chicken out before dawn and run screaming from the place. Little do they know, of course, that a powerful and dangerous psychic has just been buried in the very same mausoleum—a psychic who might not be entirely dead.
If you’re a seasoned veteran of horror movies, you can probably guess where this is going already, and if I’m honest, the way McLoughlin (who went on to give us Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, arguably the best slasher sequel ever made) lays it all out at first is a little clumsy. Julie’s story is juggled with that of the psychic’s estranged daughter (Melissa Newman), who cuts into chunks of plot to piece together her father’s final days, and what exactly he was doing that caused his bizarre death. It’s not uninteresting, but it does seem to exist on an entirely different wavelength from what’s going on with Julie, her boyfriend and her friends, and you long to be back in that world. It’s not a crippling imbalance, but it’s definitely noticeable, and you might be wondering at times why you’re still watching.
Thankfully, whenever the teens are onscreen, even through clunky dialogue, the movie works, particularly where Tilly is concerned. Once the film gets going, huge chunks of One Dark Night are devoted to her explorations alone in a dark mausoleum, which means she has to carry our interest even before anything supernatural (or even particularly dramatic) is happening, and she pulls it off. It’s a performance reminiscent of Olivia Hussey’s work in Black Christmas: Equal parts vulnerable and tough, riveting even amid the slowest of slow-burn scenes.
But like I said, if you’re a horror fan, you know where all of this is going almost from the beginning. You can see the threads of the two stories starting to converge, and the question becomes not what will happen, but how it will happen. It’s here that McLoughlin and special makeup effects wizard Tom Burman (who helped make the horror elements of Scrooged so effective just a few years later) take over, and turn the final 20 minutes of the film into a cornucopia of rot.
Because it was made on a low budget and with a relatively small number of locations, One Dark Night spends the first hour layering in atmospheric textures and beats of character detail that enrich what’s coming, even as the viewer is constantly wondering when the story of the mad psychic and the story of the brave young girl will collide. When they finally do, and those final minutes really kick in, we lose any sense of limitation in the film’s budget. All that atmosphere-building and character focus pays off as the mausoleum vaults open and the corpses start to file out. I’m hesitant to say more about this, because I really do want you to see it for yourself, but even if One Dark Night had been an absolute dud in its first and second acts, watching it would be worth it just to get to what happens at the end.
If you’re a horror fan obsessed with the scary stories of the 1980s, and you’ve made it through all the obvious classics at this point, add One Dark Night to your watchlist. Once you’ve seen it, you’ll want to tell all of your horror friends about it, because the energy it unleashes is just that infectious and fun. In a decade packed with great horror, it’s one of the films most deserving of rediscovery.
Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.