‘Hard to Die’ in Retrospect: A Waking Nightmare

By Chad Collins

There’s a concept known as hypnogogic hallucinations, a common symptom among those suffering from narcolepsy. Hypnagogic hallucinations occur in the consciousness state between waking and sleep, often causing confusion because it can be exceptionally difficult to distinguish the hallucination from reality. These waking dreams are characterized by intricate visual and audial stimuli that your mind distorts in unnatural ways; they are waking dreams, yes, but they’re best described as waking nightmares.

Hard to Die (also known as Sorority House Massacre III) is, in perhaps the best way possible, something like a hypnogogic hallucination. Like the rest of the series, the third entry in the Sorority House Massacre series and sixth overall in Roger Corman’s Slumber Party Massacre franchise, Hard to Die (1990), trades in the kind of visually uncanny and narratively peculiar motifs that imbue the proceedings with a hazy, dreamlike feeling. The settings are gauzy, like recovered memories of familiar places that just don’t feel quite right. The characters are a singular bunch, simultaneously operating as conventional slasher slaughter and something altogether different — something altogether unique.

There are certainly production idiosyncrasies that account (at least in part) for the Kafkaesque and punctuated uncertainty evident in every entry. Actress Melissa Moore, as the character Tess in Hard to Die, for instance, also plays the character Jessica in Sorority House Massacre II (1990), and both times her character is killed. The temporal timeline, too, is all over the place. Murderer Russ Thorn (Michael Villella) appears in both The Slumber Party Massacre (1982) and Sorority House Massacre II, though in the latter, his name is changed to Hoksteder, and footage from his first appearance is repurposed to retcon his original series of killings and frame his backstory anew. Principally, instead of wanting to kill girls at a slumber party, he now wants to kill sorority sisters.

Watched in quick succession, it becomes a perverse game of sorts seeking out both actors and footage from erstwhile entries and evaluating how they’re reinserted into newer entries without any regard for the Massacre canon. There is, though, a certain charm to the scrappy genre filmmaking on display throughout the entire franchise, and though it might seem a bold contention, Hard to Die encapsulates it best. When viewed as a filmic nightmare, a kind of cinematic hypnogogic hallucination, Hard to Die is a genuinely frightening and unnerving film.

Karen Mayo-Chandler as Diana and Gail Thackray as Dawn in ‘Hard to Die’ (1990).

The plot itself is the kind of set-up that seems to be ripped straight from the most terrifying of dreams. A group of young co-eds, many of whom will arbitrarily strip down at one point or another, are working overnight doing… inventory, maybe, in a deserted skyscraper. It’s the kind of familiar, but not quite setting and context that defines dreams. Your work is there and people you know are there, but there’s something about it that’s not quite right. Why is inventory being done so late? Why is the building abandoned? Why, even on the streets below, does Hard to Die feel like it’s trying to be a sexier and more violent Night of the Comet (1984)? There appear to be no people left on earth beyond these women and the killer pursuing them.

The women order dinner, raid a lingerie company’s stockroom (the aforementioned stripping and nudity), and soon start being killed off one by one. There never seems to be much concern for their predicament, however, and while the women do make some effort to run and hide, their memory appears to be ephemeral, like they’re flying back and forth between poles of ignorance and terror. The killer figures centrally in some scenes and is almost forgotten in others — think of the girls eating pizza atop a corpse in The Slumber Party Massacre taken to an entirely different level. In any other context, this might be indicative of careless filmmaking or rushed production. While some of that certainly applies to Hard to Die, these quasi-dreamlike elements render the film more terrifying and engaging than it otherwise might be.

Nightmares in particular are replete with wonky physics (anyone who has been chased in a dream knows this), familiar unfamiliarity, and most of all, some kind of man or beast in pursuit out for blood. Hard to Die is what might happen if someone managed to record an ostensibly unexceptional nightmare and release it to theaters. The quirks and vagaries of its logic become boons. The haphazard approach to narrative cohesion and scares are elevational. In the right state of mind, the movie plays out like a bad trip. There’s nothing there that should scare you, but it’s so unabashedly weird and unusual, you can’t help but feel just a little bit frightened. Even the cult finale, wherein the remaining women get their hands on some firearms and start shooting the complex up like an early copy of Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire (2016), works in large part because of what’s come before.

Hard to Die is certainly not a masterpiece, but in the thirty years since its release, it deserves to be known as more than just the third tawdry entry in a long-running series of tawdry films. The franchise writ large is distinct for its diversity behind the scenes — the first four entries were written and directed exclusively by women — but what’s on the screen is just as important. The graphic, at times exploitative, content is certainly not to everyone’s taste, but in retrospect, the series, and Hard to Die most of all, is more than just a cult oddity. There’s identity there, and with the right frame of mind, there’s even some genuine terror. It might be Hard to Die, but it’s certainly not hard to love.

About

Chad Collins graduated from the University of Central Florida in 2019 with his Master of Arts. He works in behavioral health and has been a horror fan since birth. His favorites include Scream, Halloween, Alien, and tawdry ’80s slasher films. You can find him on Twitter at @chaddiscollins.

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A membrane of texts about the human condition and the horror genre. A MANOR feature. Email pitches and/or inquiries to contact@MANORHQ.com.