Saturday, December 24, 2011

Heinous for the Holidays: SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT (1974)

With it being Christmas Eve and Santa’s arrival imminent, we figured it would be fitting to write up a holiday horror.  Amazingly, Christmas appears to be the holiday that has spawned the most number of horror films. Perhaps my earliest Xmas horror memory (and I’m sure it was for most folks my age) was the “And All Through the House” segment from the original TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972).  The 80s gave us a plethora of slasher Santas with SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT series, CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980) and DON’T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS (1984).  And, of course, there was GREMLINS (1984), which perfectly captured the holiday and horror atmospheres. Overseas we had Alex de la Iglesia give us THE DAY OF THE BEAST (1995), where a priest and a metal head must stop Satan from return on Christmas.  On the complete opposite end of the spectrum are titles like the rancid ELVES (1989), which features Dan Haggerty as a store Santa trying to stop a guy from creating Nazi elves, and PUPPET MASTER VS. DEMONIC TOYS (2004), which has Corey Feldman in the lead (‘nuff said). So if you are looking for some Christmas chillers, the field is far and wide.  

One of my favorite holiday discoveries has been SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT (not to be confused with the aforementioned SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT films).  Having owned but never watched the Paragon VHS cassette for years, I surprised myself by watching it on this cold, gray winter day eight years ago. Even more surprising was that hiding behind the generic title is an atmospheric horror thriller with a great twist. And not only is SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT a great horror film, but it is one that appears to have been cheated by the historians of horror cinema.

The film opens with Diane Adams (Mary Woronov) walking on the Butler estate and telling a bit of the home’s history via voiceover. In 1950, Wilfred Butler was found burned to death on Christmas Eve in what was later deemed an accident at his palatial estate in the small town of East Willard, Massachusetts. One of the conditions of his will is that his house be left to his only surviving family member, child grandson Jeffrey, with the stipulation that the premises never be changed to reflect the house’s “inhumanity and cruelty” to the world. Gee, Grandpa sounds like a real upbeat guy. Twenty years later, lawyer John Carter (Patrick O’Neal) arrives in East Willard with instructions from the now adult Jeffrey (James Patterson) to sell the house for him. Several residents of East Willard take an unusual interest in the house and offer to buy it. But before the sale can be finalized, an escaped lunatic arrives in East Willard and begins calling the interested parties, saying they are Marianne Butler, Jeffrey’s long dead mother.  As the mystery unfolds, the prominent folks are dispatching one by one.

The biggest asset to SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT is the film’s set-up. It packs a big punch in the end and actually left me guessing throughout the film. A few of the red herrings are a bit too obvious but they worked well enough. One of director Theodore Gershuny’s biggest strengths is the subtle number of hints regarding the film’s big twist in the finale. If one pays close attention, there are several tip-offs as to what is really going on in the odd town of East Willard. It is refreshing to see a horror film where you are continually assessing the information as the mystery unfolds.  And it is one of those great experiences where, armed with the plot twist information, a second viewing is just as much fun to watch.  If the film does have any problems, it is that it opens with Woronov’s character telling her story, so you know she is going to survive whatever action you see in the flashbacks.

Director Gershuny, probably best known for SUGAR COOKIES (1973), knows how to build an atmospheric horror film. The wintry locations, especially the imposing house, are used to full effect and he gets great performances (particularly from Woronov, his wife at the time) from his leads. There are also some great character touches, like John Carradine’s character always ringing a bell instead of talking (this little bit of business even factors into the plot twist). The picture has some great cinematography and the visual highlight is an extended flashback that chronicles what happened at the estate in the 1930s. The sepia toned look and use of wide-angle lens makes the entire scene very creepy.  One complaint that pops up in reviews I have seen is the dark night shots. Truthfully, I think this has more to do with bad transfers rather than poor craftsmanship. In fact, my Paragon tape looks so awful that you can barely tell what is happening at points.  Sadly, the film has never gotten a proper DVD release (I hear the one in the Chilling Classics set looks decent) and, since the market is flooded with public domain copies, I doubt we will ever see one.

Actual screenshot:

Gershuny also uses an effective point-of-view (POV) for the killer that echoes the style of Bob Clark’s Yuletide themed BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) from a few years later.  A lot of people credit Clark’s film as the earliest prototype of the slasher genre. But Gershuny’s film predates Clark’s by almost 2 years. According to various reports it was shelved for several years. This fact is further substantiated by the fact that lead Patterson actually passed away in August of 1972. So the film was completed well before the early 1974 filming date for Clark’s film. Given the killer POV shots, scary phone calls the killer makes and high number of murders; one has to wonder if Clark saw this film before making his own. This is not to diminish the power of BLACK CHRISTMAS (it is still an excellent film), but just to question the general belief that BLACK CHRISTMAS begat HALLOWEEN and the subsequent North American slasher genre was born. As it stands, SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT is a great Christmas horror film, a more than pleasant surprise for this holiday season.


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