Thursday, December 20, 2012

December to Dismember: TO ALL A GOODNIGHT (1980)

‘Twas the week before Christmas, when all through the blog
Not a reader was stirring, not even a…what the hell rhymes with blog? Slog? Log? BOG!

Ho, ho, ho (what did you call me?) and Merry Christmas! In getting with the Yuletide spirit, we here at Video Junkie have opted to deliver 12 days (give or take) of Christmas horror.  We’ll be looking at the films that bring out the sinister side of the holiday.  Some stuff so bad that it would make Mickey Rooney write a protest letter. If you’re up for it, allow us to be your guide to the Xmas horrors you should and shouldn’t see in our first ever December to Dismember!  First up, we look at the rarely discussed Santa slasher TO ALL A GOODNIGHT.

I’ve always found it ironic that SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984) drew the ire of the American public when it was first released.  The positively terrifying origins of Santa Claus aside, this wasn’t even the first film to depict a killer dressed as Santa Claus as the Joan Collins segment “And All Through the House” in TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972) beat it by over a decade.  In between these two films was the delightfully deranged CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980; aka YOU BETTER WATCH OUT) and the substandard slasher TO ALL A GOODNIGHT.  Hitting right at the peak of the stalk-and-slash boom, this film appears to have never actually gotten to theaters in the U.S. and debuted on video by Media Home Entertainment.  This is understandable when you realize this film is the movie equivalent of a stocking full of coal.

Mrs. Voorhees...uh, sorry...Mrs. Jensen
The action begins with an establishing shot (which is used over and over) of an all-girl school with the title card reading “Calvin Finishing School for Girls.  Christmas vacation. Two years ago.”  A gaggle of girls chase a young pledge around while shouting “Sorority! Sorority!” before she falls off a balcony and dies.  Killer motivation = established!  Two years later a group of six girls are spending their Christmas vacation on campus under the not-so-watchful eye of Mrs. Jensen (Katherine Herrington), who is taking over for the absent Mrs. Samantha. The apparent ring leader Leia (Judith Bridges) informs her pals that her boyfriend T.J. (William Lauer) is flying into the area in his dad’s plane (!) with some buddies.  In order to PAR-THAY, the girls need to subdue Mrs. Jensen and they do so by having Nancy (Jennifer Runyon), the Mrs. Goodie Two Shoes of the bunch, give her some drugged milk.  While trying to sneak the sleeping powder out of a room, Leia is scared by Ralph (Buck West), the requisite “you’re doomed” guy.  This leads to one of the film’s best dialogue exchanges.

Leia: “Jesus, you scared the hell out of me.”
Ralph: “Mrs. Samantha asked me to look in on the plants.”
Leia: “Uh huh.”
Ralph: “That’s our duty to take care of the plants.”
Leia: “Yeah.”
Ralph: “God put ‘em here to give us pleasure.”
Leia: “Yeah, yeah.  Excuse me.  Oh, by the way, Mrs. Jensen cooked up some cherry pie and stew. Better hurry on down before it is all gone.”
Ralph: “I like cherry pie.”
Leia: “Yeah, you and Nancy both.”
Ralph: “I like Nancy too.”

Before the “send Mrs. Jensen to slumber land” plan can even go into effect, Cynthia (Lisa Labowskie) and her boyfriend Paul (poor dude doesn’t even get a credit) are both knifed by a killer in a Santa Claus suit as she tries to sneak out to see him.  Oddly, no one seems to hear the screams.  Back inside, the girls think Mrs. Jensen is out for the night and head to the airfield to meet up with T.J. and his crew of hunks.  T.J. flexes his jerk skills by forcing the pilot to stay with the plane (huh?).  No PAR-THAY for you!

"Hmmm, what was the tenth digit of Pi again?"
Back at the school, the kids show they are real party animals as they all sit around while T.J. plays a song on an acoustic guitar (lyrics: “Vagabond, vagabond. Running only makes you see, your answer is just another lonely day.”).  The kids soon split off into couples as British girl Trisha (Angela Bath) hooks up with Tom (Solomon Trager, who must hate his parents), Sam (Denise Stearns) gets cozy with Blake (Jeff Butts, who must hate his friends), and Melody (Linda Gentile) decides to deflower the nerd Alex (Forrest Swanson, who must hate frozen dinner jokes).  Trisha and Tom are the first to get killed, quickly followed by Sam and Blake.  This killer Santa is resourceful though as he drags the bodies out and buries them in the yard.  A serial killer with a strong work ethic, I like it.

And they said Ralph had no brains
The next day the remaining kids don’t seem too alarmed that their numbers have dwindled by half, but they do get freaked out when Ralph turns up dead.  Detective Polansky (Sam Shamshak) shows up to take the report and orders two of his plain clothes detectives stand watch outside for the night. Meanwhile, sexual politics are abound as Leia decides to dump T.J. for one of the private dicks (ah, boo yourself) and nerdy Alex starts enjoying his new manhood by taking a fancy to Nancy.  Of course, we still have a killer dressed as Santa skulking around and he quickly dispatches of the detective outside.  The cop obviously scored low on the “perceiving threats” test at the police academy as he walks right up to a guy in a Santa suit carrying an axe and says, “What the hell you doing up here in that dumb outfit?” Such naïveté will only get you an axe to the face.  From here on out viewers get the standard slasher setup as the killer gets into the house and stalks the remaining kids before the big twist ending.

If you’ve got someone on your naughty list this year, you might do well by sending a copy of this flick.  TO ALL A GOODNIGHT is about as standard as you can get for the slasher genre.  Perhaps the most interesting thing is it marked the director debut David Hess, the cult actor best know for playing Krug in Wes Craven’s THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972).  With a decade of experience under his belt by the time he filmed this, it appears Hess didn’t do much studying while on sets with other directors.  He fails even the most basic concepts, such as properly introducing all of the characters.  There is very little mystery to the killer’s identity.  Even worse, Hess does one of the dumbest giveaways in the history of horror cinema.  If you don’t want the killer’s identity revealed, stop reading right now.  Early in the film we see the killer cross off a list of names before looking at the photo of the deceased girl from the prologue.  A few scenes later, Hess has Mrs. Jensen sitting in her sewing room with the exact same photo on the wall behind her.  Is Hess freakin’ serious?

To be fair, there is actually a twist at the end in that the kids were stalked by two killers dressed as Santa (Mrs. Jensen and her husband Polansky).  Regardless, to reveal one of them so lazily (I can’t believe it was misdirection) is insane.  It is too bad as Hess has the exploitation factor down and does work in some interesting bits when he wants to (like one of the final girls not being killed but instead dancing around the house like a ballerina after her encounter with the killer).

Of course, you can’t really expect too much from something that was made for peanuts in order to cash in on the success of FRIDAY THE 13th (1980) and PROM NIGHT (1980).  There has been a lot of confusion regarding when TO ALL A GOODNIGHT was shot as the Internet Movie Database offers a January 30, 1980 release date. That was dubious to me as the film rips off both of the aforementioned films quite obviously (the opening from PROM NIGHT; the “mother avenging her child’s death” angle and crazy “you’re doomed” dude named Ralph from FRIDAY THE 13th), yet they were both released after January 1980.

"Looks like someone axed the wrong question."
(to be said in David Caruso voice)
Thankfully I was able to get to the bottom of this mystery by contacting FX legend Mark Shostrom about the project.  He generously gave me some great behind-the-scenes info on what was his first film project.  The cast and crew slept at the main location and the budget was a miniscule $40,000 as opposed to the oft quoted $78,000.  When I asked about the filming dates, he remembered them perfectly thanks to one of the most historic moments of that decade.  “We shot TO ALL A GOODNIGHT right before Christmas, during a ten day period in Nov-Dec of 1980,” he recalled via e-mail. “IMDB says it was released January 1980, which is impossible. I remember because we were filming a scene when somebody shouted ‘John Lennon's been shot!’ and everyone ran to a TV. That was December 08, 1980. Hard to forget that moment.”

Truth be told, TO ALL A GOODNIGHT is really only for slasher completists or folks looking for 80s milieu.  It is about as standard for the genre as one can get, although there is a certain charm to it thanks to the low budget trappings.  However, it never fully takes advantage of its one special gimmick - having a killer Santa Claus outfit.  I’d actually like to see a nicer version of it hit DVD though as the darker scenes on the VHS are hard to make out.

1 Reactions:

  1. Maybe because of the darkness of the VHS, but I never noticed the framed pic before. Good catch.


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