Monday, December 3, 2007

Silent Night, Bloody Night (1974): or, Yule Be Sorry

If you're like me, you probably don't "get" the whole Santa Claus-killer thing. I mean, it's good for a laugh, and it's transgressive to take this jolly old St. Nick figure that all children know and love and turn him into a slavering bloodthirsty maniac--I get that. But once you get over the "Hey, it's Santa Claus, and he's pissed off!" factor, where else could you go? It just seemed to me a one trick pony, albeit festively draped in tinsel.

As such, I've generally avoided watching Santa-themed slasher flicks. Silent Night, Deadly Night, To All a Good Night, and Christmas Evil, though I saw them often on public domain sets and on my local rental establishments' shelves, never reached out to me and demanded I take them home. Not when Humongous or The Gates of Hell was right there beside them, shouting them down. And right there with those two infamous flicks was 1974's Silent Night, Bloody Night, which had the holiday-themed vhs cover and seemed cut from the same cloth. So I assiduously avoided that one too, passing on it for what I thought would be more intriguing, entertaining, original fare.

Oh, if only I could go back in time. Because only now, at this late hour, do I realize at last how cruelly I cheated myself by not snatching this film up at the first opportunity.

In short, SNBN knocked my socks off. It surprised me, waylaid me, hid in the bushes and jumped out to ravage me. Not at all what I was expecting, surpassing in nearly every way any preconceived notions I entered into my viewing with, SNBN is a low-budget creepfest masterpiece. After just one viewing I can say it is CRIMINALLY underrated, insanely unknown, and one of those rare films that was actually able to make me genuinely frightened.

Not that I want to over-hype it or anything.

In perhaps one of the most unfortunate cases of false advertising ever, viewers have been led to believe that SNBN is one of those aforementioned Christmas-themed horrors, when in fact the Christmas season is a very incidental aspect of the plot, probably only written in to capitalize on all those holiday thrillers for marketing purposes. But there is not a Santa Claus to be found here, and very few Christmas trees and strings of lights. What we have instead is a taught thriller-cum-slasher that owes more than a little to Hitchcock, prefigures many of the best horrors to come, and has a visual flair and style that should have fanboys raving about its influence on no less than Stanley Kubrick for his 1980 masterpiece The Shining, which this film predates by at least 6 years. In short, it's a movie all horror and suspense fans should see. Like, NOW.

I don't want to spoil too much of the plot, as I think a viewer will be all the more gobsmacked if he goes in knowing as little as possible. So here's a bare-bones summary: the movie opens at the New England mansion house of the Butler family, circa 1950, when patriarch Wilfred Butler inexplicably returns home and immolates himself on the estate lawn. Or does he? Another figure, hunched in a shawl, was there, but who this is will remain a mystery until the final frames of the film.

Ripped from the headlines.

The house is left to Butler's sole surviving heir, his grandson Jeffrey, who lives in California. The younger Butler hires a lawyer to sell the house for him, and it is this lawyer we follow into the small town and learn some of its history. He deals with the town council, a group of menacing folks including John Carradine as a mute newspaper editor, and tells them his client's plans; the city is very anxious to buy the house, especially at the price Jeffrey wants.

Afterwards, the dashing lawyer takes his young mistress out to the Butler house for a little Yuletide tryst. (A brief scene where he talks on the phone with his young daughter, and then wife, while his beautiful young fucktoy waits in the car, tells volumes about both character and dramatic situation.) We get to know the lawyer and his mistress, watch them settle in--but little do they know someone else is in the house!

In an exciting early scene we see a maniac escape from an asylum--all from the maniac's p.o.v., in a very well-done set-piece, cracking guards with a monkeywrench and stealing a car--and we know that whoever he is, he's arrived before the lovers. We get some fantastic shots, again from the maniac's p.o.v. as he runs through the house, which reminded me so much of Kubrick's famous Big Wheel™ dolly shot in The Shining that I had to check the film's release date. While the lovers plan their future and have dinner, the suspense builds slowly, unbearably, as we wonder how our silver-haired philandering protagonist will discover the uninvited guest, and what will then happen.

Life getting you down? Try Adultery™!

Well, if you've seen Psycho, no points for guessing that he discovers the maniac’s presence seconds before he discovers his own mortality, in an absolutely amazing and brutal homage to that famous shower killing. Unmoored from our supposed hero, we're reeling for a little while until we settle on the mayor's daughter, a lovely young woman home alone wrapping presents while her father goes to the capitol to get the funds to buy the Butler house and tear it down. Who should show up at her door but Jeffrey Butler, fresh from California, apparently locked out of his own house by the missing lawyer he hired. But is he really who he claims to be? And what is the deadly secret that makes the town council so intent on the destruction of the Butler house? And who is the maniac who has taken up residence there, menacing the mayor, sheriff, and old newspaper man with cryptic phone calls?

To say more would be cheating. Take my advice and don't look up too much info on this one before you get to watch it. The Hitchcockian homages continue, and director Theodore Gershuny (Gesundheit!) is smart enough to let the film geek in you think you have it all figured out before pulling the rug out from under you in a startling final few minutes. Very few film climaxes have left me with goosebumps on the back of my neck, but I'm adding SNBN to that short list. Really, I can't believe how good this is.

The print on the 50 Chilling Classics pack is in pretty bad shape, with lots of specks and damage, but you can still see underneath it all some amazingly good cinematography and camera work, with some innovative and more importantly meaningful camera movement and lens shifting. Another highlight is an extended sepia-toned flashback near the end that could be a wonderful short film in itself, with strange smudged shadows and almost silent-movie-esque zombie figures (not really zombies, but again, no spoilers--suffice that they're zombie-like). The acting ranges from good to excellent, with no one really dropping the ball. And the script--well, it kept me in suspense, and on the edge of my seat, and knocked me off it with a bang at the end. So kudos there.

Sorry--does it bother you when we do this?

Even when the movie breaks "good movie" rules, it still worked for me. There's a lot of novelistic (i.e., narrative) voice-over work early and late in the flick, which usually I cant stand; but here it's coupled with intriguing images and has enough of the unreliable in it to keep you paying close attention and to increase the unease that pervades the film. The extended flashback I alluded to goes on for a good 10 or 15 minutes, which ordinarily would stop a movie cold--but the visual style of it is so fantastic, and the story it's relating so interesting in itself and doubly so with the viewer applying the truths of the past to what's been going on in the present, it just pulled me right on through. And that ending--man. I thought I had it figured out, but then, a footstep on the stairs...

Another 6-thumber from Mill Creek. Great stuff, and I'm so glad I saw it. It's a shame movies as good as this get lost and forgotten, but wonderful that, even in a beat-up form, folks like Mill Creek are keeping them in circulation. It's like a Christmas present, all year long.

Ho-ho-ho.

(PS--looking for images I found out that SNBN has it's own extensive fan site, with more information than I thought would exist about the flick all collected and handy. If you love the movie as much as I do, check it out.)

8 comments:

Jo said...

Yet again, I'm nabbing your recommendations for my Must Watch list. I've passed over Silent Night, Bloody Night multiple times.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Well, I hope our tastes converge. I'd hate for you to hunt all these down and then be sitting there after the credits, mouth agape, thinking "Man--that Vicar dude has NO FUCKING CLUE!" :)

But even if you don't agree, at least it's a cheap date.

Jo said...

Don't worry if I think they are terrible, I'll send you the bill. ;)
Actually, I kind of really like the craptastic ones too. You can't like everything, right? Where's the fun in that?

The Vicar of VHS said...

Well, if you can enjoy the absurd as well as the sublime, then you and I are going to get along just fine. ;)

CG said...

Agree with you completely here. This is must watch holiday viewing.

Jo said...

Ok, Silent Night, Bloody Night is en route to my place now. :D

kochillt said...

Pittsburgh's CHILLER THEATER aired this film just once in April 1977, and never again. I never forgot it, and the 2007 Reel Classic Films DVD runs a full 85 minutes, allowing me to read the opening credits, always illegible on previous incarnations. Alas, the website is no longer available, but I did examine it before its unfortunate demise. I reviewed this title at Amazon as both obscure and much beloved, and will stand by it for years to come.

Anonymous said...

You didn't mention that Troma's own Lloyd Kaufman was co producer. I wondered if the flashback had been done first as an Andy Warhol factory exptl movie (esp considering the cast) and the rest of the picture written around it to make it commercial.

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