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Monday, December 3, 2018

Christmas 2018: December 3rd

Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972)

There have been a lot of Christmas horror movies made over the years. In fact, spooky Christmas movies far outweigh ones actually set on Halloween. The reason for this is easy to guess. The juxtaposition of cheerful Christmas trappings and grisly horror is a gimmick that draws many people in, myself included. As far as I can tell, the first true Christmas horror movie is “Silent Night, Bloody Night.” Though released in 1972, it was filmed in 1970, before “Home for the Holidays” or “Tales from the Crypt.” The project would cycle through a few different titles – “Zora,” “Night of the Dark Full Moon,” “Deathhouse” – before production company Cannon Films realized the Christmas-themed title was the catchiest one. The movie then ended up in the public domain, resulting in dozens of overly dark VHS and DVD releases. Thankfully, cleaned-up prints of the movie have been made more recently, allowing for a critical evaluation of Theodore Gershuny's thriller.

In rural Massachusetts, the Butler Mansion stands alone amid a snowy forest. On Christmas Eve, 1950, owner Wilford Butler died in a fireplace accident. Some time before that, the mansion had been an insane asylum. Now, two years later in 1970, grandson Jerry Butler arrives in town. His lawyer, who is working to sell the house to the town officials, stays the night in the building with his mistress. They're murdered by an unseen maniac. On Christmas Day, Jerry goes up to investigate his home with Diana, the mayor's daughter. People are lured to the house and killed by the whispering madman, while Diana and Jerry attempt to uncover the dark secrets of the Butler family's past.

From one perspective, “Silent Night, Bloody Night” isn't a very good movie. Despite being fairly straight forward, its story is hard to follow. The filmmaker attempt to clarify the awkwardly presented premise by adding quite a bit of voice-over narration, which just makes things more awkward. The plot is somewhat repetitive, the structure revolving around people leaving and returning to the house repeatedly, sometimes being killed in-between. The protagonists aren't introduced into about a half-hour in. The lengthy flashbacks tend to drag the already slow pace down. The acting is quite wooden, even from established cult icons like Mary Woronov and John Carradine.

Despite the myriad flaws, “Silent Night, Bloody Night” still succeeds in one very important way: It's creepy as hell. The isolated mansion, surrounded by only trees and snow, is such an effective location. The oppressive darkness furthers this unnerving feeling of being alone. The Christmas setting doesn't play that big of a role but when it does rear its head – such as a slow-down version of “Silent Night” on the soundtrack – it adds to this unsettling atmosphere. The movie's backstory is full of insanity, incest, and murder, creating an air of depravity. Proceeding “Black Christmas,” the killer is also fond of making spooky phone calls to people before striking. Even the shaky writing sometimes works in the film's favor. The voice-over, the leaps back and forth in time, and plot twists being revealed in a muted fashion add up to an unearthly and surreal ambiance.

“Silent Night, Bloody Night” is similar to “Black Christmas” in other ways as well. It's also an early example of the slasher genre. The murderer's primary weapon throughout the film is an axe. The lawyer and his mistress are chopped up just as they're about to have sex, linking promiscuous behavior with death. As in “Friday the 13th” and a hundred gialli, the killer is mostly depicted through P.O.V. shots, in order to keep the identity a secret until the end. The movie even fits the final girl and “opening crime in the past” tropes. Despite the title, the film is not especially bloody. The murderer likes to chop people's hands off but there's nothing that explicit about it. However, the attack scenes still have a frenzied energy to them, coming as appropriately vicious.

The cast and crew don't have very fond memories of “Silent Night, Bloody Night.” Mary Woronov was married to the director but their relationship was dissolving at the time, which might explain her sleepy performance. However, the movie clearly has its fans. Recently, both a sequel and a remake were produced. (Though the film being in the public domain, and the title being somewhat well known, probably had something to do with those spin-offs being made.) It's not a great movie, and not all that Christmas-y, but it still has a certain creaky uneasiness to it that I liked. [6/10]

Amazing Stories: Santa ‘85

“Amazing Stories” was a rather presumptuously entitled series, wasn’t it?  The Steven Spielberg produced anthology took its name from an old sci-if literary magazine. The show’s excellent opening titles, with its John Williams theme and then-cutting edge CGI images, places the show as the latest in a line of storytelling that goes back to prehistoric days. Despite the name, the stories weren’t always so amazing and the show ended after two seasons. (A reboot is currently being prepped for Apple's upcoming streaming service, suggesting history might repeat itself.) “Amazing Stories” has garnered a small cult following, mostly thanks to the episodes being shown as package films on cable. Its sole Christmas episode, “Santa ‘85” does seem to be fairly well regarded too.

Get this: The episode takes place in 1985 and is about Santa Claus. On Christmas Eve, Jolly Old St. Nick goes about his business of delivering gifts all over the world. A problem arises when he arrives at the Mynes house. Santa activates the family’s high-tech security system. Mistaking for a burglar, he’s dragged off to prison. While Santa attempts to reach out to the jaded town sheriff, the Mynes boy - who is naturally named Bobby and is the only person in the house to believe in Santa - goes on a mission to rescue him.

As a series, “Amazing Stories” was too often characterized by a Spielbergian sappiness. It’s no coincidence that the show’s best episodes - Martin Scorsese’s “Mirror, Mirror,” Tom Holland’s “Thanksgiving” - were made by directors that resisted the Amblin house style. Naturally, as a Christmas episode, “Santa ‘85” has its share of maudlin touches. This is, after all, a story about a cynical old man learning to believe in the magic of Christmas again. Bobby, played by the psycho kid from “RoboCop 2,” is far too precious. The sequence devoted to the security system is overdone and cheesy, with flashing lights and honking horns.

Still, the episode is worth seeing thanks to two really strong performances. Douglas Seale, who would also play Santa a few years later in “Ernest Saves Christmas,” stars. Seale’s characterization of Claus is a little more absent-minded than usual, as he often has to recheck his list. Yet Seale captures the twinkle in the eye necessary to play the part, bringing the appropriate amount of sincerity and even some regretfulness. Pat Hinkle plays the sheriff, not as a two dimensional meanie, but as someone hardened by a lifetime of regrets. The scene where Santa gets through to him, saved for the very end, is actually rather touching and sweet. It’s a fairly typical episode of the series but not bad viewing for December. [7/10]

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