The ISCFC begins its Christmas season based on when the Magic Tree in Columbia, MO, USA, has its lighting ceremony (why? Because), and although we covered a heck of a lot of Christmas classics last year, there’s plenty more for us to do. “Silent Night, Bloody Night” is a curious film – made years before even the earliest “slasher” films, a supporting cast made up of former Andy Warhol associates and hangers-on (most famous among them is future star Mary Woronov), made in 1970 but not released til 1972…
One of our recent reviews was “The Disco Exorcist”, which filled the screen with digital “noise”, to make it look like it was a real old 70s grindhouse movie. This, on the other hand, is the real deal. It looks like it was filmed on whatever cheap scrag-ends of film they could find and then left in a box in a mouldy cellar for a few years – in other words, exactly what you want from a 70s horror.
A large amount of this film is done in voiceover, mostly by Woronov (although there are others). It reminds you of Sissy Spacek’s amazing work on “Badlands”, until you remember that this predates that – Woronov tells us half a story, basically. The Butler house has stood empty for 20 years because Wilford Butler died by accidentally setting himself on fire; he left the house to his grandson on condition that he leave it exactly as it was. That covenant is now presumably done and grandson Jeffrey is coming to town to sell the house to the townspeople, for cash, at a huge discount.
We also see an escaped mental patient, the implication being it’s the person who killed Wilford those years ago, sensing people are moving back in. And thanks to the younger Butler’s lawyer, we meet the town’s leaders, including John Carradine as the local newspaper editor, who never utters a word (all sounds from his mouth being added in post), and seems to run off the movie about halfway through, only to have a double get killed in his place near the end. I assumed this was towards the end of his career and his alcoholism rendered him unable to learn lines; but he was still working 15 years after this movie, so who knows? Maybe they hired him at the last minute and “wrote” a part with no words just for him (the story of one of his sons pouring half a bottle of scotch down his throat as he lay in his coffin indicates he certainly liked a drink, though).
It’s a well-crafted slow burner of a movie. The lawyer and his mistress go to the house to spend the night and wait for the younger Butler; they are brutally murdered and from then on, a mysterious voice, claiming to be the daughter of Wilford, phones people up from the house, asking them to come there, and then murdering them too. One particularly superb performance comes from stage actress Fran Stevens (making one of her only two on-screen appearances) as the town’s switchboard operator Tess, whose face tells of a lifetime of secrets.
With the voiceover, the flashbacks (that tell a slightly different story) and the twist, which is one of the ballsiest ones I can remember, what could have been just another cheap horror movie becomes something altogether more interesting. The atmosphere hangs heavy over everyone and the central performances are all superb. Perhaps this is all post facto rationalisation and I wouldn’t have given this movie a second thought if it had been the work of some hack with no involvement from the Warhol people (as well as Woronov, Candy Darling, Ondine and Lewis Love appear, among many others); but what we have is lovely dark little non-Christmas Christmas movie, worth your time.
There’s fascinating and sad trivia related to this movie too. Director Theodore Gershuny was married to Woronov at the time, and after a few movies in the early 70s and then a divorce, didn’t work again for over a decade (and then wrote and directed a few episodes of “Tales From The Darkside”). Star James Patterson, the younger Butler, died of cancer shortly after the end of principal photography, so all his lines were dubbed by another actor. Thanks to some contractual oddity, the film fell into the public domain in the 80s, which means if you’ve ever bought one of those “50 Horror Movies on 12 DVDs!” box sets, chances are this is in it.
That public domain-ness has had bad as well as good repercussions. You may remember our review of “Night Of The Living Dead: Resurrection”, made by British indie company North Bank Films as the original had also not done its copyright work correctly. They appear to specialise in being bottom-feeding scum, making cheap awful horror that they hope reminds you enough of stuff you like that you’ll give them a few quid. So it is with “Silent Night, Bloody Night: Homecoming”, from 2013, which I think I’d need to be paid to see. Then, to confuse us all, some other low-budget company has made “Silent Night, Bloody Night 2: Revival” in 2015. We’ve got time before Christmas, so I might give that one a go.
Rating: thumbs up