Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972)
Directed by: Theodore Gershuny
Starring: Patrick O’Neal, James Patterson, Mary Woronov, Astrid Heeren, John Carradine, Walter Abel, Fran Stevens, Walter Klavun
1/2 (out of 4)
Filmed in 1972 but not released to the drive-in circuit until ’74, Silent Night, Bloody Night is a semi-gothic low-budget chiller that sports major giallo elements like the unseen gloved-killer making creepy calls from inside a house using a small whispery voice. It’s hardly holiday-related at all, except for the time of year it is set in as well as use of Silent Night in places, but it makes good use out of the cursed mansion that serves as the setting for most of the film’s running time, with atmospheric snow-covered surroundings. It surprised me a little – as it features a bloody axe murder early on, picking off somebody who I thought was going to be the main character, which is an obvious nod to Psycho. I also noticed some killer POV shots, which predates Black Christmas by a few years (did Bob Clark secretly have a print of this flick in his study?) It features members of Warhol’s Factory including the good looking Mary Woronov (who was also married to director Gershuny at the time), stars John Carradine as a mute who only communicates by ringing a bell, and features cheerful holiday touches like incest and massacre by crazed asylum inmates. The result is an interesting film with definite historical value and cult appeal, even though it suffers from certain flaws that limit its effectiveness.
These flaws are mostly due to certain decisions made regarding screenplay and editing. The story itself is ambitious – turns out that Wilford Butler is burned to death and his estate (located in a small town) is left to his grandson Jeffrey (James Patterson). Years later, Jeffrey returns to sell the place a a discount because, well, he needs the money. The Butler family has a twisted history, and it somehow involves multiple town residents, including the mayor and phone operator. People are lured to the mansion with bizarre phone calls from somebody calling themselves Marianne, only to be killed upon arrival. (Note: if a lunatic invites you over, make other plans). Could the killer be Jeffrey’s mother, thought to have been killed years earlier? The ending of Silent Night, Bloody Night comes only as a surprise to people who haven’t watched horror movies in the last 30 years. That’s not the film’s fault, however – the main problem is presentation. Gershuny is effective when he shows us things – a newspaper clipping, a killer point-of-view, a sepia-toned flashback to a massacre by crazed inmates, but it seems that he doesn’t trust that technique enough. Many scenes involve story heroine Diane (Woronov) telling the audience major plot points outright through voice-over narrative. Hell, the first 10 minutes of the movie are basically an audio-book, setting up the plot. A scene involving Jeffrey reading his grandfather’s diary has him reciting a certain character’s dialogue, then having that same character repeat the same dialogue a second later. Wouldn’t it have been better to just have the dialogue spoken only once?
The film is saved by story and mood; there is the stench of the macabre throughout the thing, and an idea that places are haunted not by spirits but by memories. “Nobody remembers anymore” says the lawyer John Carter (Patrick O’Neal). His lover (Astrid Heeren) replies “that’s what usually happens in America”. Horrible events can be forgotten but they still leave traces and linger into the future – in this manner Silent Night, Bloody Night paves the way for movies like The Shining. Its giallo influences are clear, but there’s also a slice of gothic as well as Island of Lost Souls (the attacking inmates sequence in the literal “house of pain” seems straight out of that picture). It’s no masterpiece (the limited budget and editing make sure of that) but it works well on cold wintery nights and it does seem to be an important puzzle piece connecting Hammer horror, Mario Bava, and 70s slasher cinema.
The other main “problem” with Silent Night, Bloody Night is not due to any fault of its own – it’s the quality of the print itself. The movie has been in the public domain, and you know what usually means for a film’s release. Multiple DVD releases have, for the most part, improved upon the VHS (you know – the Paragon video one with the axe through the skull on the box), but the transfer is still extremely murky, grainy, and dark. In true grindhouse fashion, some scenes make jarring transitions, as if some asshole in the projection booth snipped out a few frames for his own personal amusement. Some people out there think that this all makes for a more creepy experience, but I’m not so sure. I think Silent Night, Bloody Night screams out for a restoration (hey, Anchor Bay – are you listening?).
- Bill Gordon
Choose wisely, LOL: