The New Beverly released their December calendar yesterday, which means for the now 10th time since moving to LA (yay!) I opened it up and trained my eyes to find when Black Christmas would be playing. They show it every year, but not always on the same date (i.e. Christmas Eve or whatever), so there's a good chance I'll be out of town for it, 3000 miles away for my own annual visit home. I think I've lucked out and been around for about half of the showings (including one time where I raced from the airport to get there before the lights went down - I almost made it), and this year will be one of those times - it's scheduled for December 22nd, and I come back from Boston long before then. So, God willing, I'll be sitting my ass down for that wonderful movie on glorious 35mm, and then (if tradition holds) falling asleep through most of the 2nd feature, which this year is Silent Night, Deadly Night.
And yes, this is what it was *last* year, so newer fans (or those with bad memories*) might be thinking that's just what they always show. But that's not the case - for as long as they've been holding this tradition (12 years, I believe), Black Christmas has been paired with one of four other Christmas horror films: Silent Night, Deadly Night, its first sequel, Christmas Evil, or Silent Night, Bloody Night. SNDN and its sequel (once with Eric Freeman in the house!) have been favored in recent years, but the other two have been shown more than once, more or less making up a fair rotation for the past decade and change. But while the SNDN films and Christmas Evil are pretty well known, Silent Night, Bloody Night seems like it's still REALLY obscure even among horror fans, which is why I'm selecting it to kick off this month-long special edition series of Collins' Crypts, each focusing on a different under the radar holiday horror flick that I don't necessarily pull out every year, but are essential holiday options all the same.
There are a few things working against the film, which is probably why it's never been discussed as much as these other movies (most of which themselves are kind of obscure in the grand scheme of things). One is that Black Christmas is also known as "Silent Night, Evil Night", a one word difference in a landscape that also has Silent Night, Deadly Night in its number. So it's easy to get them jumbled together, and I wouldn't be surprised if some people actually think Bloody Night is just Black Christmas, especially when you consider that its plot also concerns an old house and someone making strange phone calls. Bloody Night actually predates Bob Clark's film by two years (and shot even earlier), but it too had a few title changes that probably didn't help much - it was originally released as Night of the Dark Full Moon and also went by the name Death House before settling on the Bloody Night title that it's most commonly given today. And worst of all, it's never been given a proper release on home video - as it's a public domain title you're liable to find a terrible transfer on a number of budget packs, some better than others but none of them exactly great. Director Theodore Gershuny and most of the cast are now dead, so a special edition release seems unlikely (though writer Jeffrey Konvitz, who also gave us the incredible The Sentinel, is still with us - get Scream Factory on this, stat!).
But the biggest hurdle facing the film is that it doesn't really dive into the Christmas iconography as much as the others - no Santa Clauses (murderous or otherwise), no caroling, etc. Just a rather sad looking Christmas tree at the home of Mary Woronov's character (who is seen wrapping a few gifts), a few mentions of the day here and there (it takes place on Christmas Eve), and one or two uses of an instrumental "Silent Night" on the soundtrack. If not for the retitling it might be left off even a rather extensive list of holiday horror offerings, as it's kind of anonymous in that regard in comparison to the above titles or even things like P2. But I kind of like that low-key approach (if it was intentional at all - it's possible they just couldn't afford all the window dressing), as the film's back-story is rather dark and the characters are all kind of lonely or sad - it's the flipside of the holiday spirit in a way. In the real world, not everyone is surrounded by family and big meals and trees with dozens of presents underneath - for some it's just another day of the year, and that seems to be how the folks in Bloody Night feel about it. Woronov has the tree and gifts, for example, but she doesn't seem particularly jolly about the event - more like she's just going through the motions out of tradition.
However, what it lacks in Christmas spirit it makes up for in its narrative, which offers a pretty decent whodunit tale with some slasher flair. This being 1970 or so, there wasn't really any such thing as the "slasher film" as we know it today, so the body count isn't big and the killer doesn't have an impressive costume or anything, but it's got some elements that would become standard down the road - a few POV shots, an escaped lunatic from the local asylum, and even two people killed while having sex (beating Bay of Blood to the punch!). And the plot is convoluted JUST enough to demand your full attention but not so much that you need a notebook to keep track of who's who and why anyone is doing what they're doing. Our mystery killer is stalking in/around a house that's up for sale, with the rightful owner and his lawyer coming to town to settle everything, and suspicious locals of note (the chief, the mayor, the newspaper editor) filling out the supporting cast/serving as knife fodder. John Carradine shows up, as it was the law that either he or Cameron Mitchell must appear in every low budget 1970s movie that would end up on budget packs, and Patrick O'Neal plays the lawyer who is banging his assistant (after calling his wife, the dog) when the killer interrupts so rudely with his axe.
The film's creepy atmosphere and thoroughly realized (if somewhat hazily presented) back-story clearly struck a chord with folks who saw it during its frequent late night airings in the late '80s, as it has recently inspired both a remake (Silent Night, Bloody Night: The Homecoming) and a direct sequel (Silent Night, Bloody Night 2: Revival), with the director of the latter happily admitting that his film is very much tied into the original's continuity, a bold approach for a film that shares not one cast or crew member from it. Also, obviously I don't know for sure, but some of that back-story seems like it was created in editing, with voice-over and still frames being used for a bulk of the exposition scenes, making it a weird candidate for one someone would continue two generations later. Still, when the story involves a house turned into an asylum, the inmates killing all of their doctors (and then just hanging out in the town, securing decent jobs), and a guy whose mother is also his sister, I guess you can't blame anyone for wanting to get more use out of it instead of letting it go to waste on a movie that's often paired with eleven others and sold for 5 bucks on a disc you're more likely to find at a grocery store than at a Best Buy.
Much like the Black Christmas remake, I don't think this is necessarily a better film than Bob Clark's classic, but it deserves its due all the same. Gershuny beat Clark to the punch with a few of the basic plot elements, and the dark, even somewhat melancholy storyline keeps it from ever feeling like another slasher movie. It's also fun to see Mary Woronov in a relatively normal role as opposed to the more outlandish ones she's known for, and even though it looks nothing like it, as a former resident of Arlington, MA, I loved that the movie was set there (albeit shot in New York). I wish I knew about it when I still lived there! Maybe it would have been one of my annual traditions after all.
Next week: Sint (aka Saint)!
*This column is late because I originally planned a piece on how I was happy to discover the new Scream Factory release of Blood And Lace, only to find out after watching it and even writing up part of the piece that I had actually seen it and reviewed it back in 2011 for Horror Movie A Day. I don't know how I can watch an entire movie without ever realizing I had seen it before (even being delighted/stunned by the film's wacky ending), but it's kind of troubling. How old do you have to be to chalk such things up to senility?