Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972) | Directed by Theodore Gershuny
aka Night of the Dark Full Moon, Death House
Written by Theodore Gershuny, Jeffrey Konvitz, Ira Teller | Starring Patrick O’Neal, James Patterson, Mary Woronov
Followed by Silent Night, Bloody Night 2: Revival (2015)
Christmas time approaches, snow is falling and the once opulent and lively Butler House has now stood abandoned for many years following the mysterious death of its proprietor.
Jeffrey Butler, grandson to the property’s namesake is in town to sell his inheritance but just why he has appeared after so long and what dark secrets lie within the Butler family history are a puzzle to the locals. Traveling ahead of Jeffrey with his (much younger and very beautiful girlfriend) is Lawyer John Carter, who is taking care of the business side of proceedings. Upon arrival, John is met by a party who consist of Mayor Adams, Sherriff Bill Mason, Tess, a switchboard operator (also referred to as the Communications Manager) and Towman, a journalist who for unexplainable reason communicates only via the tapping of a counter bell.
The straight-faced welcoming committee who could succeed in making the residents of Summerisle (The Wicker Man) appear odd, speak in hushed tones and do their best to steer the visitor from Butler House. They offer alternative accommodation to Butler house at the local motel but John remains unshaken by their warnings before eventually conceding to a reactivation of the telephone line where they can contact him. What follows is a night of unsettling phone calls, bourbon drinking and axe-wielding in this psychological mystery which contains enough kills to satisfy any slasher aficionado.
The residents greatest fears soon become reality as John and his girlfriend are butchered in their sinful bed of love making. This is juxtaposed with the arrival of the aloof and enigmatic Jeffrey who quickly makes himself known to the Mayor’s young, free and single daughter, Diane. Suspicions are further roused when members of the group begin receiving phone calls from a distorted, threatening voice that identifies itself as Mary-Anne and citing the date Christmas 1935, a name and event they clearly recognise from the past. As Mayor Adams and his underlings either enter or are lured to the Butler home they each come face to face with more than they bargained.
With its point of view shots, heavy breathing down phone lines and yuletide setting, it’s impossible to watch Silent Night, Bloody Night without acknowledging the debt that Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974) a more tightly constructed and better performed piece, owes its predecessor of two years. Although released in 1972, the film still retains a slight sixties feel in costume and appearance which might be due to the number of Warhol superstars that make up the cast, or to the fact that shooting took place in 1970 just on the change of the decade.
The timing of the film might also speak to its handling of female characters as it follows the then more typical presentation of the hysterical woman or submissive mistress as opposed to the final girl trope which would be cemented in Sally Hardesty of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) (review). Gurshuny has three main female characters to play with; the aforementioned Communications Manager, Tess who is merely used as a device to ensure the male characters make it to the house for the big showdown, John’s girlfriend Ingrid who is so submissive that she has to ask his permission before she does anything (smoke a cigarette, pour a glass of wine, open a gift) and finally Diane. Daughter of the Mayor, (her status is defined, like Ingrid’s by her association to a man) she forms the bookends of the narrative and is also smart enough when visited one evening by a troubled and brooding Jeffrey to have a gun at the ready and insist on an ID check. Although approaching a more feminist presentation through a woman who when found trembling confidently insists she is: ‘not nervous, it’s just the cold’, this is later negated by the insistence of male characters that she lock herself in the safety of the press office while they tackle the danger that lurk within Butler House.
An entertaining piece that often has a charm in its roughness, Silent Night, Bloody Night gives us some memorable kills complete with the help of that old favourite Kensington Gore. Despite actress Mary Woronov (who played Diane) declaring that: ‘most people couldn’t understand what was going on-which is not good’ the plot is fine in essence but is oddly paced in that it is spread too thinly in the first half of the film and therefore giving an overall feeling of being overwhelmed by information in the final act. One specific occasion comes to mind when Diane is left (all too conveniently?) amongst the archives of the press office which results in her reeling off a list of so many dates and events that it feels more like a history lesson than a horror film. At times, Gurshuny seems to have a propensity towards delivering exposition via voice overs which at best feels clunky and at worst overly patronising. Photography too is a little below par at points with a small handful of scenes being shrouded in so much darkness it’s impossible to see what is happening. To speak more favourably, the film carries that gritty, raw quality associated with low budget pictures of the early seventies and rather than feeling like an afterthought, the score is nicely interwoven with ticking, chiming clocks, cutting knives and tinkling piano keys all adding to the overall atmosphere.
It’s in the final act when the much-anticipated twist is revealed that the film takes a stylistic turn, adopting an altogether different and yet welcome tone that could very well be it’s finest moment. In mixes of sepia and black and white, evocative of family portraits that are so grainy and discoloured that you can almost smell their age we see the truth of the Butler history played out. In this montage of surrealism, there are strong nods to Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romeo), Carnival of Souls (Heck Harvey) and more specifically to F.W Murnau’s Nosferatu during a scene of large shapes and foreboding shadows. This being undoubtedly the highlight, we are then sadly lead to a conclusion in which a character verbally relay all we have just seen, an unnecessary and unwelcome addition. Thus the film limps towards its climax rather than building to it which zaps any sense of revelatory energy or satisfaction.
Despite including acting heavyweights such as John Carradine in Silent Night, Bloody Night what we are given is ultimately a cast of forgettable characters remiss of emotional depth or conviction. Notwithstanding a genuinely artistic final act, after its weapon wielding kills and yarn of plot there is little left to enjoy, although some might find that this is enough to keep them watching for 85 minutes, as it did indeed me on this occasion. If horror movies are like fine wines then this one is certainly not a vintage, in fact, for me personally it is at times even a little unpalatable but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be to everyone’s tastes!