Sunday, December 17, 2017

12 Horrors of Christmas: 'Silent Night, Bloody Night' (1972)

Not to be confused with the much more popular Silent Night, Deadly Night (which came out 12 years later), Silent Night, Bloody Night is a grimy, micro-budget indie horror movie with only a minimal connection to Christmas. (Its title is sometimes listed as Night of the Dark Full Moon or Death House, but of course the Christmas connection is more attention-grabbing.) Weird, atmospheric, slow and often nonsensical, it's half horror B-movie, half art project, with a cast that includes a number of Andy Warhol favorites. If it had been more avant-garde or more straightforward, it might have worked better, instead of ending up in a disappointing middle ground.

Set in a small Massachusetts town, the movie takes place on Christmas Eve, but aside from a few decorations in the background and instrumental versions of "Silent Night" on the soundtrack, the time period isn't really addressed. The main significance of the date is that terrible events at Butler House seem to have always occurred on Christmas Eve. The house's reclusive owner Wilfred Butler supposedly died on Christmas Eve in 1950, and now his grandson Jeffrey (James Patterson) has finally returned to town to sell the house that's sat empty for 20 years. Why has Jeffrey waited this long? Is he actually the escaped mental patient mentioned at the beginning of the movie? Director and co-writer Theodore Gershuny is not interested in answering these questions, and even when the movie stops cold on several occasions for reams of exposition (often courtesy of cult icon Mary Woronov as Diane, daughter of the town's mayor), it usually provides just as many questions as answers.

Pretty much everyone in the town is creepy, including Diane's father the mayor, and the awkward acting adds to the unnerving atmosphere. Whether that was a deliberate choice by Gershuny or a product of poor acting and/or directing is tough to say, but the presence of various Warhol players (including Woronov, Candy Darling, Ondine, Tally Brown and others) gives at least some hope that it was the former. Either way, the movie is often off-putting just in a basic dramatic sense, in that the actors seem to be almost unaware of each other at times, acting into a vacuum rather than with their scene partners. Gershuny pulls a Psycho-style bait and switch with the most conventional characters, lawyer John Carter (Patrick O'Neal) and his assistant/mistress Ingrid (Astrid Heeren), appearing to be the main characters (O'Neal even gets top billing), only to get killed off after the first half-hour, right in the middle of getting amorous at Butler House. Carter claims to have been retained by Jeffrey Butler, but once Jeffrey shows up there's little indication that he actually knows or cares about the lawyer.

Jeffrey eventually teams up with Diane to investigate the murders happening up at his old house, but of course he behaves weirdly enough that it seems like he might be the killer. Even after watching the entire movie I'm not entirely sure the extent of his involvement. There is some creepy atmosphere as the killer lures various townspeople to Butler House with menacing, whispered phone calls, and a sepia-toned third-act flashback meant to explain the backstory (with only limited success) has a kind of surreal, haunted quality that would have been effective if extended to the entire movie. In addition to the Warhol players, John Carradine shows up as the town's mute newspaper editor (which has to be a tough position), and Troma mastermind Lloyd Kaufman is one of the movie's producers. It's an odd assortment of talent that might have produced a misunderstood masterpiece, but instead came up with a movie that's just easy to misunderstand.

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