Saturday, December 22, 2012

Meltdown 05: Slay Belles (Part IV)


Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) dir. Charles Sellier

Charles Sellier's Silent Night, Deadly Night allegedly caused quite a row between its distributors and various watchdog groups in the U.S. upon its initial release in 1984, due to a perhaps too-effective ad campaign. The notion of a murderous Santa Claus was simply too sacrilegious for the moral majority to bear, despite the fact that it had been done twice before in 1980 with Christmas Evil and To All a Goodnight. True, Silent Night, Deadly Night does manage to nick the concept from the former film (the inherent creepiness of the Santa Claus legend) while making it all the more lurid and slasher-audience-friendly, but it's still a relatively tame film, even by contemporary standards. It has a wonderfully ironic prologue, in which a murderous convenience store burglar dressed as Santa Claus traumatizes a young boy by murdering his parents soon after he was warned by his catatonic grandfather to fear the ever-ready-to-punish Santa. The grandfather brings up a good point: children-- even the most well-behaved children-- aren't nice all the time, and if Santa is as all-seeing as he's supposed to be, even the slightest bit of naughtiness should go punished. This fact, the grandfather states, makes Christmas Eve "the scariest damn night of the year," as one waits for the verdict and Santa's wrath. After this formative experience, the child grows up with the help of some nuns at an orphanage into a strapping, solidly built lad named Billy (Robert Brian Wilson), who the nuns then find a job for at a toy store, despite his still crippling Santa phobia and the fast approaching holiday shopping season. Billy's a wholesome fellow (we see him turn down a shot of J&B whisky in favor of a carton of milk), but after being compelled to dress as the store's Santa and greet frightened children he quickly decides to inherit the mantle of the great yuletide punisher of naughtiness, embarking on an eve of Christmas-flavored slaughter. 

Although the film wants us to chalk Billy's actions up to his childhood trauma, we also can't help but notice the self-interested nature of his rampage: what initially spurs his anger is seeing Pamela (Toni Nero), the co-worker he has a crush on, snogging with another fellow. One might claim Billy's actions as dictated by morality-- after all, he doesn't take action until Pamela's snogging partner attempts to rape her-- but his quick decision to then punish her with death as well deflates that argument (she's guilty of... being a victim?). It also reveals a second culprit responsible for Billy's psychosis: religion and its repressive doctrine. In Billy's mind, Pamela is guilty of not only a personal betrayal but also the crime of sexual activity, which was drilled into his impressionable brain by the nuns at the orphanage as a naughtiness worthy of punishment. The stricture against sexual thoughts or activity leads to some self-loathing on Billy's part (a naughty Pamela dream turns nightmarish) but mostly it leads to aggression-- a later pair of "naughty" victims are two young lovers whose only crime is going at it on a billiard table. Billy's problem is one of interpreting the Santa legend (and its relationship with religious morality, punishment, and atonement) far too literally, to the endpoint where he believes that even he, the punisher, should be punished.

A handful of the film's murder set pieces are fun (particularly the sledding decapitation and poor Linnea Quigley's skewering on a pair of mounted deer antlers), but the film appears to lose its bearings on the narrative at a certain point after the halfway mark, caring more-- as many slashers do-- for the efficiency and frequency of those set pieces above all else. A solid conclusion is reached by way of a rather clunky Santa Claus manhunt (again pilfered directly from Christmas Evil), preventing Silent Night, Deadly Night from enduring as a killer Santa flick par excellence.


Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 (1987) dir. Lee Harry

Suffering from Boogeyman II syndrome, Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 is a belated cash-in re-edit of the first film with some additional (yet inspired) new footage. No exaggeration, the first forty minutes of this ninety minute film are cut straight out of its predecessor with minimal interstitial footage of Ricky Caldwell (Eric Freeman), Billy's now-also-deranged little brother, being interviewed by a clinical psychiatrist. If one has watched Part I at any point in the recent past, it's advisable to skip this lengthy retread, but if one has not then it does serve as a competent enough Greatest Hits compilation of the first film's antics. What I found interesting was that the film continues with the flashback interview structure even after the forty minute mark, as it begins to utilize the newly shot footage. Strangely, this is an effective technique. Because Silent Night, Deadly Night 2, like the original film, expends most of its effort on crafting attention-grabbing murder set pieces, this structure provides a comfortable frame within which these random, discontinuous strands of mayhem can comfortably co-exist in a more-or-less coherent narrative. Not that the film seems to care much about coherency. I admire the way in which it shrugs off its own implausibility: when the shrink asks Ricky how it is that he could have been traumatized by the murder of his parents considering he was only an infant at the time, Ricky aggressively replies, "I was there!" And, later, when Ricky recounts a date at a movie theater in which he watches the opening scene of the original Silent Night, Deadly Night (or, you know, his life, which we also already saw in the first forty minutes of rehashing), we realize the flagrantly nonsensical nature of this postmodern sequel/cinematic remix. (A nature that makes sure to wink: one audience member in the theater barks at the screen, "This movie is so bogus. It really is"). 

Eric Freeman's bizarro performance as Ricky has been well-appreciated by Internet culture, but even that prime clip fails to capture the peculiar tenor of his truly unique (and, yes, uniquely awful) performance. He's a joy to watch, and is actually somewhat menacing on occasion-- we're never quite certain if it's the character who is about to snap or the actor portraying him. And returning to those murder set pieces, they really are quite something, as Ricky gores any poor sap who happens to be around or near the color red (he's like a bull in this way). My favorite-- and one of the most sublime murders in all of genre cinema-- involves Ricky impaling a homeless man with an umbrella, which he then expands after it has passed through the man. Ricky drops him and the umbrella onto the alley floor and ambles out of frame. The opened umbrella faces the audience, and we notice that its nylon canopy is slick with blood. The static camera lingers for a moment in its wide shot position before rain begins to downpour, slowly washing the blood away. It's an incredible moment, and it stands as a solid piece of artistic evidence demonstrating that the filmmakers, as raw of a deal as they were dealt in this film project, made the most of it.


Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! (1989) dir. Monte Hellman

Before the franchise descends into some awfully strange places in Parts IV and V, Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! gives one last hurrah for the Billy/Ricky story, though in fairness it hardly resembles either earlier film. Gone is the moral Santa phobia, replaced by telepathy, pseudo-science, and blindness. The ideas are fine enough on their own, but they're not well integrated into the preexisting continuity. Christmas hardly seems to be the motivation for the zombie-like Ricky's rampage this go-around, and he never even dons the iconic costume (though he does sport a goofy post-coma brain dome, that at one point he covers with a beanie cap-- I suppose in order to avoid brain freeze). This is a shame considering that the naturally wild-eyed Eric Freeman was replaced in the role of Ricky  by the always manic Bill Moseley, who one can easily imagine becoming the smirking, wire-thin Santa of naughty children's nightmares. Keeping Moseley's Ricky mostly mute and expressionless for the duration is a wasted opportunity, not least because it renders him into another bland stalk-and-stab machine of a villain. What the film does have going for it (which is, in the end, not enough to recommend) is a much more somber and moody atmosphere than either previous film, peppered with waking nightmares and slightly surreal imagery. The presence of a few David Lynch actors to-be (Twin Peaks' Eric Da Re and Richard Beymer; Mulholland Drive's Laura Harring) helps with this feeling from a retrospective position. But at its core, Part III is a standard issue thriller. It's the first in the series to present a conventional heroine (and quite a strong and interesting one at that) making it the most traditionally slasher-esque, but its low body count and labored pace is unlikely to set any pulses pounding. My jaw dropped a little when Monte Hellman's directing credit came on screen in the opening credits. But the director of Ride in the Whirlwind (1965), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), and Cockfighter (1974) lends little of his signature existentialism to the film, and it ends up displaying only his professionalism. If nowhere near a disaster, it's still the series' biggest disappointment.


Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation (1990) dir. Brian Yuzna


Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 3 had only a tangential connection to Christmas, but Part 4: Initiation is happy to sever ties completely, in more ways than one. Ricky Caldwell and his Santa hat are no where to be found (after the last film, perhaps a blessing), and neither is any subversive skewering of the holiday (this is less desirable). The film takes place around Christmas, but this holiday time frame is incidental at best. It's a Brian Yuzna production, and in many ways it's a less sophisticated rewrite of some of the queasy situations and set pieces of his superior debut feature Society (1989), a much more subversive and socially-conscious film (if less serious) than what this fourth Deadly Night brings to the yule log. Part 4 replaces the cultish and disgusting class warfare of Society with cultish and disgusting gender warfare, adding some religious mysticism in the process. But while its notion of a female empowerment coven that chooses to forsake and live without men (with all the lesbian overtones that implies) is provocative, its execution is problematic (our intrepid journalist heroine needs to be raped by a man (Clint Howard, no less), have her body violated by an oversize slimy phallic centipede, and kill a prepubescent boy in order to be liberated) and its conclusion is ambivalent as to whether or not such freedom from patriarchal control is either possible or desirable, even though all of the film's men prove to be real blowhards. But again: it's a Yuzna film, which means it's a gross-out masterpiece, and for many viewers that's where the film's value will lie. The whacked out body horror is as goopy and as sweaty as ever: centipede vomiting, hands melting together, and the constant threat of spontaneous combustion. Just forget the title and watch it any season you desire.


Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (1991) dir. Martin Kitrosser

The last entry in the initial franchise, Part V: The Toy Maker is Yuzna-produced and co-written, but his influence feels minimized. Unlike its immediate predecessor, it's a bit more Christmasy (toys and gift giving are the organizing principles) but then again the Geppetto and Pinocchio story, which is the film's true inspiration, is hardly the go-to holiday material. Like a lot of these Christmas horrors, the film begins with a child witnessing his parents boning. This in itself doesn't seem to traumatize the boy, Derek (William Thorne), directly, but the event immediately following, when an evil Santa-shaped Pokeball facehugger attacks his father and causes him to impale his face on a fireplace poker, sure does. This experience drives gentle Derek into muteness and fosters in him a strong distrust of toys with moving parts that appear as if they want to murder him. Appropriately, the film proceeds with a local hand-crafted toy merchant, Joe Petto (Mickey Rooney), and his son, Pino (Brian Bremer), sending sentient, diabolic toys Derek's way in order to murder him. Failing that, these clever toys settle for creating havoc in the lives of random folk: a centipede crawls into one dude's mouth and pops out of his eye socket; a pair of super-powered roller blades send a cool preteen for a fiery ride; the babysitter's boyfriend Buck gets his butt felt up by a toy arm (he enjoys this very much) before a saw-equipped battlebot, fully loaded toy tank, and exploding superhero action figure make short work of the horny teens. The film's concluding "revelations" concern Pino's robothood (and the lack of genitalia that such status implies) and his desire to get rid of Derek and so take his place in his mother's affections, which he demonstrates by feeling her up and calling her mommy (we just can't escape incest during the holidays!). Probably the most noteworthy aspect of the film is the involvement of Mickey Rooney. Back in 1984, Rooney publicly condemned the first Silent Night, Deadly Night for its monstrous presentation of a Santa figure, and yet here he is less than a decade later villainously hamming it up in Santa costume. How quickly minds change. If you ever wanted to see Mickey Rooney snarling and tussling with a teenaged boy while looking as if he is experiencing a series of small strokes, look no further.


Silent Night (2012) dir. Steven C. Miller

Steven C. Miller's loose remake of Silent Night, Deadly Night announces itself pretty quickly as an adherent to the same sort of grimy, trashy, needlessly violent aesthetic that the majority of modern horror of the last decade also pledges by. I guess one might call it "The Heavy Metal Horror Aesthetic," as it prizes whatever aspects can make a film the biggest, loudest, and dumbest. (No joke, the film's killer Santa is even revealed to be listening to heavy metal in his car at one point). This dreck wears those superlatives proudly: Silent Night revels in torturing its victims for pitiful laughs in dank locales with a muted color palette. It's not amusing, thrilling, or entertaining on any level, which is problematic when those appear to be what the film is aiming for. What, precisely, about a topless model being chased around a Christmas tree lot for several minutes, having her leg chopped off, and then being slowly (and screamingly) ground up in a wood chipper is pleasing? Miller has nothing interesting to say with his film (either about the holiday or religious morality or anything else) and so fills Silent Night with weak homages to the first two films and a thick, choking layer of seediness. Prepare for Santa-fied sexual innuendo along the lines of "It looks like Santa is coming early this year." Brace yourself for Malcolm McDowell looking like he couldn't care less as the world's first small town sheriff imported straight from the U.K. Hold on for a perverted priest who takes pictures of teenagers' breasts and blames the sin of society on "American Idol and Internet porn-ah-grow-phy." Whimper at the sight of the killer Santa's opening suit up sequence, straight out of Batman and Robin (1997). Sigh as you realize that Silent Night is not the wayward, groan-inducing exception for modern horror in the 2010s, but the rule. Bah humbug.

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