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The F*cking Black Sheep: Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972)

THE BLACK SHEEP is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATH. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Dig in!

SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT (1972)

DIRECTED BY THEODORE GERSHUNY

Be honest friends and fam, how many of you have seen the cold and cruel Christmas horror flick SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT? No, No, not SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT – the killer Santa slasher video nasty from 1984 – we’re talking about SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT, the atmospherically frosty axe-murder mystery shot in 1970 and released two years later. Yup, that one! Now, we’ll forgive you if you’ve not been made acquainted, it is the holidays after all, and we know full well, through no fault of its own, how this flick easily could have and ultimately was lost in the shuffle around the time of its release. If for no other reason, 1972 was one of the all time great years for cinema.

Filmed under the original title of NIGHT OF THE DARK FULL MOON (nice Giallo title), subsequently renamed DEATHOUSE, SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT would not only suffer a confusing double name-change, remember, the original TALES FROM THE CRYPT was also released in 1972, and I have a sneaking suspicion its one superlative stint of yuletide terror – And All Through the House – largely overshadowed SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT in its day. Of course, a dozen years later the flick would be buried even further in obscurity when DEADLY NIGHT would all but render the film forgotten.

But not today, boys and girls. Today we’re fixing to fete, as an unduly lost relic of Christmastime terror, a gory gift-bag of progenitive slasher goodies. Straight up…SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT is no F*cking Black Sheep in the Arrow in the Head Nativity Scene. Quite the opposite. Merry Christmas y’all!

Co-written and directed by Theodore Gershuny (SUGAR COOKIES), SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT boasts a wickedly gripping premise on which its entire mystery is constructed. In 1950, a man named Wilfred Butler (Staats Cotsworth) returns to his snowbound mansion in East Willard, Massachusetts on Christmas Eve, only to learn the place has been transformed into a mental asylum, one where the inmates are increasingly running the joint. Butler objects, the patients snap, and soon the old bastard is burned to death in his front yard. Cut to the now, 1970, when Wilfred’s grandson Jeffrey (James Patterson) has finally decided to sell the now abandoned mansion. Only it isn’t abandoned. Turns out a black-glove wearing, prank-calling, serial axe-murdering madman has holed up inside the mansion and begun phoning up every related townsfolk to come over to catch a nice brutal helping of cold death! Question becomes, who exactly is doing the killing? Is it vengeful Jeffrey? Is it the venal Mayor Adams (Walter Abel)? Could it be the Mayor’s daughter Dianne (Mary Woronov)? The answer? Held tightly under the vest until the f*cked up finale!

The first thing about SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT that makes an instant impression is the eerily chilly atmosphere Gershuny establishes. Not just in terms of a gritty, tactile 70s style filmmaking aesthetic – hand held camerawork, jarring jump cuts, unsettling long takes, etc. - but also in terms of the harsh, unforgiving frigidity of the wintery setting he’s chosen to set his story in. Indeed, the weather outside is frightful. Too bad the fatal mortification inside will make your blood run even frostier! Accompanying this unassailable atmospheric dread is a splendid score by Gershon Kingsley, which has no less than three genuinely unnerving piano variations. So right off the bat, even before wading through the twisty plotting knots, the movie grabs hold of you simply through its sinister sights and sounds.

As for the story, what really makes the film work so well is the intrinsic mystery and how off-balance the various red-herrings keep you guessing throughout. Better still, in retrospect, the scant hints and subtle clues as to the culprit’s true identity can be slyly spotted along the way. In other words, the conclusion does not come out of left field at all, it remains satisfyingly germane to all that preceded it. And still, hard to see coming. The concomitant bloodshed in the story is also pretty damn grisly. Our killer fancies a long-handle axe-blade that he uses to brain, bludgeon and blindside people to death with, each stint coming with its own vicious variety of gruesome vitiation.

My personal favorite? Probably the first major kill in the spree. Our mysterious maniac climbs up the stairs to the master bedroom – in prototypical POV slasher fashion – enters the room and rapidly, rabidly, rapaciously chops a pair of randy mid-coital lovebirds into gory rounds of freshly ground chuck. The kicker? Our killer then, as an act of kindness I suppose, pulls out a leather-bound bible, thumbs down a verse, before placing a necklace crucifix in the gore-sodden palm of one of his victims. Not icy enough for you? This sick f*ck then calls the local police in a bizarre whisper in order to summon more potential victims to the Butler abode.

Talk about underappreciated. Most horror aficionados like to credit BLACK CHRISTMAS as being the definitive American slasher progenitor – what with the stalking killer POV (made most famous by Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN), the voyeuristic male gaze, gloved hands, shrouded identity, etc. But real shite, SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT also boasted these now celebrated and universally recognized tropes and tenets of the subgenre. In fact, just as BLACK CHRISTMAS presaged HALLOWEEN, it too predated WHEN A STRANGER CALLS by seven years in terms of its mortifyingly foul-mouthed prank calling. Well, while far less profane, whispered prank calling of a terrorizing sort also takes place in SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT and done to comparable effect. Telephone whispering is inherently creepy, and in this film, it not only plays a major part in the plot, it works just as well as the aforementioned movies that made such a phenomenon so memorable.

Last but not least, we’d be remiss not to mention a subplot in the film that starkly calls to mind what Darren Aronofsky did just this year with MOTHER! In a coolly stylized recurring flashback motif, bathed in a tinctured sepia, we see Wilfred Butler become driven to his width’s end by the ever-demanding inmates of the asylum that his house was turned into. Talk about unwelcome inhabitants of a sacred place! As the flashbacks mount, the manically frenzied vibe felt in the final reel of MOTHER! cannot be denied. The escalating abuse, the trampling and trouncing upon a sanctified piece of land, the increased anxieties and pure panic incurred as a result. Truly, having just seen both films a few weeks apart, I’d be flat out shocked if Aronofsky hasn’t at least seen SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT once before. After all, the alternate title of DEATHOUSE could very well apply to both films!

So yeah, as far as Christmas horror flicks go, SILENT NIGHT BLOODY NIGHT is most certainly an unwisely discarded F*cking Black Sheep of a good time. Perhaps it was the title changes, the fecund year of 1972, the success of Tales From the Crypt, maybe it was the fact the film fell into utter obscurity after going into public domain following its initial drive-in run. Whatever the case, more people need to see and discuss SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT. At the very least, it ought to be credited for boasting slasher movie tropes we’ve come to know and love so well, and frankly, credit other movies with creating. Bottom line: with its shivery atmosphere, engrossing mystery, spine-twisting score and unremitting bouts of axe-bladed horror, SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT truly deserves more love. So let’s give some to it this Christmas!

STREAM SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT HERE

GET SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT ON DVD HERE

Extra Tidbit: Many of the cast of players were former "superstar" actor/personalities from Andy Warhol's "Factory" years: Star Mary Woronov (who was at one time married to director Theodore Gershuny), supporting players Ondine, Candy Darling, Kristen Steen, Tally Brown, Lewis Love, filmmaker Jack Smith, and artist Susan Rothenberg (IMDB.com).
Source: AITH

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