by Steve Habrat
In 1974, director Bob Clark forever tainted the holiday season with his chilling slasher flick Black Christmas, which is credited as being the first holiday-themed slasher horror movie that sliced and diced up teen protagonists. (Contrary to popular belief, John Carpenter’s Halloween wasn’t the first teen slasher film. However, due to its massive success, it is responsible for sparking the teen slasher craze that dominated 1980s.) Two years before Clark’s Black Christmas, director Theodore Gershuny also used the Christmas season as the backdrop for blood-curdling murder and mayhem. While not quite as frightening as Black Christmas, Silent Night, Bloody Night boasts one hell of a B-movie cast (Hey there, John Carradine!), and it packs plenty of gloomy atmosphere, ferocious violence, and (believe it or not), spine-chilling phone calls that will leave you hesitant to ever answer a ringing telephone again. It truly is difficult to believe this brooding little drive-in gem has flown under the radar for so long, especially considering the fact that it is floating around out there in the public domain.
Silent Night, Bloody Night begins with a flashback to Christmas, 1950, with Wilfred Butler storming out of his magnificent mansion in flames and dying out in the snow. On New Year’s Day, Butler was laid to rest, and his home was left to his son, Jeffrey Butler (played by James Patterson). Several years later, the Butler home lies vacant, and Jeffrey is looking to sell the property. Soon, a New York City lawyer named John Carter (played by Patrick O’Neal) and his girlfriend, Ingrid (played by Astrid Heeren), arrive to purchase the home. John begins negotiating with Mayor Adams (played by Walter Abel) and several other prominent town officials, but they all seem a bit scared of something. Meanwhile, a serial killer has escaped from a local insane asylum and has taken shelter in the empty Butler house. As it turns out, this madman is no stranger to the small town, and as he begins claiming lives, he threatens to reveal a horrific secret about the Butler home that town officials believed was buried with Wilfred Butler’s body. With the town on edge and several mysterious disappearances reported, Jeffrey arrives back in town to meet with John and Ingrid, but he is unable to locate them. With the help of Mayor Adams’ daughter, Diane (played by Mary Woronov), the two attempt to get to the bottom of what is going on.
With a title like Silent Night, Bloody Night, you may be under the impression that this impressive little horror movie uses graphic violence and gore to get at its audience. That couldn’t be further from the truth, as Gershuny goes to great lengths to give the film an ominous feel that never wears off. He enjoys giving us outside glimpses of the Butler house, standing silently and almost proudly out in the snow, only to cut to the darkened interior where horrible secrets wander the shadows. The filmmakers muster plenty of atmosphere and they divide it evenly throughout the film’s runtime, but the film isn’t bashful about its bloodletting. Gershuny borrows a page out of Psycho’s playbook and decides to hack up two characters that we have been led to believe would be the film’s protagonists. In a surprise twist, Gershuny unleashes his cold-blooded killer in an intimate moment, bumrushing the viewer with a string of brutal images that are dripping with blood. It’s a terrifying scene that acts as more of a nod to Hitchcock rather than a cheap imitation. Another nifty sequence comes near the end, with a grainy sepia flashback that looks like a hellish permutation of Night of the Living Dead and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It’s best not to reveal too much about the scene, but be warned that it is a visual stunner that is cramped with death and insanity.
Considering that Silent Night, Bloody Night has been cast into obscurity, you might be surprised to learn that there are several well-known actors and actresses attached to the picture. Among the familiar faces are Andy Warhol favorite and Roger Corman star Mary Woronov as the mayor’s pistol packing daughter, legendary horror actor John Carradine as a mute newspaper publisher, and veteran performer Walter Abel as the town’s doomed mayor. In addition to these solid cult players, Patrick O’Neal is strong in his brief run as the kindly lawyer John Carter, James Patterson is seedy and suspicious as Jeffrey Butler, and Fran Stevens is spooked and skittish as town phone operator Tess Howard. Overall, while time hasn’t exactly been kind to it, Silent Night, Bloody Night remains an eerie mystery thriller that wedges its way under your skin with a gruesome slasher spin. It’s acted with plenty of intensity, accompanied by a menacing score, and brought home with a twist climax that is about as bleak as they come. This is a holiday horror movie that is best suited for a snowy midnight hour.
Silent Night, Bloody Night is available on DVD.