Recently, our own Dan Casey did a list of nine Christmas horror movies to check out. I had seen or heard of all of them –I eat horror movies for breakfast — but the one I knew next to nothing about was the 1972 film Silent Night, Bloody Night. The similarly titled Silent Night, Deadly Night from the early ’80s is about a maniacal Santa suit-clad teen whose repressed trauma has turned him into an ax murderer. Bloody Night, however, isn’t that, and I was interested to know what it actually was like. It turns out, it’s kind of a weird art film, starring a bunch of people from Andy Warhol’s Factory. Oh, you wacky ’70s.
Whilst looking for Christmas-themed movies to do for this column, knowing there are some but not a ton of ones worth talking about, I was pleased to see that Silent Night, Bloody Night was on Amazon Prime. “Score!” said I, alone in my apartment. I then let out an audible “Ugh” when I pushed play and saw that it was a cruddy public domain movie. And it’s mostly voiceover. And all the characters are dubbed… oh no. Mary Woronov, why are you in this movie? Oh, you were married to the director, Theodore Gershuny. That explains it. So, I hunkered down and started watching what I assumed would just be a bad, bad time. And, surprisingly, in the course of the 85 minutes, I decided it kind of wasn’t. It was a interesting, kind of dreamlike horror movie. Didn’t expect that.
On Christmas Eve in 1950, a man named Wilfred Butler runs out his large house, apparently having been set on fire. He died, as you might have expected. Years later, a lawyer named John Carter (not of Mars) arrives in the snowy Massachusetts town with his comely assistant. He is representing Butler’s grandson, Jeffrey, who is eager to sell the family mansion for $50,000. (Dan Casey was right; that’s an insanely cheap price for a mansion.) Carter meets with the town nobles and none of them seem to want to buy, or have anything to do with, that old house, especially Mayor Adams. That night, after John and his assistant have sex, they are murdered in their bed with a large axe. The culprit calls the police and claims to be named “Marianne.”
Tess, the town’s phone operator, intercepts the call and goes to meet Marianne but she’s bashed over the head with a candlestick. Later, as the sheriff is driving toward the house after getting word of the murder, he notices an overturned grave in the cemetery and stops to find it to be Wilfred Butler’s. “Marianne” bashes him over the head too, falling dead into the empty grave. So, things are going a bit weird here. Mayor Adams receives a mysterious call to go to the Butler mansion and leaves his adult daughter Diane (Woronov) alone, however Jeffrey Butler arrives at her house and startles her, causing her to pull a gun on him.
She eventually lets up and the two go to investigate the sheriff’s car, which Jeffrey claims to have found on the side of the road. Things get even weirder when they visit the town’s elder Charlie Towman (John Carradine) who doesn’t say a word, only croaking agreement or disagreement. Later, Jeffrey hits Towman with his car after Towman has had his eyes stabbed out and wanders into the street. Certainly something is amiss and the two finally go to the Butler mansion to investigate, where Jeffrey finds his grandfather’s diary, which explains that the elder Butler and his daughter Marianne had an incestuous relationship (which drove her insane). So Butler turned the house into a mental asylum with his daughter as an inmate. Eventually, he releases the inmates and they kill Marianne. But, then, who exactly is the killer?!
This movie’s got a lot of twists and a good many turns. John Carter and his assistant are set up early on to be the leads of the film. They even get top billing. But, like Janet Leigh in Psycho, they’re dispatched right away. It becomes a paranoid thriller as anybody could be next, and anybody could be the murderer, especially setting up Jeffrey as the likely perpetrator. The movie does a really good job of keeping you guessing and not revealing too many plot details too early.
It’s also trying to do something distinctly artistic which you wouldn’t have expected. There are flashback scenes or scenes of the diary being read that are all depicted through voiceover and sepia-toned still images that may move every few seconds. It’s a really eerie and effective technique, especially given the film’s low-budget and the print’s disrepair. The murders aren’t gratuitous but do offer the right amount of blood. It feels a lot more gritty given the snuff film aesthetic. Dreary, snowy locations also give it an unsettling air.
The real problem with the movie isn’t the story or even how it was intended, but the fact that it was recorded silently and redubbed later. It feels like you’re watching a bad kung fu movie except with everybody speaking English, both in the visuals and in the audio track. It’s much cheaper and easier to shoot a film silent and then dub it later, and this movie clearly needed to spare expenses where it could. It also adds extraneous voiceover narration where none really needs to be, simply to have some kind of sound onscreen. Luckily, the score by Gershon Kingsley is really, really creepy so that makes up for it a bit.
I certainly wasn’t expecting what I got from Silent Night, Bloody Night, and if you can get over the horrible transfer and hollow sound — which I’ll admit are pretty rough — you actually get a very effective, very eerie proto-slasher movie that doubles as a kind of visual art experiment.
Images: Armor Films Inc.
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!