Don’t get lonely: SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT on DVD (again)

Film Chest DVD 001 I was asked recently — it being the season to be jolly and all — about my favorite Christmas movie and after a moment I said, or typed, “SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT!” I surprised the questioner. I surprised myself. Mind you, I’ve always liked this very strange and haunting 1972 movie, a proto-slasher film that boasts more than a few of what we now consider to be standard tropes of that invasive subgenre and which anticipates plot points and aesthetic flourishes from BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) and HALLOWEEN (1978). I don’t like it expressly for these reasons but there they are and I think the film’s prescience is certainly noteworthy, even praiseworthy. But there’s something else, something so affecting and knowing and honest about this cheap horror film, something so unusual (especially now, in retrospect), something I’ve never been able to shake since I first saw it decades ago on late night TV — and for this reason it jumps to the front of a queue that also includes the eclectic likes of CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944), IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946), MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947), 3 GODFATHERS (1948), SCROOGE (1951), BLAST OF SILENCE (1961), CASH ON DEMAND (1961),THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973),  LA BUCHE (1999),THE CHILDREN (2008) and, yeah, even LOVE ACTUALLY (2003).

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SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT doesn’t have an especially good reputation, even among die hard horror hounds. Leonard Maltin (or someone who looks like him) called it an “uneven low-budgeter” and left it at that. The OVERLOOK FILM ENCYCLOPEDIA: HORROR dispenses with the film using a few very terse words, one being “convoluted,” and in NIGHTMARE USA: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE EXPLOITATION INDEPENDENTS, author Stephen Thrower trashes SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT as “painfully slow… plotted for maximum irritation, with a deferred mystery structure that will have you screaming with impatience after the first hour.” Michael Weldon’s THE PSYCHOTRONIC ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FILM tendered a somewhat kinder judgement: “Muddled but interesting.” Interviewed in STARLOG magazine some years ago, the film’s female lead, Mary Woronov, barked “SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT was terrible.” silent night bloody night paragon vhsMaking matters worse, rights issues stemming from MGM’s acquisition of the title in a merger some decades ago kept the film vaulted following its home video release on VHS tape in the 80s. There has been a slew of gray market DVD releases over the years, from such dubious labels as Diamond Entertainment, Brentwood Communications, Direct Source Label, Alpha Video, Desert Island Films, St. Clair Vision, Platinum Disc — and that’s just North America. It has been sold as a stand-alone disc, as the bottom half of a DVD two-fer, and bundled into several fright film multi-packs — never looking particularly good and often looking downright awful. Dark, impenetrable — for a third of the film, the unwary viewer has no idea of what’s going on — suffice it to say that, from a home video standpoint, SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT has never been a party favorite. Well, good news on that front, as not one but two DVD companies have reissued SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT in somewhat restored form, allegedly taken from 35mm elements. Nobody’s saying original 35mm elements but elements is elements and the renewed detail teased out by these restorations is worth crowing about. Today I’m going to focus on the version being offered by the Film Chest Media Group, though I’ll speak about the recent Code Red release (which pairs SNBN with INVASION OF THE BLOOD FARMERS) as well. First, let’s get down to cases…

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Diamond Entertainment DVD (2000)

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Film Chest DVD (2013)

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(Diamond Entertainment DVD, 2000)

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(Film Chest DVD, 2013)

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(Diamond Entertainment DVD, 2000)

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(Film Chest DVD, 2013)

Shot open matte by GIMME SHELTER cameraman Adam Giffard, SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT was exhibited theatrically at 1.85:1 and you can see the differences in the above frame grabs from the Diamond and Film Chest discs. The Film Chest DVD mattes the image at 1.78:1, with the loss of some visual information at the top and bottom of the frame and some added detail on the sides. There is a wealth of detail I had never before appreciated, such as the fact that James Patterson spends the film’s last act with his face stained with blood. (It was also a revelation picking out among the bit players actor George Strus, who later played the mafiosi who gets the bottle busted over his head in SHAFT.) The Code Red disc is likewise clearer and brighter, though its colors are much more vivid, more intensely chromatic. A yeoman’s comparison of the Code Red and Film Chest discs might tend to favor the former but I think SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT was shot with a cold color palette in mind and wasn’t meant to look like a Vermeer painting. I don’t have the Code Red disc handy but I’ll point you to the website DVD Beaver, where critic Eric Cotenas walks us through the specifics of several DVD releases and you can draw your own conclusions.

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Seeing a somewhat optimal presentation of SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT only strengthens my affection for the film, especially now that I’m older and more attuned (or more sensitive) to its ideas about loneliness, isolation, alienation, and despondency. It’s very easy for a screenplay to lapse into academic cleverness when it diagnoses every character with the same disease but SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT avoids that MAGNOLIAish pitfall by distracting viewers with an unapologetically pulpy logline:

In the tumbledown Massachusetts hamlet of East Willard, the proposed sale of the long-abandoned Butler estate– once a private mental institution- draws to town moody, cash-starved heir Jeffrey Butler (Patterson), his slick big city lawyer Carter (Patrick O’Neal), Carter’s European mistress (Astrid Heeren), and, unbeknownst to them all, an escapee from the Margaretville State Hospital for the Criminally Insane… who, by axe, shovel, and shiv begins to demand bloody retribution from all involved in the sale. As the bodies begin to pile up, Jeffrey forms an uneasy alliance with Diane Adams (Mary Woronov), daughter of East Willard’s mayor (Walter Abel), to get to the heart of the mystery.

SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT  kicks off with a morose instrumental arrangement of the Yuletide standard “Silent Night” that sets the perfect tone of loneliness and regret — a tone that is supported and echoed by Gershon Kingsley’s original score (which owes a stylistic debt to Bernard Hermann’s score for PSYCHO, I suppose, but soon asserts itself to become quite its own animal.). For a film resplendent with axe choppings, shovel bashings, limb severings and burnings alive, SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT‘ is an affecting group portrait of people isolated from one another by status, by age, by geography and psychology. Where the film distinguishes itself from so many other killer-in-the-house vehicles is in establishing a human context for the mayhem; the survivors who queue up for the downbeat finish seem determined to do so in order to matter to someone else — even if that someone else is a homicidal maniac.

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A few years back I sought out some of the film’s surviving contributors and had a brief exchange with screenwriter Ira Teller. Better known perhaps as a movie ad man, Teller created campaigns for John Carpenter’s DARK STAR (1974) and HALLOWEEN, Tobe Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974) and Don Coscarelli’s PHANTASM (1979) — it was Teller who penned the classic lure “If this one doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead!” Teller was brought on to  project by executives at Cannon Films (in their early days, before the Golan-Globus epoch of Chuck Norrisiana) and asked to write a first draft over one weekend. Teller’s original title was HOUSE OF BUTCHERS, though that changed in preproduction to ZORA. (The name Zora had absolutely no purchase on Teller’s script, but was rather the title of an unrelated screenplay owned by Cannon and drafted into incongruous purpose until the final title was selected.) The film credits Teller alongside director Ted Gershuny and producer Jeffrey Konvitz (whose novel THE SENTINEL was adapted for films in 1977) but SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT‘s essential particulars — specifically making the film’s core protagonists senior citizens — seem to be the work of Teller alone.

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Given that SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT went before the cameras over forty years ago, it’s no surprise that a great many of its cast is no longer with us. Dead in 1994, headliner Patrick O’Neal contributes a disarmingly warn performance for such a reptilian character, especially when he drops his guard to sing the classic C. Austin Miles hymn “In The Garden” and later capers for his European mistress. (O’Neal has an earlier bit on the telephone with his young daughter and estranged wife that speaks volumes for his character’s midlife need for emotional distance.) Tony Award winning actor James Patterson had appeared with Heeren and O’Neal in Sydney Pollack’s CASTLE KEEP (1967) — his death from cancer in 1972 (the actor is revoiced for several scenes) is a tragedy of John Cazale-Walter McGinn proportions. HOLIDAY INN‘s Walter Abel (who died in 1987) gives a compelling, pained, and at times intriguingly awkward performance as the local official who knows more than he lets on while John Carradine (who died in 1988) plays a mute cancer survivor whose preferred means of communication is via a desk clerk’s bell. Broadway actors Walter Klavun and Fran Stevens are also long gone, as is director Ted Gershuny (who was, at the time, married to leading lady Mary Woronov). Most of the Andy Warhol crew who pop up in an extended asylum revolt flashback are long dead, including Ondine, Candy Darling and performance artist Jack Smith. Philip Bruns (yes, the father in FLASHDANCE) died only last year while radio performer Staats Cotsworth (who provides the voice of Bruns’ character) died in 1979.

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The Film Chest DVD includes additional (if inconsequential) footage that was missing from the old Paragon VHS but has been included on every DVD release that I’ve seen. Unfortunately, the new DVDs carry the alternate title DEATHOUSE – sometimes spelled DEATH HOUSE – the use of which dates back to Cannon’s reissue of the film. (The inferior Diamond DVD boasts the original SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT title card but is missing any reference to Cannon and winds up clipping the composer credit from the opening titles.) For a “restored version,” the Film Chest is sadly bare bones — there are no supplements at all and only 6 chapter stops, without even an essay discussing the film’s history and influence — hell, I would have written that for free. Still, it’s a worthwhile release and, whether you’re familiar with the film or not, I urge you to have a look this Christmas. See it with someone you love.

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Visit the Film Chest Media Group website.

To order Gershon Kingsley’s original soundtrack for SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT, visit the Howlin’ Wolf Records website.

7 Responses Don’t get lonely: SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT on DVD (again)
Posted By James : December 20, 2013 11:39 pm

An interesting side note to the film – many of the actors in it were veterans of Andy Warhol’s Factory (including Mary Woronov). I don’t know anything about the production of the film, but I assume this isn’t a coincidence.

Posted By James : December 20, 2013 11:40 pm

Apologies – you did note this in the article. I brought it up because I am curious about the connection between the two.

Posted By Robert Cashill : December 21, 2013 12:20 am

This is one of those movies, like THE HOUSE OF SEVEN CORPSES, BEWARE! THE BLOB, and LEMORA, THE LADY DRACULA, that WOR-9 in New York fit into commercial-ridden two-hour timeslots. Younger cinephiles don’t realize that us geezers had to DO THE WORK to get through these things. In any event I’ve always kind of liked it, in its low-fi way–and I own both DVDs, too. (Gershuny later wrote an amusing fly on the wall account of the filming of Otto Preminger’s stiff ROSEBUD, SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE.)

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : December 21, 2013 2:27 am

There are a lot of Dark Shadows troupers in the mix, too. A fascinating cross-pollination!

Posted By Laura : December 21, 2013 10:09 am

Excellent article. You’ve made me re-think this one. I watched it for the first time a couple of nights ago and absolutely hated it, almost turned it off. Now I wonder if I’d think differently if I saw a better quality version.

Posted By Bhob : December 21, 2013 11:10 pm

As a kid, I always loved when NY’s WOR, channel 9, would play this during the holidays. The asylum revolt flashback is delicious!

Posted By doug : December 22, 2013 1:53 am

Not so much about the film itself, but I appreciate seeing the differences between the earlier muddled video presentations and the high def.
The combination of sharp pictures and clear audio do much to rescue old films. Blu-ray
has been wonderful; II doubt that 4k viewing will ever catch on, but the more films redone in blu the better.

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