Sunday, March 10, 2013

Silent Night, Bloody Night - Seminal Slasher Fluid

The Trailer


A prototype
If you look in the right places, you find footnotes which observe Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972) seems to be the earliest incarnation of the slasher film as we know it today.

There are other influences, to be certain, dating back to the Grand Guignol, but take a gander at the flick, and you'll see it certainly looks like the cookie cutter that shaped many films to follow.

Penned in part by Jeffrey Konvitz who'd go on to write the post-Exorcist demonic thriller The Sentinel the film seems to be on the crest of a cultural wave. Unlike other films that quickly followed, including Black Christmas (1974), it's about adults and not teens, but otherwise the familiar ingredients are present.

Since it wasn't released until 1974 and probably not widely seen in its day, it's fun to speculate on whether  it was directly influential or if it just somehow detected the same cultural elements and tributaries from earlier cinema that flowed forward to films like Halloween. Watch before the spoilers begin below.

Our Feature Presentation 

Not only does the film feature a host of slasher tropes. It revolves around the horror staple, an old dark house, Butler House, to be precise.

It's around 1970 as the story opens,  but we learn Wilfred Butler apparently flamed out on the doorstep 20 years earlier. That's from narrator and cult film favorite Mary Woronov as Diane Adams, the mayor's daughter, who's looking back on more recent carnage.

That was touched off, she recalls, with the escape of a mental patient who pounds through scenes with POV shots and heavy breathing reminiscent of Jason's shssss, shssss, shssss approach in Friday the 13th.

The escape coincides with the arrival of above-the-title star Partick O'Neil as the lawyer for Wilfred Butler's grandson, Jeffrey (James Patterson. No not that James Patterson.)

Jeff's finally willing to sell Butler House at the fire sale 1970 price of $50,000. The town fathers including a mute John Carradine, all of whom arrived in town during the Depression, are happy to buy with designs on tearing the place down. Who wants an old dark house around dragging down everyone's mood?

Before the papers can be signed on Christmas Eve, fitting the holiday trope into the mix, the adulterous O'Neil and his supermodel girlfriend, Astrid Heeren, are axed in the flick's bloodiest on-screen deaths, just like scores of promiscuous teens to follow in later films. There's even a scene of a Bible and crucifix being placed near the bodies to add symbolic weight.

It's also reminiscent at once of seeming protagonist Detective Arbogast's death on the stairs in Psycho and future surprise deaths of name stars doing day work.

Then founding fathers, and one mother, start to die soon while Jeff meets and seeks the help of Diane.

After they drive around in the cold and the dark a while, a lost diary, severed hands, strange  phone calls and more tropes follow until Jeff finally reaches Butler House and begins to read Wilfred's rambling account of what happened to his daughter and Jeff's mother.

There's family baggage to say the least, and a wonderfully creepy sepia flashback with bleeding blackshadows explains all on the way to the conclusion that makes Diane a prototype Final Girl years before Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode out-lasted less studious classmates.

There are moments that stretch credulity and others that might have had more explanation in the script, but  the overall effect is a bit grim, delightfully shudder-inducing and better than you'd expect.

Since the film got mostly drive-in release before building a cult following on VHS, it's a bit appropriate to watch it as a grainy and scratchy old theatrical print and get in-the-moment of forty years ago and contemplate a subgenre's course. It's also fun to contemplate what's going to happen at the end when the bulldozer collides with the thick, underpinning building blocks O'Neil's character alluded to shortly before his demise.

And again with higher definition
I suppose it's  appropriate that like every other '70s and early-'80s slasher, this one's getting a remake. Silent Night, Bloody Night: The Homecoming looks fairly faithful, though it also seems to include a Santa everyone thinks is in the original  because it sounds like Silent Night, Deadly Night.

The Remake trailer

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