“The mansion… the madness… the maniac… no escape.“
Alternative title “Night of the Dark Full Moon”
This is perhaps one of my favorite classic horror films of the 70s– A gloomy tale of incest, madness, depravity and revenge. I’ve chosen not to give away any of the plot twists or uncover the secrets of the story. I will not spoil the ending for those who haven’t seen this obscurely surreal gem.
Though the film is considered a cult hit by many of us, it’s still obscure and deserves a first look for those who might be interested in seeing it, or because they are drawn to the newly discovered beautiful moments that occur in such a low budget horror film.
Directed by Theodore Gershuny (Sugar Cookies 1973) Silent Night Bloody Night was actually filmed in 1970 but not released until ’72. Contrary to some people’s beliefs, SNBN predates Bob Clark’s Black Christmas by 4 years. Silent Night Bloody Night plays like an eerie and odd nightmare. I know It gets compared to Clark’s Black Christmas which is an undisputed masterpiece but SNBN was filmed in 1970 and came out two years before. And has it’s own very unique story to tell.
Based on Jeffrey Konvitz’s story. Konvitz wrote yet another of my top favorite horror classics of the 70s The Sentinel starring the superb Burgess Meredith as a very cheeky devil. I read both books which were equally chilling as they were enthralling, back when reading the novel was as thrilling as then going to see it on the big screen.. Silent Night, Bloody Night is being re-released on DVD on December 10th restored from 35mm. This excites me indeed! My copy has already been pre-ordered.
IMDb touts a remake to be released in the US in February. The film will be called Silent Night, Bloody Night: The Homecoming. This I am not so excited about. I love this particular original too much to want it re-envisioned with the current careless and gory lens. NOTE: There are exceptions to remakes… I won’t get into that here and now.
What made SNBN so richly evocative for me was it’s uniquely creepy un-selfconsciousness. Dealing with heavy themes, it managed to come across as a startling fairy tale ‘like’ bit of blood letting with an authentic 70s flare. I don’t need a more hideous version of this movie with hacked body parts as a way to reintroduce this story. This does not frighten me, nor disturb in a good way. I imagine it might become like every other violent blood show with effects and body violation that will detract from the moodiness of the original.
Patrick O’Neal opens the original film playing a brief role as a big shot realtor John Carter who gets axed to pieces in bed with his lover. Cult film star Mary Woronov plays Diane Adams daughter of the Mayor. Walter Klavun is the town Sheriff, Bill Mason.
John Carradine plays mute curmudgeon Charlie Towman who publishes the weekly newspaper. Apparently his croaks and grunts were dubbed in afterwards. Walter Abel (Fury 1936, Mr Skeffington 1944) plays Mayor Adams. And Fran Stevens plays Tess Howard who operates the switchboard.
Plus, the film is back-dropped with an assortment from Andy Warhol’s acting “Factory.’ Mary Woronov 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. And character actor Philip Bruns plays the patriarch of the estate now deceased, the eccentric Wilfred Butler.
James Patterson who plays Grandson Jeff Butler (Lillith 1964, In The Heat of The Night 1967) died of cancer shortly after principle shooting was completed. They substituted Patterson’s voice with another actor. Grandson Jeff played by Patterson has a sort of veiled flirtation with Woronov who is the mayor’s daughter.
Henry Shrady’s art direction was responsible for the wonderful sense of claustrophobic ambiance that becomes part of the pervasive madness as he created later on with Jack Palance’s and Martin Landau’s hilariously frightening performances in Alone In The Dark in 1982. Shrady also did (Cry Uncle 1971 and Squirm 1976)
In a small rural New England town, (I recently lived in New England for two years and can tell you that writer Stephen King has his pulse on a very real provincial and closed society that keeps it’s secrets and it’s turmoil quietly buried underneath the pristine beauty of the landscape) Wilfred Butler, played by Philip Bruns, is the patriarch who reigns over his mansion secluded away from the small town and then dies on Christmas Eve 1950 as he runs from the place set on fire.
The film’s prologue shows Wilfred Butler running from the mansion enveloped by flames, Then we are dropped into the present day when realtor John Carter (O’Neal) arrives at the house with his gorgeous lover Ingrid (Astrid Heeren). Carter comes to finalize the sale of the house with the town elders. who are four sullen and a strangely nervous bunch. The excellent casting and presence of these somewhat distressed characters add a nice layer to the creepiness that builds. Fran Stevens as Tess Howard is perfect. Abel as the Mayor, the ubiquitous Carradine as the mute Towman and Walter Klavun as Sheriff Mason are equally well suited to play this strange and secretive quartet.
The Butler house once opulent, inhabited by Wilfred and his young daughter sits for years uninhabited and abandoned. The current horrible events unfold during the Christmas season twenty years later. Grandson Jeffrey inherits the creepy place, but someone deadly and deranged is lurking within the mansion and around town. As Christmas draws near, the four members of the town are lured to the old house and butchered.
Although the film has the appearance of that 70s ‘low budget’ feature, what has emerged for me as I revisit these films with a sense of nostalgia and the clarity of retrospection I find that many obscure films like this one can be considered classical masterpieces because of their sparsely framed environments, authentically offbeat characters and a realism that doesn’t get covered up by opulent set pieces and star billing.
The scratchy gritty low lighting that creates an eerie darkness, presents it’s own unease for us. It will be fantastic to sit and re-experience the film without some of the poor quality of the print hindering the scenes.
Still, SNBN is undoubtedly one of the most atmospheric horrors of the 70s. Like Let’s Scare Jessica To Death. It’s a self contained world of distorted truths, hysteria and a claustrophobic bit of vintage nihilism and yet again a distorted tone of American values.
We aren’t thinking “will the characters survive?” as it is not a linear story in the sense that we follow along and grow frightened for the protagonists on their journey through the plot. Because every aspect of the story sort of lies within the looming darkness, we’re left to be frightened for ourselves. The question of escape doesn’t enter into it. The question of ‘what is really going on here?’ does…. and it becomes progressively disturbing.
Which leads perhaps to one of the most memorable flashbacks of 70s horror films for me. Performed in murky sepia and wide angle lens to add to it a sickly decrepit tone of the archaic mournfulness of a disturbing past. As it shows us what happened long ago at the Butler Estate in the 1930s, it’s one grotesque fête. A creepy sequence that for me is unforgettable and for po-mo junkies it’s filled with Warhol minions.
The one plot setback that I read by critics more often than not is that it takes a while for the excellent story to finally unfold. Well I think there’s too much atmosphere for me to need constant movement or disclosure at every frame. It lends to the claustrophobic vibe.
Patrick O’Neal, who plays lawyer/real estate agent Jack Carter, comes to the small town of East Willard in order to sell the Butler house. He reeks of sophistication and arrogance as he carries on with his girlfriend while spending the night in the house, ultimately getting themselves hacked up. Grandson Jeffrey Butler comes to town as well to sell off the estate. The locals begin to appear agitated and to make the story a bit edgier there’s a nearby insane asylum inmate who has escaped and is on the prowl.
Gershuny and Adam Giffard frame the plot at times from the POV of the mysterious killer stalking the house and the town folk. Once again SNBN predates Bob Clark’s Black Christmas point-of-view of the killer, and the freakishly terrifying voice on the phone and of course the grisly murders.
Patterson who plays grandson Jeff Butler was dying of cancer at the time. He has an interesting defined face, like Tommy Lee Jones, partially sensuous and just a bit menacing.
The film possesses some truly effective grisly death scenes. Axe murders and uncomfortable themes. I won’t call this film a slasher flick, though it is referred to as such at times. This underrated film that was released before Black Christmas or Halloween is not a slasher film. What it is, is characteristic of 70s atmospheric horror stories that emerge more potent in retrospect than when they are initially viewed. I credit this to a sense of unselfconscious film making. Some low budget horror films gain a natural eeriness that is allowed to come to the surface. Thus forms an organic horrifying realism. or sense of surreal dread.
As promised I won’t give away the story, I will say that the town folk have a secret. They are not the upstanding citizens they pretend to be. They want to purchase the house so they can rid themselves of the history of the house. The various grisly scenes of murder are frighteningly tense and creepy. Tess Howard being summoned to the house by the eerie caller. John Carradine’s character Towman who constantly rings a bell and although doesn’t utter a word exudes a cantankerousness. It’s all gruesome and opaque in a way that makes this film a uniquely satisfying chiller.
Merry Bloody Christmas from your ever lovin’ 70s MonsterGirl!