“The last two victims in a house of victims”
What’s Christmas without a holiday themed horror film? Not Christmas at all. As such, I viewed the 1974 genre flick Silent Night, Bloody Night with some friends to get in the festive spirit. Released the same year as Texas Chainsaw Massacre, director Theodore Gershuny decided to go in a more abstract surreal direction with his thrills, while keeping to a similar low-budget aesthetic. Because of this, while not being nearly as good as that Tobe Hooper classic, Gershuny’s work has a lot going for it and does merit some attention. It’s all about a mansion with a secret, a “ghost” calling a group of people back to it for one last confrontation of insanity and evil. With its voiceover narration of matter-of-fact exposition and tinted cut-scenes flashing back to the house’s earlier days, I couldn’t help but think about the old computer game The 7th Guest. Now that was a game that contained atmosphere and chills, enveloping the player with its motion-captured characters and open space maneuvering, (so much so that I desperately wanted to buy its quasi-sequel The 11th Hour, but alas, not available on Apple). Enjoyed for its look and style rather than its acting, story, or overall construction, this horror definitely warrants a look, although a peek should be enough.
The Butler family owned the house at the center of the tale many years back. It is told that the patriarch died in a fiery mess, his will turning the property over to his grandson Jeffrey with the stipulation to leave it be as a memorial. Many years pass and the mansion has remained unused and unsold, as per the deceased’s request, until our entrance into the story. A big-shot lawyer comes to call on behalf of the younger Butler with news that the house is for sale at a bargain rate to the town, if they still want it. You see, the town’s leaders have been hoping to one-day purchase the structure to tear it down and remove its blight on their history forever. The myths about it are many and people hold it as a haunted place to be ogled. The mayor, sheriff, and two other esteemed members of the society want to rid themselves of its troublesome presence—but perhaps for their own personal reasons.
As the story continues on, we discover that the house was made into an insane asylum at one point; a hospital that evolved into a place for fat and happy doctors to grow rich at the expense of the poorly treated ill. In what could be the most memorable scene of the film, a flashback shows these patients being set free to wreak vengeance on those that neglected and abused them. In a surreal orgy of violence and physicality, complete with Andy Warhol film regulars, we see the uprising and change of power at the institution, all but ushering in its demise. The Butler family, as it turns out, has more to do with the incident and players than just being the owners of the property. Complete with the present day escape of a patient from a nearby hospital coming towards the town, the parallels between the characters we are introduced to with those from that day of bloodshed start to overlap. We learn of violence, incest, the true background of people we are made to believe are upstanding citizens, and a conspiracy all but hidden about the town’s real history. This one night contains the makings for revenge and honor; payback onto the killers of a man’s daughter in cold-blood, a murder that left the father traveling from asylum to asylum trying to find those that did it.
It’s tough to explain the better parts of the film because those moments are usually the scenes of exposition. The flashbacks of what actually occurred those years ago, so that the mansion had become abandoned, are the crowning jewels of the movie. Visually raw and stylishly memorable in their contrast and gore, it’s a pleasure to be told what is going on because the screen shows off some interesting frames. Is it all convoluted and explained in such detail that it somewhat mocks the audience’s intelligence at figuring it all out? Sure, but because it all is so over-blown, the facts are a nice map to use while wrapping your head around the many dual roles at hand. It’s the discovery of who everyone actually is that brings pretty much the only scare to be had, albeit a purely psychological one.
Instead of leaving us with a great story, Gershuny decides to let the eccentric cast bring all the intrigue. Sure, the deaths are a treat, especially the opening burning and the first murder at the house while the victims slept in bed, however, the sheer oddness of all those inhabiting the screen are what won’t leave your head. From the smug lawyer played by Patrick O’Neal, the kind of performance just begging for a gruesome death, to the creepy wide-eyed stare of phone operator Tess Howard, played by Fran Stevens, to my favorite of them all, John Carradine’s vocally challenged, bell ringing old curmudgeon, you can’t help but laugh and learn to love the novelty of it all. Yet, it is the offspring of those from the past that become the weirdest of them all, complete with some of the most asinine dialogue you’ll ever hear. Q: “How old are you?” A: “Do you mean how many years have I lived?” Pure poetry. Mary Woronov’s Diane and James Patterson’s Jeffrey Butler are quite the pair. Left in the dark to the facts of what is transpiring around them, these two make it somewhat fun to go on the ride with. He is the epitome of creepy and she so annoyingly quick to change her attitude from skeptical to completely open to bewilderment and fear. What nuance. But again, watch this film for the visual flourishes—no matter how few—not the quality or craftsmanship. It’s also good for a laugh too if you have nothing better to do.
Silent Night, Bloody Night 5/10 | ★ ★