It seems wrong to even speak of a Christmas-themed horror movie in the wake of the Covina massacre, but since Theodore Gershuny's film does not involve a killer in a Santa Claus suit, I feel entitled to press on. There isn't really much of Christmas to the film at all. The season is invoked to justify the wintry visuals and an appropriately lachrymose rendering of "Silent Night" that plays over the opening titles and a crucial flashback sequence.
The story is presented to us in "I alone am escaped to tell you" mode by Diane Adams (Mary Woronov), who takes us back to December 24, 1950, the day Wilfred Butler came home for the last time. We see a man in flames burst out of the house, run a ways, then fall into the snow. Then we see him burn from inside the house, as someone plays an organ. Diane tells us that Wilfred left the house to his grandson Jeffrey, instructing him to "leave the house as I left it ... to remind the world of its inhumanity." Finally, however, Jeffrey's ready to sell. News of this provokes an wrench-wielding asylum inmate to escape in a nicely abrupt POV sequence. Meanwhile, Carter (Patrick O'Neal), "a lawyer from the city," arrives in town to handle the sale, and Diane (now a character in the story she's relating) drives past a disturbed-looking man standing beside a broken-down car. Once she's gone, he throws a fit and starts smashing his own car windows.
Carter meets with Mayor Adams, who is Diane's father, and several leading citizens to discuss the sale. One of these worthies is Towman, publisher of the local paper. John Carradine plays him in one of his lamest cameos ever. Gershuny must have caught him on a bad day, because Carradine never speaks in the course of the movie. Instead, he occasionally rings a bell as an interjection. The townsfolk are eager to acquire the house, but Carter asks for $50,000 on behalf of Jeffrey Butler, whom he admits he has never seen. After he leaves, the mayor asks Carradine what they should do with the house. Cut to a silent Carradine, then cut to a shot, presumably from his point-of-view, and a raspy, pathetic attempt to imitate him: "Tear it down!"
While Carter had his meeting, we got some POV shots of someone lurking in the Butler house. Carter is in town with his mistress, being estranged from his wife. He promises a surprise to his daughter over the phone. At the house, his girlfriend serves him dinner from the local deli. Carter tells her the building has a solid stone foundation that will give the bulldozers "the surprise of their lives" when they try to tear it down. They repair to the bedroom, but that other someone is still in the house. In a Psycho-style twist, this someone bursts in upon the lovemaking couple and kills them with an axe. Someone who seemed to be a major character has been eliminated less than half an hour into the movie. The killer leaves a Bible open and puts a crucifix into a bloody hand.
The sheriff's office gets a call from the Butler house. The caller identifies himself as Jeffrey and announces that Carter is missing. He sounds odd because he's sick, but he urges Tess, the sheriff's wife, to hurry over. Meanwhile, the weird-looking guy from the road steals Carter's car and drives to the Adams house. Diane sees him pull up, and holds a gun on him while letting him in. He identifies himself as Jeffery Butler. She wants to see some ID; there's an escaped maniac out there, you know.
"Do you want to see my maniac card?" he asks grumpily, "There's a big scarlet M on it so people won't get confused." Once he convinces Diane, he tells her he just wants to get into his house. She thinks the sheriff's deputy should be able to let him in. The sheriff himself pays a visit to Wilfred Butler's grave, and is suddenly axed to death. The murder scenes in this film are oldschool. They don't reflect any giallo influence, nor do they look forward to the slasher films of a few years later. They aren't "set pieces" but quick, brutal bursts of action for shock value only, and they're pretty efficiently done.
Failing to find the deputy, Jeffrey goes back to the Adams house. Diane offers him some bourbon ("It's cheap bourbon, but that's really popular around here"), then suggests going to his house together. Along the way they find the sheriff's car and sunglasses, but no sheriff. Now they go to Towman's office. He takes Jeffrey to Tess's house, which is filled with birds, while Diane hangs out at his office. Towman can't believe that Tess would go to the Butler house, since she supposedly hates the place, and in a fit of pique he leaves Jeffrey at Tess's place. At the office, Diane takes a call: "Tell him I have the diary ... he'll know Christmas Eve, 1935." Meanwhile, Tess finally arrives at the Butler house, only to be attacked in the dark, then placated with an offer to "Take my hand, Tess." It's a severed hand, and then it's time for the axe.
Going over Towman's files, Diane tries to piece a story together. She discovers that Jeffrey is a child of rape, just as he finally comes back and sneaks up on her -- meaning no harm, of course. He helps fill in the story by recalling that his mother Marianne died in childbirth, but Towman's files say that's not true. Hmmm. Meanwhile, we see a car get vandalized and burned. Now our heroes decide to try for the house again. Passing the burning car, they discover Towman wandering into the road, but not before Jeffrey plows the car into him, knocking him into a ditch. Examining the body, they discover that his hands had been cut off.
The mayor gets a call, purportedly from Marianne Butler, inviting him to the Butler house. "Marianne" tells him that his daughter's already there. The mayor heads out, but he's packing heat. At the house, Jeffrey discovers a manuscript from his grandfather Wilfred, illustrated for us by an overlong flashback sequence in faded colors. Wilfred had turned the house into an asylum, inviting experts to find a cure for Marianne's malady, but they merely took his money and took over the house for drunken revels. Wilfred knows what's wrong, anyway: he's guilty of incest, and Jeffrey is both his son and grandson! At some point, Wilfred had enough. He frees the inmates of the asylum, who invade the house with pitchforks, axes, etc. as the Silent Night, Bloody Night theme reprises. Problem was, in the confusion the loonies also killed Marianne. "All seasons have become as one," Wilfred wrote, "and that is a season of vengeance." I can admire what Gershuny was trying to do with the flashback, but it really does go on too long and pretty much kills the pace of the movie.
Back in the present, Jeffrey makes a deduction: Wilfred is still alive. He's learned that the town had been populated by the escaped lunatics, who've become the civic leaders we've seen getting whacked. Now the mayor arrives and finds Tess's corpse. We've been set up for a showdown in which each man thinks the other's the killer, with Diane in the middle and the real killer still lurking about. I'll leave the resolution for you to discover. Here are some of the visual highlights, or so the trailer claims.
Silent Night, Bloody Night has the virtues of modesty. It has the grungy lived-in feel of 1970s cinema, and the determined underplaying by Woronov and male lead James Patterson lend a touch of authenticity to the proceedings. Depending on your aesthetic sense, the lack of stylization or exaggeration gives the movie a certain kind of creepiness, but the backstory ends up being a bit too convoluted, and the exposition of it hurts the film's momentum. For a B-horror film from the period, however, I'd rate it above average. It's part of the Mill Creek Entertainment Chilling Classics box set, and while the print is predictably beat up, that doesn't do great violence to the desolate scenery, though it leaves some bits looking a bit too dark.
Reverend Phantom's Midnight Confessions blog convinced me to give the film a try. The Rev. posts "live reviews" of cult movies. That is, he records video commentaries including clips, stills and other visual references. He approaches his material with such enthusiasm that I could imagine him being a TV horror host back when there was more demand for that sort of talent. I think you'll find your visit to his site an entertaining one.