DECEMBER 24, 2011
Finding a golden era slasher I haven't seen is hard enough; finding one I've never even HEARD OF is like winning the lottery. While researching the history of Christmas-themed horror films for my latest Badass Digest article, I stumbled upon To All A Goodnight, which had so many surprising factoids about it that I almost wondered if I had undergone some sort of Eternal Sunshine-esque memory wipe for this particular film - how could it have passed me by?
For starters, it was directed by Krug himself, David Hess. I'm no scholar on the guy, but I've read enough interviews and such over the years that it seems it would have come up in one of them: "I was inspired by Wes when I directed my slasher movie..." or something along those lines. In fact it was his sole directorial effort, made all the more interesting by the fact that he does not appear in the movie. There's a role of a cop that seems perfect for his persona, but it's played by Sam Shamshak, a character actor who made his own debut here. Also of note - the script is credited to Alex Rebar, best known as the title character in Incredible Melting Man.
Even more surprising is its placement in the canon of slasher films - it was one of the first! Despite a thin story that goes through all of the motions you'd expect, and a killer's motive that seems directly lifted from one of the genre's most iconic titles, it was released in January of 1980, months before Friday the 13th - the success of which made several producers realize that Halloween wasn't a fluke, which is why the bulk of the titles slasher fans know and love came out in 1981. Watching it, you'd swear it was a knockoff from 1983 or 1984 (that it stars the preternaturally cute Jennifer Runyon from the latter year's Ghostbusters only strengthens the feeling - she went from starring in a movie to playing bit roles? Wrong way!), but that's what copyright dates and the internet is for.
Again, this baffles me - why doesn't anyone ever mention this thing? Hell, it even has a crazy old guy named Ralph who foretells of doom, and while it's impossible for Friday to have ripped this off (it was already in post when this was released), the sheer number of coincidences should have prompted more discussion. Also, the killer dons a Santa suit for a number of their kills, which makes me wonder why A. the parents groups didn't protest this the way they did Silent Night Deadly Night, and B. why it's not mentioned when folks discuss Silent Night Deadly Night. You can't have a conversation about Halloween without someone bringing up Black Christmas - you'd think I would have come across a smartass saying "Well actually, David Hess did the killer Santa thing four years earlier..." (note - from now on you will, but that smartass will be me). And while we're mentioning movies from 1984, I was also amused by the fact that the heroine's name was Nancy and one of the other girls was Tina - perhaps Wes was actually paying homage to his buddy's movie when he wrote the script for Nightmare On Elm Street?
The only one that might have been an influence was Black Christmas, given the setting (a college sorority house during Christmas break). There's also a house mother character, and a heavier than usual police presence, but otherwise the films aren't much alike - this is a straight up traditional slasher, whereas Bob Clark's film was much classier and more psychologically driven. It also didn't have a "reveal" of the killer, unlike this which has the motive I alluded to earlier, plus a little "bonus" that made up for the fact that I was able to peg the killer and his/her motive after about 40 minutes.
You might have noticed that I haven't mentioned whether or not the movie was GOOD. Well, it's not great by any means, but it's a perfectly serviceable slasher for the most part. The terrible VHS transfer (how did we watch movies like this?) is so dark that it makes most of the kills hard to gauge - they MIGHT be bloody? There's also a scene where Nancy talks to another character that is literally impossible to see until he makes a gesture at the end of their conversation - I assumed he was just cropped out of the shot or something. But there are a lot of them - the body count is around 12, which is much higher than the average for the day (and again, said average didn't really exist yet - it seems like it's trying to "top" movies that were not yet made!).
It's curiously paced though - the 2nd act doesn't have any kills at all, really. It's one of those "a prank goes wrong and years later the involved parties start getting picked off" movies (again, the first?), and said scene takes place 40 seconds into the film. And the killer shows up right away, knocking off 3-4 kids in the first half hour. But then they cut to the next morning and nothing happens until much later. Given that Halloween was one of the few slashers to exist at that point, and that the killer is hilariously dressed in a Santa suit (or a suit of armor at one point - huh?), you'd think there would be a lot of stalking, but sadly one of the movie's biggest faults is that the killer only appears right before he strikes for the most part - there's no scene of him prowling around or watching the girls. He just shows up when he needs to be there, even for more elaborate killings like when he somehow gets up into a tree in order to lower a wire noose around the neck of the movie's alpha male.
Speaking of him, one of the movie's more memorable aspects is the hilarious lack of monogamy among the teens. On the first night, one girl beds the nerdy guy she just met, while another bangs her boyfriend. The next day, the latter flirts with/bangs a cop, which inspires her boyfriend to go after that first girl. But don't feel bad for the nerdy guy, as he has somehow moved on from her and begins pursuing Nancy. Not to sound like a broken record, but the sexual hijinks seem like the result of some producers watching a few of these movies and saying "OK, kids fuck and then they die, got it", but unless they came from the future they didn't have much to go by - Annie and Lynda are pretty faithful to Paul and Bob, and When A Stranger Calls' Jill didn't even have a boyfriend that I can recall.
That's actually one of the many little touches that give this a personality, making up for the rather bland slasher stuff. I particularly liked that the main cop (Samshak) has to specifically warn his middle aged deputies not to bang any of the college girls they're assigned to keep an eye on, because their parents were all important in the town or whatever. I like it even more that the warning was ignored (a girl just up and decides to bang one of them out of nowhere). This girl also miraculously survives the slasher spree, but she's far from OK - after her encounter with the killer she seemingly goes crazy, and spends the rest of the film spinning around in circles and babbling in a sing-song voice. At one point she's carrying on as the killer pursues Nancy, and the killer doesn't even seem to care! It's wonderfully odd.
I also loved the following exchange, between one girl and the aforementioned Ralph:
Girl: "Come on in, we're having cherry pie."
Ralph: "I like cherry pie...."
Girl: "Yeah, you and Nancy both."
Ralph: "I like Nancy too...."
So basically, for the most part it's kind of a "for completists only" affair, but the fact that it predates so many others means it should be given more acknowledgment. Even if you like Friday the 13th or Silent Night Deadly Night more (I do, in fact), respect is due to the film who did these things first. But of course, without ever being released on DVD, as well as Hess' recent death and the fact that pretty much every cast member vanished off the face of the earth after making the film, I highly doubt a remastered special edition is ever going to see the light of day. And that's a real shame, not only is the movie nearly impossible to find (I have the good fortune of knowing Phil Blankenship, whose extensive VHS collection can always be counted on for such matters), but there are few who can discuss its production and/or explain why a Christmas-set horror movie came out at the end of January. Or explain the film's bizarre poster, which suggests that the killer is the ghost of Professor Coldheart? Thus, I guess it's not too surprising that I couldn't find a trailer on Youtube, either. Oh well. If you ever find it, give it a look! You'll be part of an exclusive club!
What say you?