If there’s anything low-budget shocker Silent Night, Bloody Night proves with certainty, it’s that the bulk of the scares are so strong that Bob Clark cribbed many of them for his 1974 opus Black Christmas, and that there’s no place like home for the holidays.
Possibly the earliest modern Christmas slasher (excepting of course that Tales from the Crypt segment with Joan Collins – maybe I’ll get to that slice of holiday cheer next year) poor Silent Night, Bloody Night has been wasting away on public domain for years, which means you can pull up a comfy chair, spike your eggnog and enjoy it right now:
(By the way, if you’d like to see a better version, there is a not-bad restoration from Film Chest. Personally, SNBN has my vote for a big Anchor Bay re-release)
In case you didn’t just watch it, here’s the synopsis which will contain spoilers:
It’s Christmas time, and super suave lawyer guy (Patrick O’Neal, PS.) and his Jane Birkinesque ‘assistant’ arrive at the old Butler mansion (a Death House, if one of the alternate titles is to be believed) with the intent to sell it on behalf of the grandson of the ex-owner (who set himself on fire, no big deal). They meet the town’s council, and intend to stay the night in the house. What should’ve been an extramarital copulation in musty sheets that haven’t been changed in years turns into quite a stylish and brutal axe murder. And it’s a felling axe, which are used specifically to cut down trees, which reminds me of Christmas trees, so you’d be hard pressed to find a more festive axe-ing. Up ’til now there’s been some marvelous killer POV tracking shots, but roundabout now is when you’re really going to want to take out your Bob Clark bingo card.
The killer then starts making whispery phone calls to the town council, introducing himself, chillingly, as “Marianne” and coercing the phone operator to visit the Butler mansion. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Butler, the grandson in questions meets up with the daughter of the mayor (cult favorite and Warhol superstar Mary Woronov) and they set out to find out what’s going on with the missing sheriff. Everyone more or less ends up at Butler Mansion eventually.
At the Butler Mansion, we’re treated to some major revelations (maybe there’s a reason Jeffrey has such strong facial features) in the form of a sepia toned Grand Guignol flashback made all the more effective with public domain degeneration. During Butler House’s mental institution days, Grandpa Butler set all of the crazies loose to parade down the walkway, Night of the Living Dead style, in order to crash a fancy Christmas party the resident doctors were having. Well, they didn’t so much crash the party as much as they brutally murdered the doctors and stole their booze. Keep an eye out for more Warhol superstars – Candy Darling and Ondine both make appearances.
Later, a misunderstanding ends in gunfire and we learn the true identity of Marianne – a person from the past, just looking to be with his daughter for Christmas and also to terrorize everyone who’s ever wronged his family. As one does.
Of note is Silent Night, Bloody Night’s use of the revenge motive, a device that would become tired and rote in later slashers. While many lesser slashers spend a couple of minutes revealing the traumatic event that led so-and-so to stalk cheerleaders, SNBN really earns its revenge motive, crafting a respectable mystery laden with scandalous small town secrets.
As far as 70’s drive-in cheapies go, Silent Night, Bloody Night has a lot of unexpected suspense, directorial skill, and style. Obviously, it’s not without its issues, there’s some stiff performances and the long-winded, freeze-framed expository parts aren’t exactly filmic, but nitpicking a film like SNBN seems feeble when the foundation is so strong. While Billy would go on to make terrifying, lewd, and schizophrenic calls in Black Christmas two years later, Marianne’s calm, cold whisper is frightening in its focus. Director Theodore Gershuny’s point of view shots are uncomfortably long. Part of what makes that initial axe murder so – ( I hesitate to say rewarding, but if you’re cool with me calling an axe murder ‘festive’ I don’t see how that would be out of line) rewarding is how long we’ve anticipated it. By that point, the gore clips are just gravy. It’s always a treat when a public domain film with a misleading cover such as this:
…ends up being so atmospheric and inevitably influential. Not to say Gershuny invented the slasher wheel, but dude had some impeccable influences, and Silent Night, Bloody Night sets an undeniable bar for all that followed. For all of its quirks, SNBN is relentlessly effective and certainly deserves a spot in the canon of early slashers that would go on to shape a subgenre.