Programming note: This will most likely be my last review until some time after Christmas. My MATRIX RESURRECTIONS review is in-progress but I don’t want to rush it and I’m hoping I can get in a second viewing soon. For now please enjoy this perhaps overly detailed assessment of a lesser known killer Santa movie. Happy holidays, friends!
David Hess was a singer and songwriter in the 1950s. Under the stage name David Hill he recorded a version of “All Shook Up” before Elvis did, and later wrote some lesser known Presley songs including “Come Along” (from the movie FRANKIE AND JOHNNY) and “Sand Castles” (from PARADISE, HAWAIIAN STYLE). He also penned songs for Pat Boone and Sal Mineo.
In 1972, like The King before him, Hess took his talents to the big screen, starring in a movie and recording the soundtrack for it. But this was pretty different from LOVE ME TENDER; it was Wes Craven’s LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, and he played the despicable villain Krug. It kicked off an acting career in American and Italian exploitation, episodes of Knight Rider, The A-Team, etc., often, I’m afraid, playing criminals and rapists. He was in THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK, Craven’s SWAMP THING, and even Mark L. Lester’s John Candy movie ARMED AND DANGEROUS (as Gunman #4). Since he was reportedly a Method actor, I’m sure he was fun to be around.
And he directed exactly one feature, the Christmas slasher movie TO ALL A GOODNIGHT, given a limited release in January of 1980 before going to video in ’83. (Yes, it’s surprising that a Christmas movie didn’t catch on a month after Christmas.)
Coming almost a year before CHRISTMAS EVIL and four years before SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT, it’s said to be the first killer Santa movie. One thing I find so interesting about the slasher subgenre is how they all end up using the same cliches, and sometimes it’s clear where they’re ripping it off from but sometimes it just seems to be what everyone at the same time just instinctively knew you were supposed to do in these. Before looking at the chronology, I would’ve assumed this came out during the slasher boom when they were all copycats of each other. In fact it’s early in the cycle, after HALLOWEEN but before FRIDAY THE 13TH, when things really blew up.
If it’s copying anything it’s obviously BLACK CHRISTMAS, with which it shares the concept of someone stalking the female students staying behind at a school during winter break. But while BLACK CHRISTMAS leaves its killer mysterious, TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT has a whodunit structure, with its Santa-masked killer revealed at the end. This would also happen in the first FRIDAY THE 13TH and many others, but at this time the precedent was, I don’t know, THE TOOLBOX MURDERS? And I suppose many giallo films, which Hess would’ve known about.
The movie starts with a quick flashback to two years ago, as a student at the Calvin Finishing School For Girls (Carrie Cobb) is for some reason being chased around by the other girls, some of them wearing Santa hats and waving knives and axes saying they’re gonna cut her head off. They do not seem serious about it, but she’s scared of them and falls over a ledge and dies.
It all happens so fast and without explanation and there’s a pretty funny stiff-bodied dummy shot when she falls. But to me the goofiest part of the scene is one of the girls yelling “Sorority! Sorority!” as they chase her up the stairs. It seems like shorthand for “you know, this is one of those sorority pranks gone wrong type scenarios, you get the idea, let’s move on.” Except, of course, THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW had not come out yet, nor had non-sorority prank-motivated slashers THE BURNING, PROM NIGHT, SLAUGHTER HIGH, TERROR TRAIN or URBAN LEGEND. Could this be the originator? I don’t know.
Then it’s the present, and most of the students are going home to their families for Christmas. This must be a school for the super-rich, judging by all the vintage Rolls Royces they’re being picked up in. Similar to the much-later HALLOWEEN H20: 20 YEARS LATER, our protagonists are staying and planning a get-together away from the prying eyes of the house mother Mrs. Jensen (Kiva Lawrence, SCHIZOID, as “Katherine Herrington”). They accomplish that by giving her drugged milk so she’ll sleep for 12 hours.
The girls are Melody (Linda Gentile), Leia (Judith Bridges, THE KID FROM NOWHERE), Trisha (Angela Bath, PORTRAIT OF A SHOWGIRL), Sam (Denise Stearns) and Nancy (Jennifer Runyon, 18 AGAIN!, CARNOSAUR). Nancy has many of the traits of what we now call a Final Girl – she’s the only straight-laced, goodie-two-shoes of the bunch, the one who notices danger before others, becomes the central character, and survives. What’s different from some of the more successful slashers is that these qualities make her by far the least appealing (and also she becomes sort of the sidekick to a boyfriend). Runyon later played Cindy Brady in A Very Brady Christmas (I hope they hired her based on her Christmas movie experience), and here she kind of acts like an annoying little sister, a timid party pooper, complaining about being homesick and not wanting to participate in anything fun. I don’t know if this means she’s more Finished than them or what. But there’s a scene where she sits outside drinking a glass of milk while listening to sex moans.
What makes this generic story tolerable for me is that the other girls just seem really fun. The big smiles on the actresses go a long way to making them likable. I think you’re maybe even supposed to think they’re a bunch of horrible bitches – drugging somebody is not excusable! – but they mostly just like boys and alcohol, which are both legitimate interests. They just seem to be having mischievous fun. I like them.
Their boyfriends fly in on a small plane. They come bearing gifts of alchol and wearing Santa hats and beards. They make the pilot (porn star Harry Reems, credited as “Dan Stryker”) stay with the plane – he spends the night alone on the ground under the plane in a sleeping bag.
At the school they sit around the fireplace. One boy wears a Hawaiian shirt, another strums on a guitar, but Alex (Forrest Swonsen) wears glasses so he talks about the history of x-ray technology. There’s a whole thread about how Melody flirts with Alex and he resists her because he’s a nerd so he’s in love with Nancy who is also a nerd and doesn’t know she’s pretty. He does however allow Melody to give him a handjob.
When Trish – who stands out by having an accent and talking about sex the most – goes to get beer, she’s killed by the killer Santa. As in HALLOWEEN, she first assumes it’s her boyfriend, who then gets it when he comes looking for her. The others don’t find out because the Santa hides the bodies. We see him shoveling and then he notices a stiff hand sticking out of the ground so he steps on it (with a crunch) and then slides some dirt over it with his boot.
Some of the kills are boring, just quick stabs or slashes. But there’s one really good one. Sam and Blake (Jeff Butts) are having sex on a bearskin rug (what kind of fancy ass school is this?) when suddenly a crossbow fires an arrow through the back of Blake’s head and out his mouth. That’s a good Savini-esque shock right there but what’s great is then the suit of armor that has been standing in the corner the whole time drops the bow and chops off Sam’s head off with a battle axe.
One surprising thing is that the killing doesn’t all happen that night. The next morning the surviving boys are still at the school and Mrs. Jensen warns that they better leave before the superintendent returns, but otherwise she doesn’t seem to have a problem with them. Which makes you wonder why they drugged her!
Who could the killer be? Could it be Ralph (West “Buck West” Buchanan, THE LONG RIDERS), the tall, socially inept groundskeeper in the herring-red button up shirt who keeps startling the students by appearing out of nowhere holding a giant pair of shears and saying weird things like “It’s our duty to take care of plants. God put ‘em here to give us pleasure” or “There’s evil here, I can feel it, the Devil’s here”? Well, no, he turns up dead in a weird scene where Alex pretends to be a monster and chases Nancy and she trips on the body and he sits up?
So then they’re finally aware that there are murders going on. A cop named Polansky (Sam Shamshak, “Fundraiser Guest,” BULWORTH) tells them to stay at the school and stations two officers there. One of the cops (Jay Rasumny, who has bit parts in BREAKIN’ 2, BAD BOYS II and THE GODFATHER: PART II) openly sees this as an awesome partying situation, and is soon in bed with Leia. Since early in the movie Leia’s most identifiable trait has been her habit of twirling around singing “tra la la” to herself, and unfortunately that’s all she knows how to do after being traumatized by finding Sam’s head hanging in the shower.
The sex cop comes stumbling in with a knife sticking out of his back, pursued by the Santa, carrying a knife. So we know this is a killer who brings backup knives.
If you get a kick out of ineptitude in these things, there’s plenty for you. Reportedly the VHS transfer was unwatchably dark, while the one on DVD fails to hide lots of day-for-night shooting, so it seems to frequently jump back and forth between darkness and daylight. And I thought it was funny when the house mother’s friend Mrs. Ronsoni (Judy Hess) said of Ralph, “I don’t know how you stand that big gazock around here, he gives me the creeps” because it’s clearly meant to be after he leaves the room, but he’s still standing a few feet away from her when she starts saying it. Look at this!
The biggest laugh though is the scene where Alex goes to warn Mrs. Jensen, who is aware that her co-worker Ralph has just been murdered, that “I think we’re in quite a bit of danger.”
“Danger? Why should we be in any danger?” she asks.
“Ralph was murdered. The man who murdered him could still be around.”
“Oh dear! That must be why the chief left the policeman here.”
Alex doesn’t really convince her to be worried but concludes, “We just wanted you to know.” Mrs.-Jensen-portrayer Lawrence is interviewed on Kino Lorber’s DVD, and brings up that scene. “I looked like a fool,” she says, blaming the editing.
Nancy and Alex, because they’re good kids who have not experienced penetration, take charge in the end, and when Melody is freaking out screaming “We’re gonna die, we’re all gonna die!” Alex does that thing where he says “Pull yourself together!” and slaps her. Because of his medical studies.
If you must know who the killer is (SPOILER), it turns out Mrs. Jenson was the mother of the girl killed in the prank, and believes Nancy was there, although she denies it. The twist is another element coincidentally similar to FRIDAY THE 13TH, though this at least establishes the crazed mother as a character from the beginning. Fittingly, Mrs. Jensen chases Nancy onto the same balcony and falls to her death.
In another surprise twist there is a second killer Santa, who turns out to be the father, and it’s the detective, Polansky? Okay. Alex saves the day by shooting him with an arrow that looks to be at least four feet long. As they’re leaving, they see crazed Leia dancing around and singing on the balcony, so Nancy wants to go help her.
“It’s all over,” Alex says. “We’ll send somebody back for her. Come on, baby.”
I hate this motherfucker!
The script is by Alex Rebar, who wrote an Amy Madigan action movie I reviewed called NOWHERE TO HIDE and, more brag-worthy, played the title character in THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN. Furthermore, he had another 1980 horror movie featuring Harry Reems, DEMENTED, which I watched for Slasher Search 2014 and found to be pretty reprehensible. So TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT is without a doubt the best horror movie written by Alex Rebar.
It’s definitely not one of the better slasher movies or Christmas horror movies. But it is passable as both and – hear me out, here – that makes me appreciate it. I can think of exactly two aspects to the movie that are in the spirit of Christmas:
1 – Merriness and jollity. Okay, that stops after everybody gets killed. But before that this is about friends having some drinks together and laughing and having a good time. And that’s the best part of holidays for me, when it happens. I hate how scarce it is during these pandemic holidays.
2 – Ritual. If a slasher movie is competent enough, or entertainingly incompetent enough, it doesn’t matter if it’s generic, I still enjoy going through the ritual of seeing these elements I recognize, watching it go down, going through the different steps of the story to get to the conclusion. So watching a movie like this can give me comfort in a similar way to busting out the egg nog at the right time of year or watching Charlie Brown, DIE HARD, KRAMPUS, DEADLY GAMES or A Very Murray Christmas. And yes, it’s like the annual ritual of trying to find another Christmas horror movie I haven’t seen. So, Merry Christmas, TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT. You’re not a very good movie but I enjoyed your company.
other holiday viewing: Before this I tried to watch one called SANTA CLAWS (1996), which is from George Romero’s less-visionary NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD partner John Russo. It was aggressively amateurish and I did not get far enough to find out why Santa has claws. From what I saw it mostly takes place during underwear photo shoots for what I believe was a real horror-themed pinup magazine Russo was involved in. So, combination softcore wank material and product placement.
Then I tried I’M DREAMING OF A WHITE DOOMSDAY (2017), also very low budget but going for more of an indie arthouse thing than a b-movie. It’s about a family surviving in a bomb shelter and I think maybe they’re gonna venture out to try to get some specific supply that they can use for a post-apocalyptic Christmas celebration. I really like that idea, if it is in fact the idea, but it goes for a very slow burn, minimalistic, we’re gonna take a long time before leaving this tiny room approach and unfortunately for me to be patient with something like that it’s gonna have to have way better cinematography and acting than they were able to achieve here. So I bailed.
I did watch THE TOWER, a 2012 Korean movie that a guy who goes by @ZomboArt on Twitter generously sent to me along with a couple other movies. It’s about a catastrophic fire that happens after a helicopter crashes into one of two skyscrapers connected by a sky bridge. It’s a luxury home for super-rich people and it happens during their extravagant Christmas party.
In the Irwin-Allen tradition it follows a bunch of different characters, including an employee of the building and his daughter, who gets stranded with his crush; a broadly comedic chef character and his girlfriend; a bunch of firefighters. The half hour of set up looks and sounds pretty cheesy, almost made-for-television, and I didn’t get much holiday spirit out of it since the Christmas parts are mostly these rich assholes oohing and ahhing at rich people indulgences. But as a disaster movie it’s impressive – very epic in its depiction of crowds screaming and running from flames, explosions, falling debris, broken elevators, etc., and the firefighters bravely risking themselves near the top of the building as the authorities on the ground talk about how doomed there are. Of course there’s lots of CG and greenscreen but to me the FX are mostly very convincing. So it’s pretty good.
And I watched one called THE ADVENT CALENDAR (2021) because it was the only one in Shudder’s holiday section I hadn’t seen besides two that I started watching and gave up on. It’s about a cursed advent calendar that causes some death and what not. I thought it was pretty decent and the lead actress was really good, but it left my brain so instantly that I forgot to review it.
Finally, I decided to rewatch Alex de la Iglesia’s DAY OF THE BEAST, which is also on Shudder and which I sort of reviewed more than 20 years ago. Maybe I’ll write it up on letterboxd or something. It holds up.