Sunday, December 28, 2014

Census Bloodbath: For Goodness Sake

Year: 1989
Director: Monte Hellman
Cast: Samantha Scully, Bill Moseley, Richard Beymer
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

The genesis of Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! is about as ignominious as a direct-to-video sequel can get. When director Monte Hellman was approached by his friend, who was producing the film, he only agreed to it because he had a wild fever and thought he was going to die. As it happens, he did not - in fact - perish, and he ended up at the helm of a low rent sequel to a low rent recut of an OK slasher in 1989, the year of the subgenre's ignoble death.

As you can imagine, the resulting film isn't exactly an undiscovered gem of 80's horror. But at least it's in reluctant continuity with the first two films, stretching itself rather farther than other - more prominent - franchises managed to do (Halloween III is notorious for not being about Michael Myers at all, but an evil mask company powered by Stonehenge. And it only took Nightmare on Elm Street one movie to turn into a gay body horror parable.). I mean, the film is insane, completely twisting the character of Ricky to fit into the post-Nightmare supernatural model, giving him a brain-exposing helmet that looks like a macabre terrarium and transplanting him from Utah to Southern California. But yes, this is actually a storyline worthy of commendation.

What passed for continuity in the slasher genre could only have survived in a decade powered by copious amounts of cocaine.

The film (when it finally begins after an interminably dull opening dream sequence where we see a girl sleep for two minutes then walk slowly around a white room for twice that) revolves around the exploits of drunk-on-science Doctor Newbury (Richard Beymer), who has a coma patient/ex-Santa Claus axe murderer named Ricky Caldwell (Bill Moseley of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) under his care. He experiments with a psychic blind girl named Laura (Samantha Scully) and attempts to use her dreams to access Ricky's subconscious memories*.

After a drunk hospital Santa carouses his way into Ricky's room on Christmas Eve, the catatonic serial killer is awoken by the twin naughty sins of yuletide inebriation and terrible puns ("Who's your favorite singer? Perry Coma?"). His seasonal rage is reignited and he uses his psychic link with Laura to follow her to her grandmother's place in Piru (this sequel is so firmly entrenched in its region, it would be commendable if it didn't so boldly fly in the face of the beautiful Utah scenery of the first film). With his brain firmly ensconced in its space-age chapeau and his trusty knife in hand, he skulks around Granny's (Elizabeth Hoffman) farm, putting Laura, her brother Chris (Eric DaRe of Twin Peaks), and his girlfriend Jerri (Laura Herring) at risk.

While Ricky's on the prowl, he is pursued by Dr. Newbury and the police Lieutenant Connely (Robert Culp). Either the budget was too limited or Robert Culp was too important, but these scenes almost entirely take place inside the car en route, presumably shot through in the course of one evening. So the film switches between dreary horror and the oddly homoerotic tensions between the two pursuers as the doctor spouts thoughtful monologues like he had eaten a thesaurus for lunch and it was beginning to disagree with him ("[blowing smoke up your ass] sounds like an enterprise of great pith and circumstance...").

*After the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street, these types of paranormal elements began creeping into the even the most stalwartly traditional of slasher franchises. Jason became a zombie and fought a telekinetic Final Girl. Michael became the victim of a druid cult. And the Prom Night franchise got crossfaded with the movie Carrie and featured a magical prom ghost for two of its middle entries.

What a magical decade.

Centering the plot around a family returning home for the holidays is a good move. It keeps the Christmas spirit intact because it's firmly entrenched in the plot itself. This is a great benefit because Ricky no longer takes on his Santa persona and the number of Christmas-related kills is nil. Come to think of it, the number of actual kills is just about nil as well, considering that just about every death takes place offscreen. There are some brief, half-hearted gore shots (some intestines and a surprisingly decent-looking severed head), but they take place long after the fact and are entirely separate from the action of the moment. They're more like a brief series of grisly tableaux than actual special effects integrated into the film itself.

Because of the dearth of decent special effects and the lethargic pacing of the plot itself, the film perfectly captures the feeling of slowly drifting off to sleep. This may have been what they were going for, I suppose, but I do not feel willing to bestow the benefit of the doubt upon a horror film with such anemic, plodding scares. Even the attack scenes in the finale are staged with deliberate pacing and stuffy presentationalism like a particularly arid episode of Masterpiece Theatre. Not even the music is attempting to spruce things up, largely sitting out the big scenes, and filling the moments in which it does appear with a shrilly sustained pitch like a hyperactive dog whistle. In fact, one kill is literally accompanied by the sound of crickets.

Silent Night Deadly Night III is mostly not even bad-good, which is a register with which this franchise has proven itself very familiar, so it's quite a disappointment. It's merely a perplexing botchery of the cabin in the woods genre. The paranormal elements are ill-established and have no payoff (also, Granny is psychic enough to know when the phone's about to ring but not deduce that the silent man stolidly eating mashed potatoes at her dinner table with his brain exposed is about to kill her), the kills are limp dishwater, and there's not even any exploitation of particular interest. Although Chris' bathtub scene and prodigious pelt of chest hair are charming in a soothingly retro sort of way.

A cheapo exploitation horror movie that sees fit to include a bath scene, yet neither kills the characters nor has them bang is a thorough waste of time.

Never forget this image when you're watching evil Leo be evil in Twin Peaks.

The mystical pure 80's factor is present in enough of the film to keep the suitably historical-minded engaged despite the extreme defecits of the plot and presentation. It comes through with especial strength in scenes like the lieutenant extolling the virtues of his car phone, Jerri offering Laura a naturally carbonated water with a look of reverent wonder on her face, and the fashion. 

Oh, the fashion! Chris, on top of looking like an anthropomorphic mop, drapes himself with denim to the point where I can only assume his underwear is likewise blue and scratchy. And Laura's outfit for a large portion of the film seems to be of a fashion movement entirely unknown to me called "business witch." 

Also, her earrings are, like, totally righteous.

On top of this, there are several (well, one or two) actively good elements of the film, though they rear their heads too rarely to actively applaud. First, the director seems to be somewhat present, unlike the previous films, festooning the movie with little visual fillips that are in a realm somewhere adjacent to cinema. My favorite of these moments is when Ricky gets up from his hospital bed, represented by a close-up of his IV unhooking. It's inelegant, but it evokes an image and an emotional response, something desperately lacking by most of the other moments.

And Scully is a decent Final Girl (the first legitimate character of that type in the series). She can't scream worth a lick, but there's a few lines of dialogue that feel lived-in and warm. Eric DaRe is another standout, his chemistry with the other actors proving to be a vital element in not wanting to drown oneself while watching the film.

Would you look at that? I'm ending on a high note. Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! certainly doesn't deserve it, but hey. It's Christmastime.

Killer: Ricky Caldwell (Bill Moseley)
Final Girl: Laura Anderson (Samantha Scully)
Best Kill: Dr. Newbury is stabbed in the gut and during his death scene (like 20 minutes later) we get to see his intestines. This is the extent of interesting visuals in the film.
Sign of the Times: Chris' badass gun-totin' one-liner is "Is it live, or is it Memorex?"
Scariest Moment: Laura tries to rush out the door, but is blocked by Chris and Jerri coming back inside. It's.... not the scariest film I've ever seen.
Weirdest Moment: When a gas station attendant is off being decapitated, his girlfriend talks dirty through the phone on the desk.
Champion Dialogue: "Who said you had to be the world's champion blind orphan?"
Body Count: 11; not including a nurse who dies in a dream or a man whose eyes are pecked out by a bird on TV. Kills that appear in flashback footage from Silent Night, Deadly Night are in italics.
  1. Ellie Chapman Caldwell has her throat slit.
  2. Hospital Santa is killed offscreen.
  3. Receptionist is killed offscreen.
  4. Father O'Brien Old Man Kelsey is shot to death. 
  5. PT Cruiser Driver is killed offscreen.
  6. Gas Station Greg is decapitated offscreen.
  7. Granny is hung offscreen.
  8. Dr. Newbury is stabbed in the gut.
  9. Jerri is stabbed in the chest offscreen.
  10. Chris is choked with a shotgun.
  11. Ricky is shot and impaled on a pool cue. 
TL;DR: Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! is a boring sequel that keeps its best moments offscreen.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1635
Reviews In This Series
Silent Night, Deadly Night (Sellier Jr., 1984)
Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! (Hellman, 1989)
Silent Night (Miller, 2012)


  1. What?! Monte Hellman, a director who has movies in the Criterion Collection for goodness sakes, directed the third installment in a slasher series? That's insane! Hellman seriously has the world's most bizarre filmography.

  2. I find it difficult to contemplate the possibility that a movie involving a slasher villain with an EXPOSED BRAIN is boring. Seems like the sucking dullness would have to be near to a perfect vacuum to accomplish that.

    ...and seriously, how can you finish Ricky off by shooting and impaling him? He has, and I shall capitalize it again, an EXPOSED. BRAIN.

    The waste of it.

    1. I must confess I had a similar reaction. Also - Laura has a vision of her dead grandmother urging her to embrace her powers, then proceeds to dick around stumbling through a dark basement before her brother shoots the guy. It's a real wash.

      Slashers are full of this kind of thing, throwing in a more or less perfect story element before completely ignoring it in favor of something duller and cheaper. This is the burden I live with.