[EDITOR’S NOTE: In the pre-Christmas rush, and thanks to copious amounts of eggnog, this installment of The Series Project is running a week later than originally intended. Which is actually okay, since none of the remaining Killer Santa movies in the Silent Night, Deadly Night series actually have Killer Santas in them. The second half of Professor Witney Seibold’s Planet of the Apes series will run next week. Here's where you can catch up on the first half of the Silent Night, Deadly Night series.]
Welcome back, friends. It's nearly Christmas, and that can only mean one thing: It's time to scour our way past the two remaining chapters in the epic five-part holiday classic Silent Night, Deadly Night. Yes, there are actually five movies based on the somewhat flimsy premise of a serial killer in a Santa Claus outfit. Of all the Christmas horror movies in the world, it's odd that this one should remain so enduring. Once you start delving into the series, though, and learn that the killer-in-a-Santa-suit idea was quickly abandoned, you'll find why it endured into five films. Heck, any Christmas-themed genre film could have been part 6. Batman Returns could have been titled Silent Night, Deadly Night 6: Penguins from Hell, and it would have had just as much logical connection. Well, the Batman series may have changed a bit.
If you'll recall, in last week's article, I came up with the theory that Ricky, the killer from parts two and three, can have his consciousness shunted into new bodies using psychic powers. In the proceeding chapters, I'll explore that a bit further, as we fall down an odd well of witches, roaches, and some of the most awesome special effects you'll ever see in a middle-budget, straight-to-video horror sequel.
INITIATION: SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 4 (1990)
Directed by: Brian Yuzna
Y'know, I'm a little sheepish about admitting this, but for all the horror films I watch, I'm rarely scared anymore. Horror films may leave me a little unnerved, and some may even startle me several times, but few leave me with an icky sense of dread. I'm even more sheepish about admitting this, but Initiation: Silent Night, Deadly Night 4 actually scared me a little. Mostly because I have a legitimate phobia of beetles and insects, and this film features a five-foot long cockroach.
Wait. A five-foot long cockroach? This is still the killer Santa franchise, right? Well, as the third film proved, you don't need a killer Santa to call your film Silent Night, Deadly Night. And my guess is that Brian Yuzna made a film about bugs and witches set at Christmas, and it was the studio who chose to tack on the name of the franchise. Kind of what happened with Troll 2. Indeed, as my wife pointed out so eloquently, this is a film called Silent Night, Deadly Night which follows a Jew battling a Wiccan cult. I've learned that in other countries, the film was simply called Bugs, so it has been repurposed several times. As a sequel, this film has very little to do with the previous chapters. As a creepy, straight-to-video horror film, well, it's one of the finer ones I've seen.
Let's start with the connections. There is a character named Ricky in this film, but he is a wacky homeless man, and is played by Clint Howard. Ricky announces at one point that he is the Santa Claus killer, but it sounded like he was kidding. Ricky was working for a Wiccan cult in this film, so maybe they used their psychic powers to revive Ricky in a new body like what happened in the last film. Hey, it's the best I got. What can you come up with?
Ricky also is seen watching scenes from the third film in this one. This is something that has happened in all the sequels: The characters will sit to watch a movie, only to see footage from the previous film. In the second, not only was one third of the film devoted to clips, but Ricky watches a few scenes from the first film in a movie theater. In the third, we see footage from the first and second films in a shared dream sequence. We see footage from the second film on a dream TV. In this fourth film, Clint Howard watches part three and, as you'll find, in the fifth film, a character will watch footage from the fourth. I'm not sure if the filmmakers were being intentionally metaphysical, or were just winking at the audience. Either way, it's an odd trend.
Anyway, to the film: Initiation: Silent Night, Deadly Night 4 opens with a spontaneously combusting woman falling off a rooftop in front of Clint Howard. That's a good way to get my attention, movie. Then we meet the aspiring reporter Kim (Neith Hunter) wanting to undermine her boyfriend Hank (Tommy Hinkley) at her newspaper job. Hunter is a pretty young thing, but is not much of an actress. She is very game, however, and that can be just as important as talent in this business. She begins to investigate the case of combustion, and meets the vaguely lesbian owner of a local bookstore, a kindly blonde woman named Fima (played by two-time James Bond girl Maud Adams). Her investigation leads her to grow closer with Fima and her group of Wiccan friends.
Kim, meanwhile, has sort of a falling out with her boyfriend when she meets his anti-Semitic family. Kim is Jewish, you see, and Hank's dad will have none of that. She explains that most major religions have a winter festival of some kind, and Christmas is just Christians' version of it. When the Wiccans later use the term Solstice, it'll be our only real holiday connection. Well, and there's a strangling with twinkle lights again. Something for the fans, I suppose. There's a lot of Christmas imagery, but just as many menorahs.
The imagery in the film is pretty amazing. Kim often manages to spy faces peering at her from tabletops, walls, and windows. The faces are hard to spot, as they are disguised using props and stuff. One face is a dinner table set in such a fashion. Some faces appear in the branches of a tree. This was really neat, and even kind of eerie. You might find yourself, as I did, looking for the hidden faces in the movie. Kim is also having stomach problems, and water beetles start appearing all over her apartment. During one scene where she's puking in the toilet, a GIGANTIC FLIPING COCKROACK APPEARS ON THE WALL BESIDE HER! Seriously, that roach is like FIVE OR SIX FEET LONG! HOLY LVING F*CK! That cockroach really, really, really scared me.
No wonder it scared me. The roach was created by the Japanese special effects man Screaming Mad George, the guy who did the surreal effects for Yuzna's films Society and Faust: Love of the Damned. He also did the creature makeup for Alex Winter's 1993 cult classic Freaked, as well as the monsters in the little-seen but way-awesome alien fight film Arena. Screaming Mad George's creature effects are unique in a world of awesome creatures. His effects were bulbous, slimy, and looked like particularly scary Rob Zombie cartoons come to life. His creatures fell somewhere in between legitimately weird cartoon, and disgustingly real slimeball reality. For some reason, his creatures have always had the power to punch me hard right in the imagination. The bug effects are weird enough, but pay attention. You'll be seeing some way freakier sh*t before the film is over. Remember the scene in Society where a bunch of people kind of oozed together into a big goopy orgiastic mass? We're on that level here.
Kim is increasingly seduced by Fima, and they even share a very tender little kiss in a park. Nothing wiggly or sexual. Just a li'l smooch. Kim is then invited back to Fima's witchy apartment, is fed some tea and dates, and proceeds to have a long, long and insanely creepy dream sequence (?). She is stripped by witches, rubbed with oils, and Clint Howard shows up to feed a two-foot long maggot into her navel. The bug crawls up her abdomen, and exits through her mouth in the form of a three-foot long cockroach. Her fingers bend backwards. She eventually snaps out of the drug-induced stupor, and flees to her boyfriend, even though Fima has been feeding her anti-male propaganda this whole time.
She explains what's happening to Hank, and he's surprisingly understanding, even though she's really bitchy. Clint Howard, though, breaks in, kills Hank (the apartment stalking scene is actually really tense and cool), and takes Kim back to Fima where there's another hallucinatory ritual. She is tied to a chair in a meat locker, and Clint Howard, wearing a big phallic mask, rapes Kim at the behest of Fima. Ew. Gross. Weird. Then the proceeding hallucination sequence shows Kim's legs fusing into a bug abdomen, and her fingers bends and twist in weird ways. Everything is coated in slime. When she snaps out of it, Fima tells her that she's been initiated, and that to become part of the Wiccan cult, she only needs to kidnap Hank's 11-year-old brother and murder him on the rooftop. If she doesn't, she'll spontaneously combust like that lady at the beginning. Indeed, we even see her ankles catch on fire briefly when she refuses. Cool.
There's a big showdown, and Kim ends up defying Fima by twisting her fingers into a long wiggly flaming phallic wang, and jabbing it into Fima's stomach. Fima dies, and Kim flees. Clint Howard also flees.
This film is, as I have said, pretty damn awesome. The acting is bad, the story meanders, and the connection to the previous films is as sketchy as it could possibly be, but that was made up for by the weird-ass special effects and gut-wrenching pace. The film should perhaps stand alone. It needs no other films to heavy it down.
For the next film, the connection will be stretched even further. The only real connection, actually, is the appearance of Ricky. Otherwise, we have a whole new premise in…
SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 5: THE TOY MAKER (1991)
Directed by: Martin Kitrosser
It's a new director, but this film and the fourth film were both the result of Brian Yuzna's hard work (he co-wrote the screenplay here), and feel of a piece. Even though the effects aren't as plentiful, most of the designs were still made by Screaming Mad George, though, so the look will still be impressive throughout certain sections. There's a weird Santa Claus toy in this film that has an evil electrified face, and can strangle you with extendo tentacles. Still nice and weird.
The premise for this fifth film revolves around a toy maker named Joe Petto (get it?) who is an aging and embittered alcoholic living in the basement of his toyshop. He sells some toys, but many he builds himself. One of the toys, we see partway through the film, is a character named Larry the Larvae [sic], who springs to life and burrows through a driving man's skull. Joe, we intuit, may be a homicidal genius who is creating toy-looking death machines in order to kill children for his own glee. Joe is played by the then-71-year-old Mickey Rooney, clearly slumming it. When I see well-known actors who have been working for decades, appear in b-horror films, I try to imagine their thought processes when approaching the admittedly broad and kinda ridiculous role. Rooney, in my mind, thought of Joe less as a cartoonish 1990s mad scientist killer, and more like a broken family man who turned to the bottle. At one point in the film, he had to play a robot double of himself. Who is to say what he thought of that.
Yes, there are robot doubles in this film. But I'm getting ahead of myself. The story actually follows a young boy named Derek (William Thorne, another Hollywood moppet) who witnesses the violent death of his stepfather at the hands of the aforementioned Santa toy. The trauma leaves him mute and fearing all things Christmas. Meanwhile, his poor suffering mother Sarah (Jane Higginson) attempts to cure him by buying him toys and treating him well, and only occasionally screaming in frustration. Sarah, it turns out, is friends with Kim from the last movie. Kim seems to have a teenage son now, so either a lot of time has passed since the last film, or she just never mentioned her son in the last movie. Kim still looks very young, though (Neith Hunter couldn't have been older than 22 or 23 here), which means she must have had her son when she was, oh, 9 or 10. Or maybe he's a nephew. It's never made explicit. There is indeed a scene in this film where Kim turns on a TV and watches a scene of Silent Night, Deadly Night 4. Now they're just messing with us.
Joe has a delinquent son as well, in the form of the leather jacket-wearing Pino (Brian Bremer from Pumpkinhead and Society) who seems to be the one who is pawning the dangerous toys off on people. Is Pino really the evil mastermind? Joe Petto and Pino? Get it? Get it? I think you may have guessed Pino's secret early on.
As I said, Derek doesn't speak throughout the film, which is actually kind of refreshing; child actors can, I think we can all agree, be grating in movies like this, especially if they're the big-toothed, open-mouthed moppets we're used to. Derek keeps witnessing horrible things, but is still too scared to speak. When someone gives him an anonymous gift, he wisely throws it away, only to see Kim's teenaged charge pilfer it and open it. He puts on a pair of in-line skates (and Rollerblades were very, very hot in 1991), which turn into Wile E. Coyote-style rocket boots, and jet the poor kid unwillingly around the neighborhood. The scene isn't played for laughs but it's pretty damn funny. We also see Derek's teenage babysitter get beset with war toys that fire real bullets. Although the bullets must be made of soft stuff, as she gets shot right in the chest but only bleeds. She does not die. A mechanical hand also fingers her boyfriend during a necking session, and he loves it. This was a gag worthy of a Police Academy movie. The toys were all creations of Screaming Mad George, though, and still, in small ways, have his nightmare cartoon quality.
There's a subplot about a mysterious drifter named Noah (Tracy Fraim) who seems to be stalking Sarah and Derek. He's also buying up toys from Joe Petto and dissecting them. Hmm… In a rather surprising twist, we learn that Noah was actually Sarah's old lover, and that he is Derek's real father. Good on the movie for actually surprising me a little bit. Noah and Sarah have sex in the back of her station wagon. The sex scenes in this movie are surprisingly passionate. No gentle lovemaking here, these people are actually horny and gropey throughout. It's refreshing to see sex look like, well…sex. Anyway, Noah has been following Joe and Pino and trying to stop their killer toy reign of terror.
When our heroes confront Joe, we find that he's been knocked out, and the Joe we saw in the last few scenes was actually Pino wearing a robot face. Yes, Virginia, Pino is a robot doll man with plastic hair and an interchangeable face. He's been a little glitchy, though, since the death of his mother, and has gone on a killing spree in order to free up mothers of their existing children in the hopes they'll marry Joe. Makes sense in a way. There's a scene where Pino explains his evil plan to Sarah while he has her pinned down on a worktable. He spreads her legs and thrusts his gental-less hips against her, orgasmically moaning “I love you mommy!” For that brief moment, Silent Night, Deadly Night 5 becomes something grandly disgusting and truly weird. Eventually, the robot menace is destroyed, Derek learns to speak, and the new family goes home. “Who is that?” Derek asks about Noah. “We'll tell you when we get home,” mom replies. I guess blurting out “He's your real father!” would be crass.
Oh yeah, I nearly forgot: Clint Howard is in this film, too, also playing a character named Ricky. He's only in one scene as a backup department store Santa, but he is named Ricky. THE SAME RICKY? Well, perhaps.
I kinda liked the fifth film, I guess. It did have a definite aesthetic, but wasn't nearly as weird as part 4. As a sequel to Initiation, it's fine, but as a fifth film, it's out of left field. Mad robots and evil toy makers? What happened to killer Santa? A question for a generation.
Starting weak, peaking limply, and sauntering out on a high note, this is one of those rare series that almost seems to gain strength as it progresses. It has striking and ridiculous imagery, and, thanks to the “garbage day” sequence in part two, has even managed to become an internet meme. The later films may not be well known for their originality, but they are actually more striking than the first few.
As Christmas-themed horror films go, the first film is one of the more notable ones (even though it still falls behind Black Christmas), although, as I indicated last week, it’s residing somewhere in the middle ground between codified slasher and psychological horror. The series, though, lets go of the holidays pretty quick. When we have a Jewess fighting witches, we begin to wonder how Santa will come into play.
The main character of the series is clearly Ricky, and my theory is that he was killed in part 2, resurrected in a new body in part III, shunted into Clint Howard's body by witches in part 4, and eluded capture in part 5 to continue his reign of terror. One could easily round up Clint Howard today, make a part 6, and explain all of this explicitly. Heck, in a post-ironic era when every damned movie is being remade by lazy producers, and lazy audiences are passionlessly lapping it up, I think a cage-rattler like Silent Night, Deadly Night 6 would be ideal fodder. Don't remake the first. Make a sixth.
Indeed, let's see if we can coin that axiom. Hey, Hollywood. Don't remake originals with a new “gritty” twist. Just continue the series. Leave the roman numerals on. If Rob Zombie wants to make a version of Halloween, have some integrity, and bravely entitle your film Halloween IX. If he wants to continue, call it Halloween X. Just let them accumulate. Let them be of a piece. After a while, you'll see you have an epic series on your hands, and there won't be horror purists like me whining about your crass re-writing of cinema history. In my mind, at least with horror sequels, cheaper can be better. Keep 'em cheap, keep 'em gory, keep 'em fast, and keep 'em fun. Use real stage blood and hire actresses who are willing to disrobe gleefully. Do we need to re-watch a new version of Friday the 13th with less lighting and more breast implants? The answer is no. But if you made a Friday the 13th Part 11, I might be tempted. With that series, you shouldn't stop until part 13 anyway.
“Re-imagining” is the same as “not imagining.” Let's put Hollywood slasher banality back where it belongs: in the ever-increasing and ever-implausible serial number. Let's bring the charm back.