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December 11, 2012

Movie Review: Silent Night, Bloody Night (aka DEATHOUSE, 1972)

Directed by Theodore Gershuny

Movie Review by Greg Goodsell

Jeffrey Butler (James Patterson) hires lawyer John Carter (Patrick Neal) to cinch the deal over his long abandoned family mansion in a small, upstate New York town. The forbidding manse has a cryptic past. It once served as an insane asylum, and his grandfather mysteriously burned to death while residing there. The lawyer is introduced to the townspeople, who seem a secretive bunch. Both Mayor Adams (Walter Able) and newspaperman Charlie Towman (John Carradine) seem ill-suited to an outsider coming into town to settle long-standing problems. Carter and his Swedish girlfriend Ingrid (Astrid Heeren) bed down at the Butler house where they are brutally ax murdered by an unseen assailant. As the long winter night grows long, threatening phone calls are made to various townspeople and they, too fall victim to the mad killer. Will the mayor's daughter (Mary Woronov), who joins forces with Jeffrey be able to solve the mystery before time runs out for them, too?

Silent Night, Bloody Night is best known along with Bob Clarke's Black Christmas (1974) as the other Christmas horror film without a killer Santa Claus. Directed by star Woronov's then-husband, Ted Gershuny, the film has atmosphere and many clever touches – but it hasn't aged very well. A proto-slasher before John Carpenter's Halloween (1979), there are lots of continuity errors and some egregiously wooden performances. This is made clear in one of the very first scenes: When the elder Butler burns to death at the mansion, he runs out into the snowy acres on the grounds and doesn't think of rolling into the wet, slushy snow to extinguish flames. The mad killer decapitates a victim at a grave-site, and Woronov and Patterson arrive at the scene minutes later – the surrounding area clean of all signs of bloodshed.

If the film is remembered at all, it’s due to a flashback shot in sepia tones recalling the mansion's past history as an insane asylum. These flashbacks employ Woronov's friends from Andy Warhol's factory. There's world famous transvestite Candy Darling as an amoral rich flapper; the incredible Tally Brown as a menacing inmate and Pope Ondine as the leader of the inmate-led massacre. These scenes are rich in atmosphere and contain some truly jarring violence.

To cut a long story short, director Gershuny, working with The Sentinel's novelist Jeffrey Konvitz cranked out this cheapie where it played for years in drive-ins, grindhouses and was perpetually a public domain VHS-DVD-Blu-ray standby. Gershuny would later lens Sugar Cookies (1973), forcing wife Mary Woronov into the lead, which to this day she regards as a “porno.” A very mild X-rated film, Woronov's marriage to Gershuny would end shortly afterwards.

This latest incarnation of this title brags of being mastered from 35 mm sources, but as anyone knows – that's not necessarily a good thing. The print is worn, damaged and grainy. You've seen VHS versions of this title that were in far better shape. If you want a copy of this film for your collection, this is worth it – if you can score it for $3 or less.

A fascinating low-budget shocker whose ambition often exceeds its grasp, Silent Night, Bloody Night is a classic of Seventies drive-in horror. Happy Holidays! (This version goes under the title of one of its retitlings, Deathouse.)

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