24 December 2011

MERRY DEATHMAS: OUT ON THE LAWN, THERE AROSE SUCH A SPLATTER

To All a Goodnight (1980, USA)

The creators: Writer Alex Rebar, who's probably best known as the titular Incredible Melting Man, and director HOLY SHIT IT WAS DIRECTED BY DAVID HESS. It was, in fact, his very first directorial credit and for 30 years his only directorial credit, which is maybe evidence that starring in The Last House on the Left is insufficient training to do anything else.

The plot: It's history time, boys and girls. For To All a Goodnight - yes, that's exactly the way the title is treated onscreen, and no, I don't have the slightest damn idea why - isn't just a crappy slasher film with a flimsy holiday theme and crudely inflated body count; it's the crappy slasher film &c. Released on 30 January, 1980, this is nothing less than the first slasher movie of the year that slasher movies broke big - beating Friday the 13th, the classical father of all dodgy '80s slasher pictures, by almost four months. It's also the first North American Christmas slasher film after the archetypal Black Christmas, and if I am not horribly mistaken, it is the first "killer Santa" picture. Basically, it's the most important movie ever reviewed on this weblog.

Things start off with a trope that wasn't quite run into the ground yet, though by the time Prom Night rolled around that summer, it would already reek of cliché: the accidental death "two years ago" that gives Somebody a motive for revenge later on. In this case, it's a sorority prank gone wrong - we can tell it's a sorority prank because the girls involved keep chanting "so-ror-i-TEE, so-ror-i-TEE" while they scare one of their number into jumping off a balcony to her death. This has been cited, in certain places, as a pledge hazing, but even as brutally moronic a film as To All a Goodnight will become surely can't assume that rush is still happening in mid-December, and over a holiday to boot.

Anyway, we abruptly hop forward to the same place, exactly two years later, in the present day: it's Calvin Finishing School for Girls, and it is Christmas vacation time. And this is the point at which this groundbreaking, I daresay revolutionary early slasher film settles into the groove of ripping off Black Christmas with relaxed indulgence, and it will never, ever get back out of this groove until the very end, when the killer turns out to be somebody different, and not just because of the Santa Claus outfit. But I am out ahead of the movie - we don't even know there's a killer yet! Except we totally do, because we didn't accidentally wander into this film thinking it was a for-real adaptation of The Night Before Christmas. And also, before we've finished meeting the Expendable Meat, we've been exposed to an exceptionally weird POV thing where the killer is looking at the dead girl's photo, and there's really fast cross dissolving and all sorts of strange "you are in the mind of a psycho!" things that prove, if nothing else, that David Hess is not interested in doing things that are normal, and will readily sacrifice sense and coherence in the pursuit of it.

Alright, so back to the Meat: these are the girls who either couldn't or wouldn't go home for the holidays, and are currently plotting how they are going to drug house mother Mrs. Jensen (Katherine Herrington), so that she'll sleep soundly through the evenings as they have all kinds of sex with their various boyfriends, who have just flown in on a little private plane - Calvin is apparently miles from anything resembling anywhere. Not a one of these girls is given any kind of personality, except that one, I think it might be Trisha (Angela Bath), has an Australian accent; my suspicion is that it was the actress's best stab at sounding sophisticated. Otherwise, the only way that we can tell one person from another is that most of them die fairly early, so we can start to hold onto just the handful that "matter". Only one of them matters, anyway: that's Nancy (Jennifer Runyon, who'd go on to have a bit of a career; she is best-known, I am certain, as the girl taking an ESP test administered by a horny Bill Murray in Ghostbusters), who we can tell is the Final Girl because she's the only one who doesn't laugh at a joke about pot when we're meeting everyone, or at least being shown all of them, which is as close as we come.

In all of this, Mrs. Jensen is briefly visited by her friend, a fantastic Noo Yawk Eyetalian named Mrs. Ronsoni, played by Judy Hess - I don't know how she's related to the director, and I don't particularly care. Anyway, Mrs. Ronsoni, identified clear as day in the end credits as Mr. Ronsoni, which raises all sorts of exciting possibilities, is delightfully curmudgeonly and totally pointless in every way and she talks with the thickest fake accent ever, and one of the girls greets her as "Mrs. Rasini. Mrs. Ronsoni", which cannot possibly be anything else than the actress fucking up her line, and that is amazing. It breaks my heart in two that she only got the one scene, because it is the best thing I've seen in my whole life.

From here, we see young people dying, mostly in pairs, and mostly without anybody noticing, until the creepy old caretaker Ralph Kramer (Buck West) is found dead; awesomely, this triggers a conversation about a) are all the girls we've just noticed aren't here dead? and b) do any of us actually care one way or the other? The answer to b) is a big jovial "No!", because they all stay and don't really make any attempt to do anything but continue to have sex until it's eventually down to just a couple of people, mostly Nancy and the sweet nerd Alex (Forrest Swanson) who has developed a crush on her these past few days, and a killer whose identity I correctly called at the 39 minute mark, which is just about the last point at which a cagey slasher fan could possibly be expected to remain in any doubt at all.

Christmas cheer: Besides the sheer fact of being the first killer Santa movie? Almost none, honestly. It was shot in Santa Barbara, and thus we are deprived the sight of snow; beyond one pathetic string of lights, the girls haven't decorated at all.

Style of horror: Such a pristine example of the early '80s slasher film that I can barely stand it.

The good: The copy I scrounged up was released on VHS by a company called Media Home Entertainment Inc, and their logo is the most spectacularly '80s cheese proto-CGI monstrosity you have ever fucking seen. Not to mention that they called themselves "Media Home Entertainment" a name so exquisitely anonymous that it would have seemed too bureaucratic to work as a gag in Brazil. It's awesome, completely and unutterably awesome.

What's good within the movie itself? you ask. Oh, um, nothing.

The bad: It's a slasher film, and that alone brings with it a certain relaxation of quality, though To All a Goodnight is by no means a uniquely bad film; as a tedious Ten Little Indians-style "horror" "thriller", it's only a shade worse than fellow Class of 1980 graduate Prom Night, mostly because it has a considerably less talented cast.

On the other hand, neither Prom Night nor most other bog-standard slasher movies boasted such exceptionally awfully direction as David Hess brings to bear: along with cinematographer Bil Godsey, he contrived to make certain that not a single one of the nighttime exteriors - and a whole lot of the movie is nighttime exteriors - is lit well enough that you can guess in more than an abstract way what is happening. In fact, every single frame of the movie is sufficiently drab and underexposed that it's frequently hard to make out which greyish-brown shape is which, but I am willing to concede that this is a potential problem of the video transfer and not the film itself, Media Home Entertainment Inc obviously having shot their tech budget on that magnificent company ID.

And then there are the zooms, which are freakishly amateurish; did you ever playing with the buttons on a camcorder and only belatedly realising it was recording? That amateurish, and that arbitrary as well. Also, the staging of the killing scenes is deliberately befuddling, I think, as is the blocking generally: we never quite get a sense of how space is laid out, where people are, which girl is paired with which boy, how exactly Killer Santa is perpetrating these deaths (especially the one in a tree), or why we care about any of this at all.

Lastly, there is a girl who goes insane when her boyfriend dies in front of her, and her name is Leah (Judith Bridges), except that we find out that it's spelled "Leia", because fuck you Alex Rebar.

Blood: Give or take one well-choreographed death-by-plane-propeller (I am sad to report that it is cut together in almost exactly the same fashion as the more famous propeller death in Raiders of the Lost Ark, released a year and a half later), most of the blood is implied, and the violent part of the deaths always happens just a few seconds after the shot ends. It's not as pointlessly squeamish as some of the worst late-'80s slashers, but it's not a patch on Friday the 13th.

Boobs: Yes indeed, those belonging to just about every female cast member who is neither middle-aged nor Jennifer Runyon.

Sex=death: In the most pointed manner possible: a young gentleman gets an arrow through the back of his head, out his mouth while engaged in the very act of copulation. And every girl who isn't a virgin ends up dead or insane. And she's, like, specifically a virgin, our Final Girl.

Body count: 15, a gigantic number in those days, and made so gigantic in part by bringing in characters we've never seen just so that they can be killed promptly.

Sign it was 1980: The hair and clothes, primarily, but the combination of slasher elements at their most trite and a complete earnestness about what it's doing, without any of the ugly tang of "fuck it, let's make some cash" that marks overwhelming majority of such movies, can only be a sign it was released right at the beginning of the slasher film boom.

Pithy wrap-up: I tell you what, the more of these sonofabitchin' things I see, the more I have to admit that Friday the 13th was actually a really solid horror movie in context.

2 comments:

KingKubrick said...

That's one of you're funniest reviews Tim. Merry Christmas!

Kevin J. Olson said...

Huh. I always thought Christmas Evil was the first Slashin' Santa movie. I'll have to check this out.