Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out!, the Silent Night, Deadly Night franchise made a jump that was not uncommon for horror around the start of the '90s: onto VHS. Usually, the shift in a series from theatrical releases, even very trifling, meaningless ones, over to direct-to-video productions is the clearest sign that the ship is taking on water and there aren't enough lifeboats; except that Better Watch Out! had the good fortune to follow Silent Night, Deadly Night, Part 2 by two years, and it would be more or less impossible for even a DTV slasher movie to be worse than that sprawling pile of emptiness.
That being said, "Better than the impentrable black hole of SNDN2" is very much the only truly nice thing one can say about Better Watch Out! - I am going to despair of that exclamation point before all is said and done - which is very much at the level of quality you'd predict and anticipate for a direct-to-video slasher sequel from 1989, even one that is, unfathomably, directed by Monte Hellman. And they say that slasher movies aren't surprising! I am sure there's a reasonably straightforward explanation for how one career can go from Two-Lane Blacktop to a film about a killer Santa so threadbare that it doesn't even possess a killer Santa, but I am much happier not dwelling on it, because there's no way that it's positive. Particularly given that Hellman extensively re-wrote the script for Better Watch Out!, meaning that at some level it is an artistic statement.
It is, of a certainty, more openly artistic than most slasher movies, though only briefly and not in a way that works out terribly well for it. The opening shot is a freeze frame of a young woman we'll come to know as Laura (Samantha Scully), lying flat in a white room; the still is so we wonder for a bit whether she's dead or not, as the credits play out over her, and I will concede that the moment she started to breathe, that was a legitimately effective punctuation mark. From here, Laura wakes up into what we understand pretty instantaneously is a dream sequence: everywhere she goes is nothing but institutional white rooms, and she slowly realises that she's being stalked by a predatory looking man (Bill Moseley) with the top half of his skull replaced by a clear glass dome, and when she thinks she finds safety by ducking into a room where Santa Claus sits on a throne, it turns out that Santa is a knife-wielding killer.
Then she wakes up, and the last flicker of interesting filmmaking leaves the movie, never to return, if indeed what has already happened qualifies as "interesting filmmaking". At any rate, some truly clumsy exposition tells us what we have to know: Laura is blind, an orphan, and she is receiving some kind of experimental treatment from Dr. Newbury (Richard Beymer). Away from the girl, Newbury and his dutiful but unnamed assistant (Melissa "Thanks for putting me in the movie, dad!" Hellman) discuss how Laura is actually a powerful latent psychic, and how the doctor is hoping to sneakily use her abilities to communicate with a coma patient whose brain he had to rebuild - a coma patient who looks just like the brain-in-a-jar thing in Laura's nightmare - and is named Ricky Caldwell, none other than the murdering Santa-obsessed kid from SNDN2, the even wickeder younger brother of Billy from the first Silent Night, Deadly Night.
That, at least, is enough to make this a sequel according to the strict definition, if not quite by the definition that Better Watch Out! resembles its predecessors, in terms of having a great deal of festive Yuletide horror and an axe-wielding Santa (admittedly, SNDN2 gets most of its Christmas horror by virtue of consisting, for nearly half of its runtime, of re-run footage from the first movie). Sure, Better Watch Out! takes place on December 24th, as is demonstrated by some unusually heavy-handed exposition, even for a film like this, where the exposition takes a desperately obvious tack most of the time (I believe the exact line is, "Obviously, that's because tonight is Christmas Eve", as an explanation for why Laura saw an evil Santa in her dream). And it involves a literal trip over the river and through the woods (if an orange grove counts as woods) to visit Grandma (Elizabeth Hoffman). But despite the trappings, there simply isn't much seasonal trappings going on: mostly, it's just a routine thriller in which Ricky, with a psychic connection to Laura, tries to find and kill her for unexpressed reasons, while Laura, her brother Chris (Eric DaRe) and his girlfriend Jerri (Laura Harring) head off in blissful ignorance, as Dr. Newbury and chatty cop Lt. Connely (Robert Culp!) race to find Ricky before he can kill again. The "killer with a psychic connection to a blind girl" angle is absolutely the only original element of any of this, and even that is noteworthy mainly for how much better the same idea was played in a fifth-season episode of The X-Files.
There are, undoubtedly, elements of Better Watch Out! that are rewarding. For one thing, it has an unexpectedly strong cast - Beymer, DaRe, and Harring would all end up doing solid work with David Lynch (the first two in Twin Peaks the third in Mulholland Dr.), and Robert Culp is, of course, Robert Culp - that grounds the proceedings with a little bit more sense and depth than you typically get in a slasher film (Scully herself is above average for a Final Girl, but not one for the ages). Moseley in particular brings a great sense of ominous presence to a largely non-speaking role, and his evil little grin is almost enough to make up for the atrocious "brain in a bubble" headgear he has to wear.
For another thing, the movie can't be faulted for creativity: a lot of what it throws at the wall is utter nonsense, but it is utter nonsense that has more spark than just another goddamn cannibal or psychotic gardener or angry zombie, all the things that slasher movies had run into the ground by 1989, the year that the subgenre finally choked and died.
For a third, and best of all, the numerous scenes of Newbury and Connely just yammering back and forth are amazing: not in the sense that they are good, but that they seem to have drifted in from some other movie in some entirely other genre, with Culp prattling and Beymer looking grumpy, and the whole thing is such a fascinating odd couple act that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie in any way, it's hard not to be entranced by it.
On the other hand, there's a hell of a lot of dross: the script, re-written by Hellman and Arthur Gorson from an original by Carlos Laszlo, plants many hints that don't pay off, suggesting avenues that the story doesn't take and never seems to consider taking, and just about every line of dialogue is a new disaster of clumsy function, or logical implausibility, or just plain strained syntax.
More to the point, the movie simply isn't well-made. The opening dream sequence is a corker, but after that, Hellman seems to have run out of ideas, or at least money: the film is too cheap with gore scenes to work as exploitative horror, and too reliant on tacky jump scares to work as a more grown-up thriller, and the story is too much of a mess for it to be a good mystery, if there were anything mysterious in the first place, other than why Newbury is harvesting psychic teenagers to revive braindead psychopaths.
Better Watch Out! has sparks of intelligence, and that is more than I'd expected; but none of those sparks ignite, and the whole thing ends up being just as perfunctory and pointless as you'd expect. Great horror is something we'd never expect from a 1989 slasher sequel, but functional horror isn't out of bounds, and Better Watch Out! can't even manage the meager trick of functioning. Instead it just sits there, dull and leaden, a movie with no obvious reason to exist other than a titular pun that for some reason, yet a third production company had chanced to own, and saw a few dollars to be gleaned from it.
Body Count: An ambiguous 7. The film ends with someone being maybe not as dead as all that, but we're not told whom (presumably, it was to leave things open for Ricky's return), or what happens to him.
Reviews in this series
Silent Night, Deadly Night (Sellier, 1984)
Silent Night, Deadly Night, Part 2 (Harry, 1987)
Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! (Hellman, 1989)
Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation (Yuzna, 1990)
Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (Kitrosser, 1991)