By MARK LAGER
A Scary Little Christmas, A History of Yuletide Horror Films, 1972-2020, a new book from Matthew C. Dupee, is a detailed and investigative 370-page chronicle of holiday horror with 174 photos and interviews with many actors and filmmakers involved in the creation of this compelling horror subgenre. In A Scary Little Christmas, Dupee sheds light on holiday horror titles lost to time even amongst the most dedicated of horror fans.
50 years ago, Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972) was released, a film that a was a precursor to both Black Christmas (1974) and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), two films that are celebrated by both critics and horror fans. While Black Christmas eventually gained praise and respect, however, its reappraisal as a classic film in the horror genre took many years. With this interview, Rue Morgue hopes to intrigue horror fans into seeking out and watching Silent Night, Bloody Night, since the film deserves more acclaim and attention.
The subtitle of your newly published book, Scary Little Christmas, is A History of Yuletide Horror Films 1972-2020. What is significant about the year 1972, for those horror fans who are unaware?
Although the darker side of the Christmas season had been explored throughout early cinematic history, 1972 marks the first time that a violent maniac dressed as Santa Claus graced the silver screen in the British horror anthology film Tales From the Crypt, which of course was based on the popular EC Comics title of the same name. The film’s segment “And All Through the House,” based on a story found in EC’s Vault of Horror issue 35, pits a malicious housewife named Joanne played by the beautiful Joan Collins against a violent escapee from a local asylum. It’s set at Christmas time during a snowstorm, and the maniac (Oliver MacGreevy) wears this classic red Santa suit, complete with the tassel cap and pillowy white beard. The two square off as he tries to break into her house shortly after she killed her husband.
Now, Joanne can’t risk alerting the police to the maniac’s location because it’s also an active crime scene, so she attempts to clean up the mess and frame the maniac for her husband’s murder but naturally, her plan falls apart and she’s forced to square off against the lunatic before receiving her comeuppance in typical EC Comics fashion. The film actually enjoyed a much larger budget than most of the other films being put out by Amicus Productions at that time, and the result is a memorable collection of gritty tales ripped right from the famed pages of EC Comics, but most importantly, it gave viewers the first portrayal of a murderer dressed as Santa, one of the many themes that have become a mainstay in the Christmas horror subgenre. The year 1972 also saw the initial release of Silent Night, Bloody Night, an atmospheric American horror film that takes place over the course of several Christmases, and also features escaped maniacs from an asylum.
2022 is the 50th anniversary of Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972), a criminally forgotten hidden gem, in my opinion, so underrated. What are the reasons you think more horror fans should see this film?
Silent Night, Bloody Night really is a titan among the early Christmas horror pictures from the 1970s, truly a forgotten classic. From a cinematic perspective, the film is heavy on mood and atmosphere and plays like a gothic proto-slasher. It was shot mostly on a large and isolated estate on the north end of Long Island in 1970 during one of the coldest winters on record at the time. It was shot on 35mm, not 16mm, and had a modest budget that was close to $225,000, about $1.6 million in today’s economy. The film features this eclectic culmination of actors, including a reunion of sorts from Sydney Pollack’s war-comedy Castle Keep (1969) that starred James Patterson, Patrick O’Neal, and Astrid Heeren, but it also includes a variety of Andy Warhol’s “superstars like Pope Ondine, Candy Darling, Tally Brown, and Mary Woronov, who married the film’s director Ted Gershuny in 1970. John Carradine also plays the town’s newspaper chief who lost his larynx and communicates by ringing a bell. For many years, Silent Night, Bloody Night was largely dismissed after a botched theatrical release and a copyright filing issue that resulted in the film ending up in the public domain. It fell somewhat into obscurity, but those who have rediscovered it know that it also features some incredible attributes, from director Ted Gershuny’s highly stylistic approach to an amazing location, a competent cast, and a dreary and dark script that was ahead of its time. Some of the elements like the killer’s POV shots, harassing phone calls, and the killer’s black-clad leather gloves, are all elements that have been so effectively embraced by the horror genre and Italian giallo films from that era, yet it also predates films like John Carpenter’s Halloween and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas by several years.
Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972) has a story that is reminiscent of an Edgar Allan Poe tale such as “Fall of the House of Usher”, the Butler family estate was turned into an insane asylum and Wilfred Butler committed a crime that remained secret until his grandson Jeffrey Butler discovered his diary. What did you learn about the creation of the screenplay from writer Jeffrey Konvitz?
Jeffery Konvitz, who graduated from Cornell University in the late 1960s and then worked briefly as an agent, wrote the story with his friend Ira Teller, who worked for a theater chain at the time, writing slug lines for films and doing other promotional work, quite talented actually. It didn’t take long, I believe they wrote it within a few months. Konvitz worked up the general story concept, that there’s a psychiatric ward or asylum, and all the maniacs who are held there escape. Many years later, some people come back to the town and discover that the escapees are not only still in town, but they’re now running the town. Konvitz and Teller refined this story further into a script and built it out from there, finishing it in early 1970. Konvitz went on to serve as the film’s producer, and knowing Mary Woronov from his Cornell University days as well as Ted Gershuny, Konvitz brought the pair on board and with Gershuny directing. But they knew that the location was going to be key for the story’s mood. Though the story is set in Massachusetts, the entire film was shot around Oyster Bay, a part of Long Island. It was Gershuny who was scouting for locations when he just fell in love with the James W. Beekman House; knew he had to shoot the film there. It’s this remarkable Gothic Revival mansion that was built back in the 1800s and sits on 35 acres, just an amazing location. At the time, the estate was owned by the Geygerson family, but they had no interest in allowing a film to be shot on the property or inside their mansion. Not one to give up, Gershuny wrote the family a letter explaining how the film would help put a few dozen people to work and he also courted Andy [Andrew] Geygerson, a grandson of the Geygersons who owned the house. Andy was an aspiring filmmaker himself, so Ted hired him. It was really Andy that convinced the family to allow Gershuny to shoot on the property, and Andy ended up with an Assistant Director credit. Unfortunately, Konvitz could not recall why exactly he and Teller set the story to take place over Christmas, but the cold and eerie locations used in the film certainly lend well to the concept nevertheless.
This was the first film that Lloyd Kaufman produced. What were his memories about the movie when you talked with him?
The making of Silent Night, Bloody Night is incredibly interesting because of the resulting pedigree for most of its creators. Many of the crewmembers who served in even smaller production roles like production assistants or drivers were given much heavier credits once the production ended. Lloyd Kaufman, the venerable co-founder of Troma Entertainment, is a great example. These were all young guys giving it a serious effort to break into the industry. Konvitz was around 25 and Lloyd was only slightly younger, as was associate producer Frank Vitale. Lloyd initially served as a production assistant on the film, being tasked with driving many of the actors or crewmembers from Manhattan to Long Island. On one of the transportation runs, Lloyd encountered a heavily drunken, half-conscious Patrick O’Neal at the hotel early in the morning. O’Neal was completely wasted, sleeping off a bender next to a pile of vomit. He ended up helping O’Neal sober up and got him dressed before heading back to Long Island. It all ended up working out in the end, but he saved O’Neal from wrecking the schedule by getting him sobered up.
Remember, this was a shockingly cold, fairly isolated location at the Geygerson Estate — the family had gone to Florida for the winter so most of the cast and crew ended up staying on location. The temperatures were so cold, that the water lines to the house would freeze and crewmembers, including Lloyd, had to fetch pails of water several times a day in order to keep the toilets working properly. The cold weather also caused some power outages at the house, and several nights were spent working under candlelight.
As a driver, Lloyd had a memorable story in which he took one of the film’s station wagons into town to fill it up with gas and in the back of the car, in the open, was one of the prop shotguns. Somebody looked in and saw it while Lloyd was filling up the gas tank and called the police, who ended up taking Lloyd down to the station for questioning. Lloyd had to call up one of the producers, Ami Artzi, to come down and get him. [laughs]. When shooting the black-and-white maniacs scene, chocolate syrup was used as stage blood, and being a sugar fiend, Lloyd was slurping down copious amounts of the chocolate sauce in between takes. [laughs] All in all, Lloyd really views his experience working on Silent Night, Bloody Night as one of the most important landmarks he had working in the industry to get his break, this was his first ‘real’ movie experience at that point.
Gershon Kingsley’s music is cold and haunting, a melancholy mood. What are your feelings about this soundtrack?
You really can’t ask for a better accompanying score, it’s haunting, moody, and eerie and syncs so well with the brooding atmosphere of the film. The score relies heavily upon strings and piano, and to great effect, creating this melancholic, dreary presence that just anchors in the mood. Kingsley arranged the score in Munich. Unfortunately, because Gershuny spent most of 1971 cutting and editing the film, Kingsley’s original score was also drastically rearranged to fit the new cut. Even with these elements, you can still get a sense of how much depth the score has to it. He even does a version of “Silent Night”, which still ranks as one of the creepiest renditions of that song I’ve ever heard. Just fantastic.
Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972) was released two years before Black Christmas — two films that have in common a holiday setting and creepy calls from a maniac on a telephone. Was it a cosmic coincidence or were screenwriter Roy Moore and/or director Bob Clark influenced by Silent Night, Bloody Night?
This is an interesting point and it’s been long been speculated that Silent Night, Bloody Night influenced Black Christmas. As much as Clark’s seminal work on Black Christmas did for the slasher cycle of the late 1970s, Silent Night, Bloody Night certainly had its contributions as well, including the mysterious voice-altered phone calls as well as the presumed killer’s POV shots from when he escapes from the asylum, not unlike the POV killer shots in Black Christmas and how Michael Meyers would do the same a few short years later in John Carpenter’s Halloween. Not to suggest that Clark or Carpenter ripped off Silent Night, Bloody Night by any means, but it’s telling from a social perspective of how prevalent and heavy this fear of mental illness was at the time. The U.S. was experiencing a surge in civil rights movements during the 1960s and 1970s that advocated for the better treatment of individuals institutionalized in the nation’s psychiatric hospitals and asylums, a movement that ultimately succeeded in largely shutting down the often abusive and mismanaged public and private psychiatric hospitals. Silent Night, Bloody Night definitely confronts some of these issues head-on, and even after 50 years, I still think aspects of the script are as deviant and hard to digest as they were back then. Ultimately, the shared elements between Silent Night, Bloody Night, and Black Christmas, I think were purely coincidental. The original premise for Black Christmas did not even take place at a university, rather the protagonists were babysitters of the high school age variety, much closer to what Carpenter did with Halloween. The setting change came much later in pre-production, as did the setting around Christmas and a sorority house, there were just a lot of successive rewrites happening, and Clark coming on to the project injected some dark humor into it, but I don’t think the stars ever aligned in a way that Moore and Clark’s screenplay would’ve been inspired by Silent Night, Bloody Night. But, both films played outsized and until recently, underrecognized influences on the slasher cycle that ushered in the ‘Golden era’ of horror between 1978 to 1984.
The 1970s/1980s had memorable holiday horrors (Silent Night, Bloody Night, Black Christmas, Christmas Evil, Gremlins), however, it does not seem like there are any holiday horrors in the 1990s or later decades that could compete with them. Were there any, in particular, that stood out to you from the 1990s or later decades?
There were so many market changes occurring by the late 1980s, especially in the home video market, that ended up impacting the type of horror film and the quality of horror films made into the next decade. The slasher cycle was drying up around this time and the shock value of things like seeing Santa Claus beheading sleigh riders as in Silent Night, Deadly Night were almost old hat by this point. Well-treaded horror franchises were also becoming exhausted during this time, and the 1990s saw a rather disappointing rash of low-rent, indie Christmas horror films; only a few would stand out. Michael Cooney’s Jack Frost (1997) shot in the mid-90s but ultimately released in 1997, ranks among one the most beloved Christmas horror films from this era. One of the lesser-known films from this era, and one of my favorites, is Svart Lucia (1992), a Scandinavian dark coming-of-age high school horror film set on St. Lucy’s feast day (13 December) during the lead-up to Christmas. The film is expertly executed by Danish filmmaker Rumle Hammerich, who also co-wrote the script. It’s often described as the Scandinavian precursor to Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), how awesome is that?
Despite the rather lackluster Christmas horror entries of the 1990s, the new millennium had plenty to offer in Christmas horror. The supernatural Christmas horror Dead End (2003), actually shot around Los Angeles in 2001 shortly after the 9/11 attacks, remains a Christmas horror mainstay that stars Ray Wise and Lin Shaye, who told me she still considers Dead End to be one of her fondest acting experiences out of her very accomplished career. The 2000s also proved that shocking audiences were still possible, especially with the savage and utterly brutal films À l’intérieur (Inside) from 2007 and O’Hellige Jul! (2013), known in America as Christmas Cruelty! Of course, these two pictures won’t be for everyone, and I must caution you, they are undoubtedly not for the faint of heart! The past 10 years, though, have proven to be a real boon for the Christmas horror subgenre, between Michael Dougherty’s mainstream blockbuster Krampus (2015) and Finland’s dark fantasy film Rare Exports! A Christmas Tale (2010), now considered a cult classic, I don’t think things have ever looked better for the subgenre. This year alone there were 10 new Christmas horror films, or films skirting the line between horror and thriller or horror and action. There are at least four slated for the first quarter of next year. It’s an exciting time, not only because of the new material but seeing how the classics from 30 to 50 years ago are also being rediscovered by new generations of fans.
What were some of the most shocking or surprising things you discovered during your writing of this book?
I have to admit, as hard as it is to write a book, maybe most importantly, to finish writing a book, I really lucked out because researching this topic and talking to over 100 filmmakers and cast members was a real joy. I found myself learning a tremendous amount almost every day. For instance, I learned that the Silent Night, Deadly Night franchise, namely parts 3 to 5, brought together a coterie of filmmakers and producers that ultimately went on to make Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs in 1992. Instead of making a Silent Night, Deadly Night part 6, the executive producer Richard Gladstein, along with Silent Night, Deadly Night 3 director Monte Hellman, went on to fund Reservoir Dogs. Martin Kittroser, the director of Silent Night, Deadly Night 5, went on to become Quentin Tarantino’s script supervisor for every single one of his films. Similarly, after Ted Gershuny, Avi Aritz, and Lloyd Kaufman finished Silent Night, Bloody Night, they went on to form a small production company and made a raunchy soft-core version of Hitchcock’s Vertigo called Sugar Cookies, but after disagreements on set and its result as a financial flopper for investors, the partnership broke up but Kaufman partnered immediately with Michael Herz, hence the birth of Troma Entertainment. According to Lloyd, it was making Silent Night, Bloody Night, and the subsequent disaster on Sugar Cookies, that in a way, helped create Troma Entertainment as we know it. These kinds of happy accidents in cinematic history born from the Christmas horror subgenre I find incredibly fascinating. I tried to capture and memorialize as many of these anecdotes as I could in the book.
I think that one of the more shocking things to me was how poorly the cast and crew were treated by critics on Silent Night, Deadly Night, and its first sequel. The point that actors like Robert Brian Wilson from the first Silent Night, Deadly Night, and Eric Freeman in the sequel, not only moved on from acting but avoided even seeing these movies again until just a few years ago, is tragic in a way. It took an entire generation for them to come back to the films and engage the fandom, and I’m incredibly happy they did and found peace and can enjoy what they gave us, but to think that they went through such an ordeal and to be shamed so viciously, I found it heartbreaking. One other aspect really stuck out to me as well, and that’s the overwhelming number of filmmakers who made Christmas horror movies who cited Gremlins as their top inspiration. Talk about an enduring legacy. Gremlins, by far, is the most cited film out of everyone I had spoken with, including international filmmakers. The impact Gremlins has had on cinematic history cannot be understated.