Saturday Nightmares: To All a Goodnight (1980)
Is there a better time to watch horror movies than on Saturday night? Be it alone or with friends, with beer or without, there’s just something about letting the stresses of the week slip away in the presence of a deranged killer, a zombie apocalypse, alien invaders, hungry vampires, werewolf orgies (if you haven’t seen Howling II, shame on you!) or any such combination.
As a kid, there was nothing more exciting than staying up late on Saturday night and prowling the channels for late-night horror programming. Being exposed to things like Day of the Dead, The Howling, Race with the Devil and Black Christmas before the age of ten certainly helped contribute to my demented modern day state of mind. Before my parents even knew what was happening, I was disavowing any and all interest in spots, cub scouts and anything else kids do, in favor of pillaging video stores for the most wacked out genre experiences imaginable.
And my father was all for it. He seemed to enjoy watching every last Friday the 13th, Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street sequel with me, and soon it was a full-tilt father/son bonding thing. Forget games of catch in the backyard, my father and I watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series to strengthen our bond and I wouldn’t have it any other way. My fondest memory was forking over a copy of Ilsa – She Wolf of the SS with trembling hands, to which my Dad shrugged and took it to the counter (he was more concerned with getting the free bag of popcorn, anyway). Some might consider it a form of child abuse, I considered it a personal victory.
And while my mother and teachers were slightly horrified by the metamorphosis (my fourth grade teacher was somewhat horrified by the Friday the 13th story I wrote in creative writing once, where Jason started knocking off members of my class), nobody tried to deter me from exploring my interests. My dad let me rent a video or two every Friday after school, and my Saturday nights would be spent hunting for whatever genre-related stuff popped up on cable, allowing me to experience some truly obscure and, to my mind, memorable stuff. I’m not entirely sure that the Linda Blair revenge opus, Grotesque, would really captivate anyone other than an eleven year old, but I intend to find out if 30 year old Matt likes it as much as my adolescent brain recalls.
And that’s the aim with this column. My ultimate goal is to keep my love of horror and exploitation alive by adhering to the tradition I started over twenty years ago. As I’m a working stiff these days, it’s not always easy to consume as much horror as I’d like, but this gives me the incentive to keep that part of me alive and kicking. And I maintain that there’s no better time to bask in horror than in the gloomy moonlight of a Saturday evening – which is why I’ll be posting a new review every Saturday. If it’s horror, it’s fair game to be covered here – although I plan on starting off either with films I haven’t seen at all, or things I haven’t seen in many, many years. And while there’s bound to be lots of laughs and tears along the way, I hope some of you will feel compelled to share your own thoughts and feelings about the films covered. After all, no one should have to suffer the burden of watching Psycho From Texas alone.
To All a Goodnight (1980)
When listing their favorite Christmas-themed horror films, nobody ever seems to mention To All a Goodnight, a fairly typical stalk-and-slash affair set at an isolated girl’s school over Christmas break. It beat Silent Night, Deadly Night to the punch in taking the ‘psycho Santa’ idea from 1972’s Tales from the Crypt and employing it in a straight-up slasher scenario. While it may never reach the tasteless heights that SNDN so effortlessly obtained, it’s actually a pretty good little movie in its own right.
And it was directed by David Hess.
It’s one of those movies that you almost can’t believe has fallen into near-oblivion, remembered only by those who might’ve rented it back in the 80s when the only way to tell the good horror from the bad was to cross your fingers and press play on your VCR. I’m not implying that there’s any overlooked genius at play here but, in addition to its curious behind-the-scenes pedigree, there’s plenty of other reasons to seek it out.
First, the body count is ridiculously high. Considering this was among the very first slashers in the post-Halloween craze, fifteen people lose their lives in one way or another over the fairly quick 82 minute run time. Make-up FX man Mark Shostrom got his first gig here and, while the murky print doesn’t do his work any favors, we’re at least treated to some vicious stabbings, slashed throats and decapitations that provide the film with some impact. Similar to the same year’s Friday the 13th, people die in horrible ways and American audiences were actually seeing it happen before their eyes. Granted, Shostrom’s FX work doesn’t hold a candle to Savini’s mastery at summer camp but it serves its purpose and I’d love to see a better print at some point.
FX work aside, another curiosity is how similar its story is to the original Friday. To All a Goodnight opened in January 1980, beating Friday the 13th to the box office by about three and a half months and yet, certain plot developments and performances are remarkably similar. It’s as vague as I can be without spoiling things, but you can bet your ass that the accidental death that occurs in the first two minutes has some relevance to the rest of the proceedings and that the killer’s eventual this is why I did it monologue rings a surprisingly familiar bell.
Beyond that, it’s worth nothing that the film doesn’t necessarily abide by the clichés that later became associated with the subgenre. For example, the resident slut is brutally killed off in the opening minutes (before she can so much as flash a breast), while the group nerd is inexplicably laid (or, at least, jerked off – the print was dark!) by another sexpot only to become a self-confident heroic type in the final act. Even our heroine (Jennifer Runyon – you know her as the cute girl Bill Murray flirts with at the beginning of Ghostbusters), with her straight-laced attitude and goody two shoes mentality, isn’t above peeping on two of her friends having sex. It’s enough to make you wonder why this group of victims couldn’t have become the genre’s standard bunch - they’re much more fun!
Another amusing aspect is the bizarre pacing. It hits the ground running, with several people killed in the first thirty or so minutes, only to see roughly half the cast survive the night. Psycho Santa tries to alleviate suspicion by burying his victims and we’re then treated to some slight character ‘development’ as our survivors spend the day wondering what the hell happened to their buddies. A few more victims are introduced before nightfall and then our slasher returns to finish the job. Instead of the first half hour serving as the buildup to the carnage, this one breaks the slaughter into two chunks, giving it a somewhat awkward flow.
Unfortunately, David Hess isn’t the best director. It’s difficult to critique his abilities without knowing what sort of production schedule he was given, but he never quite finds a way to make any of this scary and/or suspenseful. Our killer often just thunders into the frame stabbing away furiously. It sounds like it could at least provide a few effective jump scares, but most of it falls flat.
What doesn’t fall flat, however, are some of the completely strange choices the film makes. The main detective shows up in one scene, but he looks more like a 70s swinger than any sort of law enforcement official. What’s more, he’s constantly referred to as ‘Mr. Polansky’ instead of Officer or Detective. Weird. Also, our slasher randomly decides to let a would-be victim live – only she doesn’t exactly emerge from the situation unscathed. Instead, she goes batshit insane and spends the rest of the movie prancing around the house singing and performing ballet. And if you think that's hard to top, check out the scene in which our killer attacks his victims while clad in a suit of armor.
To All a Goodnight isn’t quite good enough to make you forget about Billy Caldwell and his blood drenched axe, but it remains delightful in its own right. Fast-paced and brimming with enough mayhem, nudity and pure insanity to warrant a place in any slasher enthusiast’s collection, spike the egg nog, gather ‘round the fireplace and settle in for a wild ride. You’ll scream till dawn. Or at least laugh.
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