Saturday, December 5, 2009

SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 3: BETTER WATCH OUT!


(Reluctant though your proprietor is to recycle old work, the House has been a little dusty of late. It turns out this review, originally written in May 2007, is timely for a number of reasons: in addition to the Yuletide angle, SNDN3-BWO! has just been released for the first time on DVD.)

So an interest in the work of Monte Hellman (cult filmmaker from the 60s and 70s, producer of RESERVOIR DOGS), prompted by his mention in materials relating to GRINDHOUSE (and possibly, in retrospect, his section of the anthology horror film TRAPPED ASHES), sent me to the Chicago Reader website. To my surprise, I find that a) he directed SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 3: BETTER WATCH OUT!, and b) Jonathan Rosenbaum reviewed it. Rosenbaum gives only scant details (I doubt he watched it), but his note that "at least one Hellman fanatic I know swears by it" was all I needed. I noted that Bill Moseley stars in it.

I immediately called my friend K, whose affection for the work of Mr. Moseley is legendary. K (who can't possibly have expected anyone she knew to ask her out of the blue about this particular movie) tells me yes, I have it and yes, come on over and watch it. So I did and we did.

Ricky Caldwell (played in this chapter by Moseley), the Santa Claus killer from the first two films, lies comatose, undisturbed save for the experiments of a scientist (Richard Beymer) studying ESP. His subject, a blind woman named Laura (Samantha Scully), accidentally rouses Caldwell, who soon escapes the hospital and follows her to her grandmother's house on Christmas Eve.

There's a kernel of a solid slasher story there, setting up a variety of incidents familiar to horror fans (the movies brought to mind along the way are as diverse as FRIDAY THE 13th PART VII: THE NEW BLOOD and WAIT UNTIL DARK). Happily, Hellman has seized upon the most glorious unspoken rule of low-budget filmmaking: when you have no money, and are unburdened by high expectations, shoot for the fucking moon.

TWO-LANE BLACKTOP is Hellman's most famous film, the story of a trio of drivers racing each other cross-country. But the drivers get distracted constantly along the way, by hitchhikers, by the landscape, by whatever Hellman wanted to film. Though the assignment doesn't seem like a plum one to any filmmaker of an auteuristic bent, SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 3 is every bit as meandering and discursive - what Dave Kehr wrote of RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND ("almost perversely devoid of action...a study of space, silence, and passing time.") is as true of SN,DN3.

For about a quarter of the time, Hellman plays to tropes of the genre (with a couple of cheerfully sick jokes placed along the way to the denouement in which Final Girl Laura squares off against Caldwell); the rest of the time he's merrily subverting them, in a number of fascinating and funny ways. He mines Scully's psychic abilities and blindness for some beautifully abstract sequences early on, some of them dreams (a stark chase through a white corridor, with Santa Claus popping up in full regalia), some set in reality (as in a beautiful close up of Scully that traps us in Laura's blindness), but all more stark and artful than you'd expect to see in any second-rate slasher. We watch Laura's grandmother baste a turkey for about a full minute. Police detective Robert Culp tears down a highway in hot pursuit of Caldwell, but pulls over to take a leak. Laura Harring begins to strip down for a trademark shower scene, but all we're shown of it is an intimate, sweetly non-prurient moment with her boyfriend (played by Eric Da Re, the third David Lynch actor to appear in this).

Just about all of the actors in the movie have at least one little moment. Even Carlos Palomino's truck driver is given a couple of minutes to rant at Caldwell about why he hates Christmas - so distracted is he by his Yuletide ire that he doesn't notice that Caldwell's brain is visible through a glass jar. Hellman's generosity extends to Moseley, always an actor who gives his all to the most insane roles. He largely plays Caldwell as a blank slate - a truly alien shot has him hitchhiking in front of a road sign wearing nothing but a hospital gown and brain jar. But he has a beautifully crystalline moment sitting at a dinner table, given a Christmas dinner, a glimmer of some long-dead warmth playing on his face.

How the hell did this movie get made? It feels like a prank waiting to happen - that some Z-movie producer put it together, demanding enough gore to put in a trailer and not caring about the rest, leaving it to the director to fill the remaining running time however he saw fit (and being blissfully unaware of that director's playful, existential tendencies). From what I've read, Hellman's pretty modest about any kind of auteurism ("...any thoughts about doing something different were for our own personal satisfaction. We never thought that anybody would ever notice," he says of RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND and THE SHOOTING), but there's so much crazy stuff going on in SN,DN3 that it can't be by accident. There are just enough moments in the thing to fill a solid slasher trailer - the rest is downright visionary, absurd, empty, hilarious, painful, wonderful. It jibes with what little I knew about Hellman's work, and makes me hungry for more.

(Many, many thanks to K.)

2 comments:

  1. You're very, very welcome. And, you're right, I never expected anyone to specifically ask me if I had this film. However, I'm NOT surprised that it was you who did so. :)

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  2. Nicely done! I haven't seen this, and now I want to.

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