Silent Night, Deadly Night 3


I had all these thoughts ping-ponging around in the brain after dusting off my VHS copy of Monte Hellman’s Silent Night, Deadly Night III (1989) and watching it on a rather insignificant Wednesday night in the earlies of December. It isn’t that this film necessarily had all that much noteworthy in it that deserved attention while I toiled away on the treadmill and bathed away the sweat in the shower after the film was over, but nonetheless this second sequel (it does feature footage from the first film and is loosely (and I mean “loosely”) tied to the second) provided some food for thought. I thought about the year of its making and release (1989) which explains a lot: the end of the decade—and leading into the 90s—really showed the horror genre (and particularly the slasher genre) declining into near hibernation, with “made for video” kind of serving as a safe haven until the resurgence towards the later years when it made its comeback. While I was watching SNDN III, I couldn’t help but feel Hellman wasn’t quite right for this series, because his style isn’t in-your-face or overtly trashy like the first two films. The first film was a checklist of “how to offend” slasher tropes. The second was forty five minutes of rehash (of the first film) and Rick Freeman going off the deep end with his performance. This third film is a slasher film of the censorship late 80s when the MPAA was no longer tolerant of graphic violence. But I never felt Hellman was interested in that at all anyway. When Leonard Maltin will give your film a fair rating, Hellman was doing something wrong with his slasher film. Well, how do I rephrase that: if Maltin lends some fair critical favor to your film that might mean the slasher audience who embraces all the trashy “garbage day” subject matter and “naughty” material will be fighting off the nap and withering interest that might appeal to those looking for more quality filmmaking.

I went old school tonight, digging into the VHS crypt and popping in SNDN III Wednesday night. I have resisted picking it up on DVD because this third film never really captured me enough to do so. It wasn't too long ago that there were still rental stores with VHS tapes. I rented this one (I later bought it when the store went kaput like almost every other brick and mortar in town) and just kind of found it unsatisfying and lacking. It never really had pop to it. It wasn't controversial or crazed. It didn't seek to turn your stomach or appall. It wasn't acted in a way that begged giggles. It didn't have Linnea Quigley answering the door without her shirt and in short-shorts. I never recall one moment besides the dome brain which went for the jugular or wished to piss those "with taste" off. The previous films weren't made to appeal to critics. SNDN sure as hell ain't Rashomon. Or Miracle on 34th Street. Or It's a Wonderful Life. This aimed to be offensive and morally questionable. Part 3 doesn't follow those bad taste particulars.

Bill Moseley’s casting might be a drawing card for the film, but he’s RESTRAINED. Yes, Bill is a walking coma, deprived of that mad energy his talents often guarantee. I read some criticisms on the film’s IMDb message board I think hit on some things I agree with. For one, this film only really pulls Ricky from the second film but not the character. He was shot and Robert Culp (more on him later), the cop going after Ricky, claims he was there when it happened, but we know from the end of Part 2 that Rick Freeman wasn’t shot anywhere near the head. In this third film, poor Bill is walking around (very slowly) with a Plexiglas dome on his head. No upper skull plating, with his brain actually showing and blood water just swishing-sloshing around inside! You look at Bill and it is all so absurd yet because Hellman has such a laid back, unassuming style that doesn’t really overtly send up how ridiculous that development to the Ricky character is. Many have attacked the pacing and lack of aggressive action involving Ricky (including the off screen bloodshed), and I can’t really altogether disagree. Hellman unapologetically pimps his (and others, it seems) film for Corman, “The Terror” (1963), which shows up on *two* television screens with nearly whole scenes spotlighted (almost getting as much screen time and importance as Robert Culp!). 

Ricky does kill. He just doesn’t go anything all that inventive or as over the top as the first two films. Ricky doesn’t electrocute anybody with battery charger cables or strangle somebody with a car antenna. He doesn’t hoist a babe onto deer antlers or lop a head off while the victim is snowboarding down a hill. There is a decapitated head continuing to watch “The Terror” and the victim’s body, absent head, laid out on the floor (running a gas station). Grandma is soon shown hanging in the basement. While we don’t see him using the scalpel on the mental hospital receptionist, the blind heroine of the film has the ability of clairvoyance and sees her strewn out in her seat with her throat slashed. When Ricky uses a screwdriver as a stabbing weapon on a scientist/doctor, it is implied with Culp finding him flat on his back bleeding out. Even Santa (this time a hospital visitor) meets his doom, this go-around, by visiting Ricky’s room and cracking a few ill-advised jokes. Believe it or not, Santa is the catalyst in Ricky’s awakening.

Laura is a key character in the film. Hellman's film uses her as an allure for Ricky to pursue. Their link was responsible for that. Hellman deciding to add this element to the film puts a different spin on the SNDN formula but it isn't all that distinctive once the two leave the hospital, Ricky a bit later than Laura, hitting the road in hospital gown, eventually hitching a ride and taking the driver's clothes and vehicle. She remains a sour/dour leading character. I just couldn't really latch onto the character myself. She's cold and rather snooty. I mean she has some validation for being this way, but I wanted to get behind her as Ricky was nipping at her heels. I just felt apathy the whole time. She reminded me of Jennifer Connelly in "Phenomena" but without the surrounding iconic trappings of Argento to give her role oomph.

One of the film's opening stylistic and thematic choices of Hellman was to show us what Laura and Ricky experience while "linked" together within the fugue state brought about by Laura's scientist doc, Dr. Newberry (Richard Beymer). Newberry was interested in reviving Ricky by using his token clairvoyant, Laura, blind but seeing Ricky within the sleep-induced state. Ricky's brain was "reconstructed" and he's remained in a coma. Red, a seasonal color conducive to his mania, and Santa himself are triggers that encourage psychopathy to emerge.

Robert Culp is one of the pleasant reasons I could see myself looking forward to watching this annually during the Christmas season as I need to supplement my horror fix. Although the film doesn't do much with him besides entrap him with ho-hum dialogue he has to add charm to in order for it to work at all. I mean he has one dialogue piece with Richard Beymer in the car as they drive to the orange grove to hopefully halt Ricky's murderous efforts focused on the driver's seat phone used to contact folks while on (and I reckon off) the job. His charisma alone salvages precious screen time (mostly in his car), and his sense of humor thankfully is out there, front and center. Considering little of the film is trying to entertain you the same way, Culp brings his game despite the odds against him. What I think cheated us, the viewers, was that he arrives at the home after the heroine (the "final girl") had taken care of the psycho. Culp spends all this time right behind the killer he was hoping to upend, and he gets there after all was done. Typically these films allow the supporting starpower of a beloved character actor (formerly a major star) to arrive and put a couple bullets into the killer after his tangling with the final girl, but Culp doesn't even get those honors. Hard not to kind of feel this was a missed opportunity. He had the gun; why not let him put the finishing touches on the killer he was after? The back of my VHS box has Culp with flashlight and gun in hand, looking for the killer. In the film he goes into the basement and finds Laura, after she had silenced the man trying to end her.

Moseley spends a lot of his time with this blank expression, his brain exposed and the side of his face scarred. His character never wavers or breaks from this. It is completely opposite from what he gave us in his off-the-grid lunacy in Hooper's sequel to "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

Notable for Laura Harring's "before she was a star" casting, she stars as a girlfriend for Eric DaRe's Chris, the brother of Laura. Harring's Jerri and Laura have a lot of tension between them, much due to Laura's inability to converse without a degree of bitchy in her voice and response. Granted, Laura is psychically tied to a maniac thanks to her "dream doc" and being blind has made her a bit sore, but Jerri does nothing but attempt to act friendly and get along with her. Every effort was made by Jerri to build a friendship with her boyfriend's troubled sis. For a bit of titillation she also gets slightly naked in the bath with her man (sporting the hairy chest). Her demise results in being pulled under a bed.

It might have been interesting seeing the Santa suit on Ricky again. It would have met some critical derision for treading down well worn terrain but this was a series with fans probably fine with going that route. There has been some groaning about not including a bit more of the season to the film, but I think Grandma's house is plenty Christmas-y and there's mention of it being Christmas Eve so there's effort in reminding us. But like his directorial approach to the film as it looks compared to the previous films, Hellman isn't overt in plastering Santa all over his film or Christmas in general. He addresses the holiday then focuses on the characters. What is closely tied to the genre is how the killer withstands violence to him. The killer is stabbed through the arm with a screwdriver and takes a shotgun shot to the torso. Despite DaRe's psychical advantage, Moseley overpowers him. Laura is the one, of course, who gets dibs to take care of him.