Friday, January 20, 2017

Cool Ass Cinema Presents: An Interview With the Director of Silent Night, Deadly Night 2, Lee Harry

Primarily an editor, Lee Harry has directed several movies over the course of his Hollywood career, often doing other jobs on those films as well. A multi-talented filmmaker, Lee's most famous work will always be the cult favorite SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT PART 2 (1987). In this interview, Lee discusses how he got interested in making movies; his career from the beginning up to today; the making of SNDN2 and working with Kung Fu film favorite Hwang Jang Lee among many other things.

CAC would like to thank him for taking the time to answer questions about his career.

Harryhausen with 7 VOYAGE OF SINBAD creatures
Venoms5: Tell me about yourself and how your interest in movies came about. Were you a fan of SciFi, horror and monster movies as a kid?

Lee Harry: Like most future "geeks" at my young age, I loved Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. Every few weekends my parents would drive us to Winchester, VA, where they grew up, to visit our grandparents. I would head directly to the local newsstand where I would find FM, Alfred Hitchcock Magazine and various comics that I couldn't find in my home town. Interestingly, I was very squeamish as a kid, and FM showed me behind-the-scenes pix of make-up and gore, so I was able to work through some of my bloody phobias. It's also where I learned about Ray Harryhausen who, like so many of my contemporaries, was a big influence. I made a lot of 8mm movies trying my hand at stop-motion.

V5: How did your stop-motion experimentation go and what did your parents think of your interest in the genre?
LH: I used my dad's Kodak Brownie 8mm camera at first, trying to flick the shutter a frame or two at a time, with clay dinosaurs. I got a few good grades in school by making films, so my parents were very supportive. The school bought a brand new Bolex Super 8 camera and I started filming the football games. And since the games were on Friday, I took the camera home for the weekend and made movies. Win win.

V5: Was there a film, or films, that influenced you to get into the movie industry?

LH: I remember the night I first saw Spielberg's DUEL (1971) on television. I was in high school. It was on the ABC Movie of the Week and I had a small B/W TV in my bedroom at home. Even on a 12" screen, I couldn't believe what Steven Spielberg did with just a car and truck for 90 minutes. I think something went "ding" in my head. I started to look at colleges with film programs.

V5: Do you recall anything about working on either FADE TO BLACK or WITHOUT WARNING (both 1980)? How did those jobs come about?

LH: I was a production assistant on both of those movies; on FADE TO BLACK I was Dennis Christopher's Winnebago driver and gopher, and on WITHOUT WARNING (called ALIEN WARNING when it was shooting) I drove Martin Landau to and from set in my Mercury Bobcat. I'm sure he expected a limo, but low budget is low budget. He was a very nice man; this was years before he won an Oscar for ED WOOD. I actually wrecked my car working on that show and they wouldn't reimburse me. I did meet a lot of good people who loved movies and just wanted to work on them.

V5: In the early 1980s, you were an editor on several low budget SciFi movies including the TV movie comedy THE PERFECT WOMAN (1981) starring Fred Willard and Cameron Mitchell as an alien; some of these had Steven Spielberg's sister, Anne, as producer. Could you comment on these early works?

LH: I was hired by Sandler Institutional Films, which was known for UFO "what-if" documentaries, several starring Rod Serling.  They had been contracted to make 10 made-for-cable sci-fi movies back when cable was just getting popular. I cut five of them. They were shot on 16mm for almost no money, but they gave me a Moviola flatbed editing machine to cut on, which was quite a luxury at the time. I also met people there who I still considers good friends. Anne Spielberg was a great lady and fun to work with.

V5: Editing on low budget movies, do you often have multiple angles to play around with or are there frequently very few set-ups to work from?

LH: If the production was lucky enough to afford two cameras, they usually rolled both whenever they could, but film was expensive unlike the endless capacity of digital now. I remember only having a couple takes of each angle on most projects. The best part of productions like that is that since they have no money, you have to do everything. I cut picture, sound effects, dialogue and music. I got to work with the visual effects guys and go to mixes. Pretty cool learning experience for a novice.
V5: You're listed as doing 'additional editing' on HELLHOLE (1985). Was there problems on that film? It has quite a cast.

LH: Hoo boy. At the time I was co-owner of a struggling post production company. An editor friend had been offered the HELLHOLE job, but considered it beneath him. I met with the post supervisor, Lawrence Appelbaum, and he offered me more money than I had seen in years. I closed the company and took the job. A week later I got my ex-co-owner buddy on the picture. It "starred" the late Ray Sharkey, who appeared to be in his heroin phase, Marjoe Gortner, Edy Williams, the Russ Meyer bombshell, and the great Robert Zdar. I was hired to cut the reshoots which were basically sex and violence scenes. It didn't offend my sensibilities because I had a baby on the way and needed the money.
V5: You're billed as supervising editor on THUNDER RUN (1986). I noticed you kept the action sequences tightly cut. The train jump by the weapons-laden big rig was especially impressive. What was it like working on a Cannon production?

LH: It was only a Cannon production after they bought the finished film.  During production it was a Cliff Wenger movie directed by Rod Amateau with the post being done at Mr. Appelbaum's company. I was only made editor after the original editor was fired.  I ended up re-cutting the whole thing, but again, the fun part was doing everything with my buddies. Can you imagine; they sold that movie on the strength of that truck jump, which was a practical stunt! You could do it in After Effects now and have dinosaurs driving it. We had a bunch of great late nights cutting that movie.
V5: This brings us to SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 2 (1987). 

LH: I was working full time at Mr. Appelbaum's company along with my buddy Dennis Patterson and Joe Earle. We were editors; we cut anything that came in the door-trailers, commercials, industrials. SNDN2 was just going to be another job. The existing SNDN had bombed badly and a new group of producers bought the rights from Tristar and wanted to make some $$$, so they came to Larry and asked us to re-cut it, re-score it and call it a sequel. Joe, Dennis and I wrote a quick treatment and convinced everyone that we could do what they wanted AND add new material to truly make it a new movie.
V5: What was your opinion of the original at that time?

LH: I was still pretty squeamish and was, frankly, kind of appalled at the first movie. Santa Claus as a murderer? And it is pretty gnarly; cutting the young mom's throat? Yeesh. At least our victims deserved it. Except for maybe Garbage Day guy.

Lee Harry (left) in the movie theater sequence seated next to Randy Post
V5: Did you have any reservations about making the movie knowing roughly 30 minutes of the film was footage from Part 1?

LH: That was the assignment. And being an editor, all we do is try to make footage cut together. So it was a puzzle, a challenge and an opportunity.

V5: Do you recall the budget for this picture? 

LH: I've been quoted as saying it was $100,000, but I could be off. We did have a full crew and equipment. We had a periscope cam rig for the opening shot, I had a dolly on set at all times, we had Chris Biggs doing make-up and Spiro Razatos as stunt co-ordinator. Spiro was the guy standing in the street for the car gag.

V5: What can you say about Eric Freeman in the lead role as Ricky? He was great... over the top, but that's what makes his performance so memorable, in my opinion.

LH: I just listened to a podcast with Eric where he says I didn't give him a lot of actor-ly direction, and that sounds about right. For better or worse, I'm more about the shot. I've always wanted to make a silent version of SNDN2 to showcase the camerawork. It's not easy doing tracking shots when the producers are yelling to wrap it up, we're headed for overtime. Initially I was more a fan of David Heavener, a popular low-budget actor who was intense and more Charles Manson-y. Joe and I were big Stephen King fans and we saw Ricky as one of Mr. King's bigger than life villains from THE STAND. And it's funny, because in my opinion, no one has ever put that literary badass character-type on screen as King wrote and continues to write it. Not until Jeffery Dean Morgan's Negan on WALKING DEAD. Imagine Ricky like that 30 years ago.

V5: What happened with Mr. Heavener not doing the picture, and were you ultimately satisfied with Mr. Freeman's performance?

EF: Eric's performance is legendary. I think it’s been clearly stated (by Eric and others) that I was all about the shots and getting something that would cut together. I like to cast actors who fit the part, then let them go with it. For better or worse, I think most of my actors would tell you the only specific direction they ever got from me was, "Make sure to hit your mark so you’ll be in focus after the dolly stops." I’m sure that’s frustrating to many. I'd like to think I would get better with practice, like I have with editing for 30+ years, but my films are few and far between.

As for David Heavener, he came in and did a really intense, creepy audition. I liked him, but I think he spooked producer Larry Appelbaum, who chose Eric. It was all fine with me. I just wanted to make a movie.

V5: Was there an attempt to get Lilyan Chauvin to reprise her Mother Superior role? She was great in the first movie; one of that film's strongest assets.

LH: As I recall, Larry told us she wanted more money than we had. I can't blame her for trying. 

V5: Was the classic line "Garbage Day!" ad-libbed or was that in the original script?

LH: It was always in there. And we shot a dog in that first draft, too! Yikes. Joe and I thought it would be cool to put a total gun massacre into the middle of a horror movie, because that's an ultimate suburban horror, right?  Unfortunately, now it is.

V5: Aside from the schlockiness, there's some impressive shots in this movie. The stunt where the red car flips and narrowly misses the stuntman being one instance... was that a single take?

LH: Yes, that was the first take. We only had the one car and the sun was almost set; and we almost killed the stuntman getting that single take.

V5: SPX Makeup Artist Chris Biggs had worked on some high-profile genre work at this time. How did he come aboard? Both the umbrella and battery charger scene are impressive. 

LH: Chris had a break in his schedule and had heard about the movie and reached out to our production manager. The umbrella death is my favorite. It was much more graphic but I had to cut it (and all the violence) down because the MPAA wanted to give us an X rating.

V5: Do you recall the film's premiere? What was the reaction from patrons and critics at that time? Did you get a lot of slack for the abundance of stock footage?

LH: It wasn't much of a premiere; just me, my wife and a few friends at the Egyptian in Hollywood watching with the other paying customers. Beforehand, we had a drink at Musso & Frank and I met Curtis Hanson (director of THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, LA CONFIDENTIAL 8 MILE, etc) at the bar. He wished me good luck!

V5: Did you ever meet the original film's director, Charles E. Sellier, Jr.?

LH: No, never met him.

V5: Can you talk about STREET SOLDIERS (1991)? Was that film a pleasant experience for you?

LH: Yes and no. I certainly enjoyed making the movie; we trained our actors with the stunt coordinator, Kim Kahana, for a week before shooting so the fights would look realistic. I'm happy with the look of the film and the shots we got. There was a problem with the financing halfway through shooting, so we took time off while the producers regrouped. It was financed by Korean "businessmen" and the executive producer, Mr. Kim was pretty threatening. At one point I had to hold the film hostage in my garage until the crew got paid. That being said, once Curb/Esquire picked it up we got a primo stereo mix at Todd-AO--which isn't cheap--and a dozen visual effects from Fantasy II.

V5: How was it working with Jun Chong? 

LH: Jun was great. Very supportive and a nice guy. We had met when I was a re-recording mixer on SILENT ASSASSINS. Most of the "good gang" were his students, some with acting experience, some not. The 'JP's' were stunt guys who trained under Kim Kahana before the project existed. Jun's students were respectful and took direction well.

V5: Were you aware Hwang Jang Lee (billed as Jason Hwang) was a huge martial arts film star in Hong Kong and Korea in the 70s and 80s? Do you recall how he got hired on this picture and what was he like to work with?

LH: I was not a big follower of martial art films at the time, and since there was no internet I really had no way of knowing how big "Jason" ,as we called him, was. He was a friend of Jun's and the producers, so he ended up as Tok. The whole snake thing was a disaster.

V5: Can you explain the problems with the snake?

LH: In the original script that I adapted, Tok (Hwang Jang Lee) carried around a cobra snake, using it to spray his victims with venom. We hired a guy to make a functional snake puppet, but he got a "studio" job before our shoot and could only make a stiff rubber version.  It’s kind of laughable and I tried to talk Jun Chong out of using it, but it stayed in the movie.

V5: As for editing, do you find it more satisfying editing an action sequence or a horror scene? 

LH: I love editing period, it's what most of my career has been. Regardless of genre or type of project, I just find it fascinating the way you can cut things together to create an emotional reaction. And then when you don't have the footage you want or need, you have to figure out how to make it work.

V5: Which do you prefer--editing or directing, and would you want to direct a feature again?

LH: I think I'm a much better editor than director, if only because I've edited hundreds of pieces but only directed several films. I'd direct again in an instant, though.

Lee directing THE WHISTLER
V5: What are you doing today? You recently completed a short film titled THE WHISTLER.

LH: Right after I sold my interest in our trailer company, BUDDHA JONES, my father passed away and left my brother and I each a small amount of money. I used mine to finance THE WHISTLER, which was a story I wrote years ago that my Dad had liked. We were both Twilight Zone fans.

V5: Whether film-related or otherwise, what accomplishment are you most proud of and what do you have planned for the future?

LH: Other than my family, my proudest achievement was winning a Student Academy Award in 1978 for my short BUTTON, BUTTON.  The Academy flew us to LA from Connecticut. My parents joined us. The award for Best Dramatic Film was presented to me by Steven Spielberg and his new protege´ Robert Zemekis. It was quite a weekend. We returned to CT, packed our bags and drove out to California. As to the future; I'm making an animated short to showcase the musical I've been writing for years. I love learning new 3D software and animation apps. Gotta keep up with the technology.

I would like to once more extend thanks to Lee Harry for taking the time to do this interview. I wish him all the best in future endeavors and continued success.

You can read a review of THE WHISTLER and also find a link to watch it HERE.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (1987) review


Eric Freeman (Ricky Caldwell), James Newman (Dr. Henry Bloom), Elizabeth Kaitan (Jennifer), Jean Miller (Mother Superior)

Directed by Lee Harry

"It was him! Jolly St. Nick... with a knife in his hand!"

The Short Version: To say SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY 2 is only half as good as the first movie would be a somewhat accurate assertion. Approximately 30 minutes is made up of footage from the original leaving you with an hour's worth of an all-new film. Schlocky in places, it's undeniably well made in others with very tight editing, crisp cinematography, and a few splattery effects. Scorned for years, SILENT NIGHT 2 is louder than the first time around; this is mainly due to lead star Eric Freeman turning it up to 11 with his volcanic performance that epically erupts in the last 20 minutes. Years later we've learned the filmmakers were in on the joke and you should be, too.

Doctor Bloom is assigned to get inside the head of mentally unstable Ricky Caldwell, a hulking killer locked up inside a sanitarium for various crimes. Beginning with his childhood and on through adulthood, the more questions Bloom asks, the more information he learns... and wishes he hadn't. Determined to decipher the method to Caldwell's madness, Bloom is told by the short-fused psychopath he's the 13th shrink to be in his presence. Bloom states 13 is his lucky number... but his luck has run out. Caldwell breaks free and goes on a rampage, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake while seeking to avenge the death of his late, equally homicidal brother on the Mother Superior who ran the orphanage from his childhood.

There were several horror sequels in 1987 including higher profile titles like CREEPSHOW 2 and EVIL DEAD 2. One that flew under the radar was SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT PART 2. Aside from a minor mention in Fangoria of its impending release and a letter from an angry theater patron (see further down), there was virtually nothing written anywhere about the killer Santa reprise. It's surprising that a sequel was even banked on considering the trouble the original SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984) brought down on itself. Aside from one major strike against it (detailed below), SNDN2 is highly entertaining and surprisingly well made considering the circumstances surrounding its making.

Unanimously despised after its summer theatrical release in 1987, and its wider exposure on home video, it has since gained a cult following. Some find it the perfect antidote to the sadistic extremes of the original while others view it as unwatchable tripe. There's the camp that prefers the first movie and then there's the camp that feels the sequel is the best of the series. What has been learned in the ensuing years sheds new light on the sequel--allowing for a more fair analysis and viewing experience.

Doubtless the film's biggest detriment is its usage of stock footage. This is not the fault of the filmmakers but the financiers who, shockingly, wanted to re-release Charles E. Sellier, Jr's film in a re-edited format and package it as a sequel. When you think about it, this really wasn't too different than the numerous film producers and distributors of the 70s and early 80s that re-packaged movies under different titles and often saddled the pictures with vastly dissimilar advertising campaigns. The outrage over the stock footage is minuscule compared to what might of happened had the sequel been released as a re-cut version of part one. Thankfully, director Lee Harry was able to convince the moneymen to pony up some additional funds for new footage while satisfying the distributors who simply wanted to take the lazy, deceptive route with their acquisition. 

In total, the amount of recycled footage comes to a little over 28 minutes. Part 2 is 88 minutes, so you get an hour's worth of new movie; including a handful of new shots replicating the re-used scenes from Part 1 (like a sex scene and a shot of  Ricky as a little boy). Back then, there was a critical freakout over the inclusion of this footage to pad out the running time. Reviews always mis-stated some 40 minutes or more was scenes from Sellier's movie. Sadly, few outside of the filmmakers knew the reasons why. All these years later SNDN2 is far better than its reputation suggests.

The film's editing is exemplar, and easily one of its best attributes. The editing of the old footage integrated into the new film is likewise well handled; tightened up with the "dead ends" removed. Some were bugged that the gore from the original was considerably lessened, but that was more to do with the MPAA; who were clamping down on violence in movies at that time, and especially in non-major studio pictures. The new portions have some very good gore effects such as a battery charger death, the popular umbrella death, and a good severed head gag.

In Sellier's original version, the pacing suited the footage since it not only fits that film's tone but it belongs there. In what seems like a move to keep the audience's attention, a lot of the re-used footage has Ricky's narration over it; granted, a lot of it doesn't... since it would be impossible for him to know those details (as well as to have seen them).

Perhaps had this sequel emerged on the heels of the original, it wouldn't have seemed so scandalous to horror fans. Since Charles E. Sellier, Jr's movie was pulled just two weeks into its run over its controversial subject matter, not many people saw it.... but a great many people wanted to; the controversy surrounding it guaranteed a level of public interest. Further, there was a window of a year and a half between SNDN's theatrical and home video release. The first film hit videocassette in 1986 and was a hot rental. By the time the sequel surfaced in 1987, everybody had already seen the first movie; so naturally, they felt cheated.

Reader letter from Fangoria #66, August 1987 (address removed)

This wasn't the first time a sequel had a higher than usual quotient of scenes taken from a previous movie. Uli Lommel's BOOGEYMAN 2 from 1983 went much farther than Lee Harry did. The tone of both pictures is similar (Lommel's movie is kind of autobiographical) yet it's the Santa sequel that stands out.

When I first saw it in 1988 I was grossly disappointed. The recycled SNDN1 inserts quickly bored me; and when the actual movie began, it was hokey, seemingly vying for a slot in the annals of Worst Movies Ever Made. Over the years the picture grew on me and I began to appreciate it for both its schlocky and technical qualities. Having learned about the film's production and paying a bit more attention to it, there is certainly some good things living among the silliness.

If there's any question the filmmakers were going for something with a lighter taste as opposed to the hard liquor of PART 1 need only look at the scene in the movie theater. In it, Ricky and Jennifer end up watching, of all things, SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984). It's one of the funniest in-jokes to be found in any horror flick, good or bad. Taking the jokiness even further, the narration of the trailer we hear unfolding offscreen sounds like one of your finer Samuel L. Bronkowitz productions featured in THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE (1977).... "CHAOS! The motion picture you've been waiting for! More action! More violence! More death and destruction than any film ever seen before! CHAOS!"

This sequence is made even more funny with the ubiquitous annoying-movie-theater-guy played by Eric Freeman's friend, Randy Post. Seated next to our spikey-haired noisemaker is director Lee Harry. Clearly Lee Harry has a knack for comedy; traits that are heavily evident in his recent short film of darkly comical genius, THE WHISTLER (2015). It's a shame Lee didn't direct more than a few features; or that he and his crew couldn't have returned to direct the full-length third film, SNDN3: YOU BETTER WATCH OUT. That picture desperately needed a shot of adrenaline and a return of PART 2's lead star.... 

Above all else, what has kept the film alive--good or ill--has been the lead performance by Eric Freeman. Manic, at times subtle, but almost always over the top; the utterance of the words "naughty" and "punish" ensures violence is coming. The near-constant grimacing and camera mugging reminded me of Sonny Chiba in one of his skull-cracker movies. And yet that is the key to the film's longevity. Aside from Eric's frequent "Hulk Smash" mode, there's an occasional nuance in his performance that belies the exaggeration everyone is fond of. 

There's a moment during the celebrated 'rampage' sequence; it's the moment the cop (Kenneth McCabe, affectionately referred to as Barney Fife) tries to arrest him. Ricky, having just murdered his girlfriend, turns slowly with this calculating, maybe even tired look on his face. This tiredness is more or less confirmed when he tries to kill himself after embarking on a brief suburban shooting gallery. Relaying this to Dr. Bloom, Ricky, in a mocking tone, laments that his suicide was halted.

It's also worth noting that Ricky has, like his brother before him, taken on the attributes of the Mother Superior; twisting them into a murderous form of disciplinary action. Where it was beaten into his brother, Ricky's madness is fueled by revenge. It's not hard to miss what with all the overt goofiness every few minutes. This scripting addition is found in the original, but taken to more cartoonish extremes in Part 2.

One of Ricky's character traits is that the color red sets him off; similar to Terence Hill in SUPER FUZZ (1980). The difference is that, unlike Terence Hill, he doesn't lose any super powers, he just loses his mind. The script gets a lot of mileage out of this device--a little red here, a little red there... When he dons the Santa suit during the last ten minutes, it sends him into overdrive and justifies the extreme go-for-broke style Eric Freeman indulges in during the 'settling of accounts' with the Mother Superior character from the first movie (now played by Jean Miller)

This finale is superior (pun intended) to the one that closes the original. Ricky arrives at her home, his axe substituting for a door knock. Another of the film's sight gags/moments of irony is that her house number is none other than 666! It's a satisfying final confrontation that was denied the original. Granted, Sellier's movie had some power to its ending, but it needed a bit more of a punch. Ricky "dies" in the same way, but more spectacularly, and with more rambunctious musical accompaniment.

Freeman utters some very silly lines with the conviction of a bull in a china shop; one such line being the phrase "Garbage Day!" It became a meme known far and wide from fans and even those who've no idea what SNDN2 is. There's a number of other humorous lines but that's the one that stuck.

Sadly, SNDN2 didn't lead to a longer genre career for Eric Freeman. Aside from other parts in television and movies like David DeCoteau's MURDER WEAPON (1989), it remains his sole lead role. 

Far from receiving a welcome reception back when it first came out, SNDN2 has since garnered a cult following that continues to find increasing levels of appreciation. Adored by many as bad cinema made good, there's no denying some genuinely well made, memorable moments spread throughout the film's 60 minutes of original material. A good score, funny moments, memorable gore, and a boisterous lead performance.... there's nothing SILENT on this NIGHT.

This review is representative of the Anchor Bay double feature DVD. Extras and specs (for PART 2): 16x9 anamorphic widescreen; commentary with cast and crew; photo gallery.

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