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Tuesday, December 25, 2018

You Better Watch Out: An Appreciation For Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (1987)

When it comes to classic Christmas horror, the late Bob Clark's festive fear favorite BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974; see our original/sequel comparison article HERE) set a standard that's hard to beat. On the other end of the spectrum, you have 1987s Santa slasher sequel SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT PART 2; a film you'd never expect to have a fan following, but it does... and one that has gained a surprising amount of momentum in recent years; arguably surpassing the popularity of the controversial seasonal slasher that preceded it.

Filmmakers always have obstacles in their way that positively or negatively affects the outcome of their movie. SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT PART 2 (1987) is one such film where the deck was stacked against the actors and crew even before production began. For years it maintained an incendiary reputation as one of the most hated sequels ever made due in large part to its Christmas stocking full of leftover scenes from the first film, SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984). But all around the world creatures were stirring; a small group of fans believed in the film, embracing the campy qualities lurking in the sixty minutes worth of new material. SNDN2 is the type of nutty horror film that, after repeat viewings, appreciates in value. 

This article is a tribute to SNDN2, a cult film that has garnered a surprising amount of acknowledgment and adoration from a small, but loyal (and growing), fan base. This is my experience seeing the film for the first time back in the day; some of you reading this may have a similar memory--and possibly the reasons why people keep talking about it--leading up to its new blu-ray release with all the (jingle) bells and whistles not normally afforded a lower tiered horror title.

Imagine you're a filmmaker hired to direct a sequel to a controversial horror film you weren't all that enamored with; and instead of making an entirely new film, your assignment was to cobble together a sequel using only the existing footage of the first picture. Well, that was the difficult task that befell veteran editor Lee Harry in 1987. After convincing the producers to fork over approximately $100,000 for new footage, Lee and his crew made a remarkably entertaining little movie on a terribly tight, seven-day shooting schedule. Whether good or bad, it was a Christmas miracle the film turned out as good as it did.

When I was a kid--thanks to Fangoria and video mail order catalogs--I had a mental checklist of various horror movies I wanted to see; many of these got little theatrical play or went straight to tape. When my parents divorced in 1983, now occasionally free of my mother's authoritative persistence in keeping me from viewing forbidden cinematic fruit, it was now easier to obtain them via the plethora of VHS tapes flooding video store shelves in the 1980s. Having graduated from the frequent airings of Gothics of the Universal and Hammer days on television, the shocking gore-laden horror of the 80s video boom was like nothing ever seen. Naturally, dedicated horror fans like myself couldn't get enough. It was the splatter that mattered.

Before the dark days of CGI, practical effects were all the rage. The sheer amount of horror and fantasy film work meant there was a huge demand for seasoned and hungry makeup magicians ready to provide gore, gore, and more gore. Artists like Dick Smith, Tom Savini, Stan Winston, Rick Baker, Tom Burman, Rob Bottin; and many others like Jill Rockow, Ed French, and Chris Biggs (makeup effects artist on SNDN2; pictured with his TEEN WOLF makeup in insert photo) created dozens of spectacular demises and incredible creatures and transformations that amazed horror fans across the country and around the world.

Slasher movies presented many opportunities for the imagination to run wild. If the film wasn't very good, there'd at least be a memorable death or two that kept the picture alive through the years. 1984s SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT had two--the kid being decapitated while sledding down a hill; and a topless Linnea Quigley being impaled on deer antlers. SNDN2 followed suit with a couple unique kills of its own. One of these was an impressive umbrella impalement; and a shocking, eye-popping death by battery charger.

Like most R rated movies with sex and violence, my mom wouldn't allow me to see the original SNDN when I was a kid (I was nine years old when it had its brief theatrical run); even though she somewhat relaxed the reigns that year in 1984, I'd of had to sneak, or use some form of subterfuge to see this particular horror picture. A school friend's dad had rented it upon its home video debut in 1986 so I was able to see it that way; eventually purchasing an EP mode VHS tape at a local Kmart a few years later.

I enjoyed it--finding it awfully mean-spirited and worthy of the notoriety it had accumulated from outraged parents that ended its theatrical run after a few weeks. Naturally, this just made people want to see it even more. It's worth noting that kids have always been leery of, or outright scared of Santa Claus long before SNDN visualized him as a murderous psychopath. There had also been movies with killer Santa's before, but nothing quite as raw, even repellent, as what was seen in Charles E. Sellier's movie (a director known primarily for family-friendly fare). Santa Claus and the Christmas holiday had been turned into something dirty. Basically, it was the sort of horror movie that did exactly what it was supposed to do... and that included leaving the door open for a sequel.

So naturally, when I read the announcement in a 1986 Fangoria magazine that a part two was indeed in the works, I was pretty excited to see it--hopeful that it would pick up where the first movie ended.  A lot of time passed and I heard nothing more about it till the Fall of 1987 when a Fangoria reader expressed his disdain for having wasted his money on the sequel; the brunt of the anger deriving from the preponderance of stock footage taken from part 1 (approximately 30 minutes worth in total).

That summer in 1987 (I was 12 then), I was coming home from the beach with my grandparents. They had an F150 Ford truck with a camper on the back. We had a big mattress back there so me and my cousin (or cousins) could be comfortable on our beach trips. I'd bring pads and pens (I drew a lot back then); my boombox; and whatever else to preoccupy our time on the 4-5 hour journey. Anyway, I'm back there with my cousin and we passed a movie theater on the way home. I happened to glance at the marquee and there it was, in big letters, SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT PART 2. There was a co-feature in smaller letters, but I can't recall the title. My eyes lit up. I immediately knocked on the back window and asked my grandparents to take me back and drop me off there for a couple hours. They had a good laugh; I eventually came back down to reality; and I told my cousin about the first movie as we continued the trek back home.

Sometime the following year in 1988, I ran across the VHS of SNDN2 in a local video store called Adventure Video (later to change its name to Beyond Video). Anxious to finally see it, I rented the tape and took it home. At the time I didn't think it compared favorably to the first one--my frustration matching that irritated fan who sent in a letter to Fangoria the year prior complaining about the heavy use of stock footage. What's interesting was that the first movie caused outrage over its depiction of Santa Claus. The sequel invited outrage as well, but from disgruntled viewers furious over having to sit through a big chunk of the original film's footage.

Granted, it wasn't the first time this sort of maneuver was implemented by filmmakers. One of the earliest examples--if not the first time--stock footage was used extensively was in Universal's MUMMY sequels from the 1940s. Annoyingly, all of them used the same scenes from one film to the next; and those pictures were barely an hour in length.

As for SNDN2, from that first viewing, it felt like the filmmakers simply didn't care; as if they were only interested in making a quick buck off the notoriety of the original. I did get a kick out of the new footage, though. With the tone drastically different from the first film, I couldn't tell if the absurdities prevalent onscreen was intentional or not; the only thing I was sure of was that car got a little too close to the stuntman (stunt coordinator and filmmaker Spiro Razatos) in a surprisingly spectacular stunt that closed out the infamous neighborhood rampage sequence. 

Regardless of whether you love or hate the film, what has kept it alive all these years is the merciless, scene-gobbling performance of Eric Freeman. To call it over the top is an understatement. Freeman's interpretation is a cross between William Shatner and Jack Nicholson. It's such an untamed portrayal, it's difficult to take the film seriously; and it's all the better for it (or worse depending on one's point of view).

SNDN2 may have disappointed me in the beginning, but something about it inspired me in another way...

Around this time I used to write rudimentary horror short stories; often in school when I should've been listening to what the teacher was saying. Some of these were titled after actual movies but the stories were different; others were stories for films that were announced but never made like Ovidio Assonitis's 'Piranha III'. I was excited over this one, too, so I wrote my own 'Piranha III', a sixty or so page tale about a growth hormone injected into a school of genetically altered piranha by a vengeful scientist who then dumped them into the ocean. Highlights were the giant razor-toothed fish killing off sharks during a feeding frenzy and an assault on the US armed forces with whole military boats swallowed whole and the mega-piranha leaping out of the water into the rotary blades of CH-47 Chinook helicopters.

Another story I wrote was a 25-30 page second sequel to SNDN titled 'Slay Ride: Silent Night, Deadly Night 3'. This story had Ricky surviving, escaping again, and going after the nuns at the orphanage where his brother was killed. The ending had him supposedly dying in a fire that destroys the orphanage. When the police and firemen scour the charred remnants of the building for Ricky's body, they find no corpse.

On the big screen, Caldwell did continue in a real part three; the bland and boring SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 3: BETTER WATCH OUT! (1989). Bill Moseley (Chop Top in 1986s TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2) took over the role of Ricky Caldwell. Awakened from a coma by a blind psychic, a Santa suitless Caldwell goes on a lackadaisical killing spree with his brain visible inside a transparent dome on his head. In the end, it was best Eric Freeman didn't carry the mantle a second time; it's difficult to imagine him embodying the character in a lobotomized performance where he's not allowed to say anything. It's worth seeing at least once, if only for seeing Moseley play something the polar opposite of his Chop Top role.

Two more sequels followed, only these went the HALLOWEEN III route with the title being the sole commonality. Outside of a few minutes of part 4, I never got around to seeing them. Part 3 (viewed on HBO during an early morning airing on a school night) ended my interest in the series. The late 80s was the worst for slashers, and especially the Big Knives of the sub-genre like FRIDAY THE 13TH and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. 

Speaking of terrible slasher movies, SNDN got a sort-of remake in the form of the execrable SILENT NIGHT in 2012. A remake of SNDN2 could be a lot of fun if an actor could be found with the same demented fervor of Eric Freeman.

About ten to twelve years later I saw SNDN2 again, this time on DVD. I had a vastly improved opinion of it and took notice of Lee Harry's editing style in tightening up the recycled footage while adding some of his own creative touches. The new scenes are paced very well even if there's little time (or room) for character expansion. The tongue-in-cheek nature of SNDN2 is evident in Lee's excellent short film from 2015, THE WHISTLER (you can read our review HERE). It's a shame he hasn't directed more movies.

Seemingly aging like a fine wine, the reputation of SNDN2 improved dramatically within the last ten years. Let us count the ways...

1. The most famous line in the movie, "Garbage day!" became a massively popular meme on the internet; even permeating the pop culture lexicon with people who had no idea what the movie was.

2. In 2013, some dedicated fans started the 'Finding Freeman' campaign to locate lead actor Eric Freeman, who had seemingly dropped off the face of the Earth. When he was finally found, the many comments from fans were akin to the running gag in BIG JAKE (1971) that everyone thought John Wayne's character was dead!

3. In early 2017, Eric began attending horror film events at establishments like Dark Delicacies and horror conventions like Monsterpalooza to meet fans of his movie.

4. During Eric's first autograph signing at Dark Delicacies last January, he caught up with Emmy award winning makeup artist, Jill Rockow (see photo above). Jill helped out for a few days on SNDN2 doing straight makeups. Both have been good friends for more than three decades. You can read our interview with Jill Rockow HERE.

5. You can read our interview with SNDN2 director and editor Lee Harry HERE.

6. You can read our interview with SNDN2 actor and writer Eric Freeman HERE (affectionately referred to as the Epic Freeman interview).

7. Eric wrote a script that continued the Caldwell character but under a slightly altered name. Titled 'Unhinged', Caldwell became something of an anti-hero in what was more of a revenge thriller in the vein of DEATH WISH.

8. Eric is also an accomplished guitar player. You can watch a brief clip of him playing HERE and purchase memorabilia at his official website HERE.

9. In 2016, Eric did some podcasts in relation to SNDN2. You can listen to the Pizowell Podcast HERE and the Shock Waves podcast HERE.

10. On December 11th, 2018, Shout! Factory (through their Scream Factory line) released the film on blu-ray loaded with extras. A deluxe limited edition was also released that included a rolled poster of the blu-ray artwork and an NECA action figure of Ricky Caldwell with an ax, a gun, and a detachable hand (for holding the gun) as accessories. You can purchase it directly HERE or at amazon HERE.

Within the span of three decades, SNDN2 went from a predominantly despised sequel to a cult favorite. I've wondered had the entire film been built around Ricky Caldwell, would Lee Harry's movie be remembered to a greater or a lesser degree today. Infamous for its use of stock footage and having survived on Eric Freeman's insanely immoderate performance, and the immortal utterance of "Garbage Day!" that became a meme sensation, SNDN2 is a cult film curio in a category all its own.

*All screen caps and behind the scenes photos from the Shout! Factory/Scream Factory blu-ray*


Kaijinu said...

I'm gonna hunt down that NECA figure!

Man, so much behind the scene goodness from this post. Never knew one of my guilty pleasures would be this interesting behind the camera!

venoms5 said...

I ordered the set with the figure just to have it. They made one for the first movie too. I didn't get that one, but supposedly it was released separately later despite being promoted as an exclusive. I interviewed the director and lead star as well. Lots of cool stories between them; especially with Eric Freeman.

Dave S said...

This is great. I love adding context to the realities of making much maligned movies like SNDN2. You should consider collecting your best CAC pieces, adding a few new ones, and shopping it as a book to publishers. I’ve always that you write some of the best insights in cult cinema out there.

venoms5 said...

Thanks, Dave. I've thought about it, but never got farther than that.

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