Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972)
Directed by Theodore Gershuny
No, this isn't the "Garbage Day" movie. And if I had not seen the release date on this film I would have missed this horror gem. Made in '72 this may be one of the earliest of the maniacal killer returns home on anniversary of (insert holiday related...() trauma here) films. But this is not a slasher film, and really, besides the wintry atmosphere, has nothing to do with Christmas.
What really floored me about this picture is how literate it is. The story is quite complex, rooted more in 19th century literature (short stories, namely) or Grand-Guignol theater than in a typical killer set-piece horror film that this film prefigures. The story concerns a son who returns to his father's house, set up as a monument of man's inhumanity to man, to sell it because he needs the money. All we know about what happened in the house is that in the opening scene a man runs out into the snow covered in flames, as a figure plays calmly at the organ. But as a mysterious figure emerges, red-herrings abound and dark secrets are unearthed as people begin to be killed off, and old family tragedies are revisited.
The film's aesthetic impulses rest somewhere in between Corman's Poe films, the better Frankenstein sequels (namely, Son of...) and the gritty Hell's Kitchen productions of the early to mid 70's.The film is rare in its use of still images which create an uncanny and creepy atmosphere during its use of voice over narration (which is surprisingly effective, and also interesting in it predates the most famous use of voice over prologue in horror, in Texas Chain Saw), and there is an extended and gorgeously filmed sepia toned flashback scene which feels ghost-like (the deterioration of the print actually enhanced this). This is an able cast of cult film icons, and in the flashbacks a cast essentially taken from Andy Warhol's films (and one wonders how much input Jack Smith, who plays in the flashback sequence, had on some of the scenes).And then there's John Carradine who plays a silent role yet still manages to steal every scene he's in. The score, which plays variations on Christmas carols and Vaughn Williams like funeral dirges, adds an added level of depth to the film's quality.
What all of this adds up to is this is a horror masterpiece hardly anyone's seen and few know exists (and any chance for a good print restoration may not exist for much longer). It's creepy more than scary, tragic more than twisted, surprisingly and strangely moving (at its heart I believe its genuinely concerned with humanity, no matter how conflicted it may be in setting humanity up to be cut down), and its low budget forces it to rely on collision montage suggestion rather than all out gore shock cuts, which is, in my opinion, far more effective, especially with a lower budget. All the more surprising is that this sometimes artful (accident, excess [to use Nichols' term], or intention?) film was the production of soon to be exploitation figureheads (this is one of Lloyd Kaufman's first screen credits). This deserves a remaster, the film has fallen into public domain and can be seen quite easily online, but the print I saw was too dark to see some of the night exteriors, and was showing signs of some significant decay (as in at times there was no emulsion left).