Snow presses against the window pane of a darkened house.
Inside, the silence of the cold corridors is interrupted by the shrill, ominous ringing of a telephone. Should anyone be present…or alive…to answer, they may take pause, as the voice on the other end will undoubtedly belong to a menacing individual who has chosen this particular night to come calling.
With this scene firmly set in your mind, you'd be right to assume that it aptly describes the set-up of a holiday horror film.
Just likely not the one you'd think.
Released in the late autumn/winter of 1972, Silent Night, Bloody Night is a film that exemplifies the notion that it's not always beneficial to be ahead of the curve. Co-Written by Jeffrey Konvitz (The Sentinel), Ira Teller, and the film's director, Theodore Gershuny (Sugar Cookies), Silent Night, Bloody Night's story about an escaped mental patient who returns home (itself a former asylum), only to menace (breathy phone calls and all) and murder those who cross his path, came two years before Bob Clark would fundamentally change the game with Black Christmas.
…and yet, to assert that Silent Night, Bloody Night was just a precursor to what was to come would be a gross oversimplification of the film's own unique legacy.
Known at various points of production as Zora and Night of the Dark Full Moon, the bulk of Silent Night, Bloody Night's principal photography took place in December of 1970 in Oyster Bay, New York. Made in collaboration with the Cannon Group, the inclusion among the cast of horror staple John Carradine and a number of Warhol superstars gave the film an almost instantaneous cult pedigree. Behind the scenes, Silent Night, Bloody Night served as an early producer credit for Lloyd Kaufman, who would go on to create The Toxic Avenger and co-found Troma Entertainment.
Were this not enough, at the center of it all was the electric figure of Mary Woronov, who at the time was just beginning to pull away from her Warhol-associations and set out on the path that would further make her a cult icon and mainstay with films such as Eating Raoul and Night of the Comet.
From both a contemporary and retrospective standpoint, all of these factors should have seemingly ensured Silent Night, Bloody Night as a curiosity in the annals of oddball cinema. But, as some scholars point out, the film's place in the canon is far more than merely good personnel.
In discussion, Matthieu DuPée, author of A Scary Little Christmas: A History of Yuletide Horror Films, suggests that Silent Night, Bloody Night "captures a unique period in horror cinema where arthouse sensibilities and more contemporary horror tropes were first emerging."
DuPée's referencing of Silent Night, Bloody Night's sensibilities as "arthouse" is particularly notable, as that assessment has persisted among the film's critics and scholars since almost the beginning. In a post-A24 landscape, the notion of a tempered, quiet, "artsy," horror film is not all that shocking, but as DuPée points out – "[Silent Night, Bloody Night] had all of these incredible elements that would later become galvanized horror tropes and anchors for the slasher subgenre."
Filmmaker Julie Anne Prescott adds to this sentiment, suggesting that the film "came off as experimental, and that boldness, especially the opening, have been an inspiration" to more recent fare.
By being at the forefront of a movement, many people didn't quite know what to make of the film in the moment. Even Mary Woronov, in an interview in John Kenneth Muir's Horror Films of the 1970s, has spoken in retrospect about how the cast and the crew perceived the script to be "weird" and that she felt Gershuny was attempting to make "an artistic statement," but in her summation, "it didn't work."
Concerns over content aside, perhaps one of the biggest hurdles in Silent Night, Bloody Night's strange trajectory were the circumstances of its release and subsequent rediscovery. Finally given the title by which it's known today, the film was distributed to the drive-in circuit in the spring of 1973 and made the rounds until December of that year. Unfortunately, due to a failure to register the film for copyright, Silent Night, Bloody Night fell into the public domain shortly after its drive-in run and, outside of a few festival screenings, slipped into relative obscurity as a result.
Enter: Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
In 1981, as part of her first season of Movie Macabre, Elvira aired Silent Night, Bloody Night (Oct 3, 1981 – the show's second episode) and in the process, helped kickstart a new chapter of the film's history. Initially acquired due to its public domain status and as admitted counter-programming to family-friendly holiday fare, Silent Night, Bloody Night's reemergence on late-night cable helped introduce it to a whole new audience and cemented the film's status as a horror host staple. For the next several decades, Silent Night, Bloody Night found a comfortable seasonal home on hosted programs such as Miss Misery's Movie Massacre and After Hours Cinema.
However, Mister Lobo, the award-winning creator and host of Cinema Insomnia, cautions audiences not to assume that the film's sole placement in the pantheon of horror host screeners is due to public domain status alone. Referencing a rare airing of the film on the CBS Late Movie in 1976, Mister Lobo suggests that the movie's "marquee value" helped it rise above for hardcore horror fans but that it was the unique title that really allowed it to cut through the noise.
"[The title] is catchy and the allusion to the Christmas hymn makes it seem familiar, and also provocative," Mister Lobo says. He further suggests that hosts of the mid-'80s "took advantage when the similarly titled Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) was in the middle of its full-blown controversy and grabbing headlines." The inference being that hosts capitalized on audiences potentially confusing the two, but in the process, allowing them to discover something equally shocking and "ponderous."
Like the critics, scholars, and film historians before them, hosts seemingly recognize Silent Night, Bloody Night's propensity for density and layers. Whether that's by virtue of the film's art world connections or the happy accident of a filmmaker with his own concept of pacing, Silent Night, Bloody Night's anomalous presentation has made it rife for commentary and exploration. Much has been made about the film's proto-slasher foundations, as well as its placement in the lineage of holiday horror.
However, perhaps the one glaring element of the film that remains relatively unexplored is its unabashed queerness. While not immediately apparent on the surface, Silent Night, Bloody Night's deliberate inclusion of Warhol superstars, whether by intent or by association with Woronov (herself a superstar) and Gershuny, begs for a closer look. In an era where on-camera roles for out, queer-identifying individuals were virtually nonexistent, Silent Night, Bloody Night not only included many in the ensemble but deliberately cast artists "notorious" in the space. Though it should be noted that while none of these performers appear to be outwardly portraying queer characters, the roles in which they are cast seem deliberately pointed when one considers the persona behind the person.
The most glaring and powerful example of this happens during the film's extended flashback sequence, wherein Candy Darling portrays an exaggerated woman of society, who eventually comes face-to-face with a manic, escaped inmate played by fellow superstar Ondine. That these two definitively queer icons depict opposite ends of a spectrum…one a caricature of the society that rejects them, the other the embodiment of what society thinks of them…reads as an incredibly acerbic statement on the world at large. While it's entirely true that this interpretation could be nothing more than the result of unplanned synergy, when one considers that the same scene is populated by the likes of Warhol constituents Tally Brown, Lewis Love, and provocative gay filmmaker Jack Smith, the layers of Silent Night, Bloody Night, intentional or not, become that much harder to deny.
…and perhaps, fifty years on, that's why we continue to be so engaged by the legacy of the quiet little holiday horror that could. More than a mere curiosity from late-night cable airings gone by, Silent Night, Bloody Night's tumultuous and strange trajectory continues to lead it to viewers and creatives looking for something a little more nuanced to unwrap on Christmas morning.
What's more, the film's unusual, compulsive beats have inspired a whole new generation of filmmakers to pick up where it left off. Having already spawned a 2013 remake and a 2015 sequel, the ongoing story of Silent Night, Bloody Night seems far from done.
For filmmaker Julie Anne Prescott, who recently co-wrote and co-directed Silent Night, Bloody Night 3 (which sees original producer Lloyd Kaufman return for an on-camera role), the drive to carry on the legacy was ultimately born out of a need to celebrate the original.
"Silent Night, Bloody Night was bold, expressive, and incredibly hypnotic," Prescott says, "I hope that my love for all of the gritty goodness of the original will continue to bleed into holiday horror via my team's contribution…I feel incredibly grateful to be a part of this film's universe."
Complicated and oddly prescient, Silent Night, Bloody Night has had an undeniably strange five decades on this Earth. In many ways, for a film that seemed out front of so much, it is still finding its place. Though its title precludes Silent Night, Deadly Night and many of its beats foreshadow Black Christmas and even Halloween, Matthieu DuPée suggests that any direct influence on these properties is highly unlikely based solely on the fact that Silent Night, Bloody Night remained relatively undiscovered for so long.
"Silent Night, Bloody Night was released during a turbulent time when the film's distributor, Cannon Releasing, was imploding, so it's not like Silent Night, Bloody Night had wide exposure to be much of an influence on the slasher cycle that was to come a few short years away," DuPée concludes, "But, that's also what makes this film so magical in a sense…Silent Night, Bloody Night was simply far ahead of its time. I'm thrilled to see a revival occurring among genre fans and Christmas horror enthusiasts."
Without a doubt, Silent Night, Bloody Night is a bold, shocking, sleazy, and predictive text that anticipated a whole movement of holiday horror to follow, even if those that walked in its wake did so by happy accident. With many layers to unfurl and many more to discover, Silent Night, Bloody Night feels at once wizened and youthful, ripe for rediscovery or to find under your tree for the very first time. As we celebrate this unusual, remarkable film's 50th anniversary, we mark this not as the conclusion of the conversation but merely the beginning. Merry Christmas and Haunted Holidays.
But don't take my word for it, discover Silent Night, Bloody Night's deliciously deranged legacy for yourself. As noted above, the film is widely available due to being in the public domain. As such, there are a lot of murky copies floating around. To help you out, I'm hooking you up below with a link to a relatively clean looking version of the film. Consider it a holiday gift.
Watch Silent Night, Bloody Night below.