One of the most controversial horror movies from the 1980s is without a doubt Silent Night Deadly Night. The humbug loaded hubbub was due to the film’s depiction of Santa Claus as a homicidal maniac. However, Charles E. Sellier Jr.’s 1984 movie wasn’t the first to feature a killer Santa. Amicus’ 1972 anthology Tales from the Crypt boasts a segment where Joan Collins’ character is terrorized by a murderous Saint Nick. And the surprisingly thoughtful 1980 psycho-horror Christmas Evil centers around a maddened toy maker posing as Santa. By and large, though, these two films eclipse a Santa slasher curiously titled To All a Goodnight.
Set in the isolated Calvin Finishing School For Girls, To All a Goodnight follows several students who stay behind over Christmas break. As the women party with their male callers, someone disguised as Father Christmas makes a list and checks it twice. For this year, Santa is coming to town so he can take all the boys and girls for a “slay” ride they’ll never forget.
To All a Goodnight was born in the aftermath of Halloween while also predating Friday the 13th by several months. This was Alex Rebar’s first outing as a solo writer, whereas director David Hess had already crossed over from music to acting years before. With the movie slated for a December release in 1979, it was certainly crunch time for Hess and Rebar. After actors were cast and a location was picked out — a two-wing mansion in Santa Barbara that overlooked the ocean — principal photography lasted ten days in November.
The late Kiva Lawrence — who went by the name of Katherine Herrington in honor of her own mother — remembered Hess as an enthusiastic director. At one point, he wanted to shoot a scene where Jennifer Runyon’s Nancy aimed a gun at Lawrence’s character, Mrs. Jensen; the actress refused. He then tried to convince Lawrence to let them gush fake blood from her mouth and ears. Again, she declined. Although it’s palpable Lawrence wasn’t particularly fond of To All a Goodnight, she acknowledges fans’ affection in spite of the film not being “perfectly made.”
“[…] To All a Goodnight follows several students who stay behind over Christmas break. As the women party with their male callers, someone disguised as Father Christmas makes a list and checks it twice.”
Rebar believed 20th Century Fox ultimately passed on distributing the film because of Harry Reems (credited as Dan Stryker); they didn’t want to be associated with an adult film star. So, the 1979 release date was off the table. As luck would have it, Intercontinental Releasing Corporation stepped in and gave To All a Goodnight a limited screening in the following January. With this being one of many slashers that overpopulated theaters back then, critics were promptly negative.
To All a Goodnight was an elusive whodunit that has only found the smallest of small cult followings since it meager release. It didn’t even reach VHS until 1983, and those copies are notorious for ill-lit scenes. The movie has recently been rediscovered thanks to the efforts of Kino Lorber and Scorpion Releasing, whose own arcane appetites for all but forgotten films is admirable. Without their determination, fans would not have access to this kooky Christmas chiller.
HELL ON A HOLIDAY
Much like Prom Night, the cold open in To All a Goodnight shows a youthful prank gone terribly awry. What looks to be a hazing ritual is actually young women chasing an inebriated peer onto the balcony while chanting ‘sorority’ over and over. That’s about it. The target of this bizarre taunting finally falls over the ledge, plummeting to her death. Legally-speaking, it’s unclear what came of this situation as the fate of the other parties involved is never mentioned. All the same, this nimble bit of nasty nostalgia is touched upon again in the most no-duh way.
Two years later, the students of Calvin Finishing School are all heading home for Christmas break. The stragglers — namely Nancy, Melody (Linda Gentile), Leia (Judith Bridges), Trisha (Angela Bath), Sam (Denise Stearns), and Cynthia (Lisa Labowskie) — take full advantage of their headmistress’ absence by inviting over some company of the male persuasion. Soon, the house is filled with much-desired testosterone. Alas! There’s a problem to be dealt with before the amorous antics can commence — the doting Mrs. Jensen is still around. To ensure she doesn’t interfere with the arrival of T.J. (William Lauer) and his horny cohorts, the ladies slip something in the housemother’s warm milk. Based on everyone else’s behavior, one has to wonder if the main cast took a few doses themselves.
“From theatrical inflections to unmeaning dialogue, this is perhaps the most colorful group of would-be prey to ever grace a slasher movie.”
As the guest arrive, so does the movie’s sense of utter weirdness. Yes, there is a vicious Santa prancing about, but his actions are outshone by his victims’ eccentricities. From theatrical inflections to unmeaning dialogue, this is perhaps the most colorful group of would-be prey to ever grace a slasher movie. Hess’ one and only time as a director is curiously hard to turn away from. One might be bold enough to call it fascinating. Be that as it may, To All a Goodnight really puts the “good” in “so bad it’s good.”
Even if it is an unwritten rule, the average Christmas movie should look and feel wintry. Heavy coats, visible breath, and yuletide décor are just some of the staples we expect. But in To All a Goodnight, there is a nary a drop of snow to be found. This is Southern California, after all. During conception, Rebar never suggested having a winter setting. And adding snow did not fit into their meager $75,000 budget. All that was important to Rebar was having a killer decked out as Santa Claus, no matter how strange that seemed given the film’s lack of Christmas charm.
Considering the film was made in late 1979, its gimmick was more clever than not. Its immediate contemporaries — such as Savage Weekend and Tourist Trap — indeed had villains wielding unorthodox weapons or donning masks, but they weren’t going for the full ensemble like the Santa-clad assailant in To All a Goodnight. Even pioneer Michael Myers wasn’t focused on the entire getup.
As a whole, slashers didn’t embrace the complete costume until after this film. One might argue Hess and Rebar’s movie helped pave the way — whether that is purely coincidental or not is up for debate — for not only vengeful motives but also motifs. Similar ideas are, of course, implemented with better success in later films.
THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING
To All a Goodnight speeds through its exposition like someone buying last-minute Christmas gifts. The murderer’s motivation is an afterthought, and at no time do we ever feel any attachment to the characters. On a technical level, the inept lighting work is glaring on the remastered release. To add insult to injury, the identity of the culprit is more obvious than the impostor Jason in Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning. Herein lies the viewer’s conundrum: why should they keep watching? The premise isn’t fresh or well articulated, and the overall execution is listless at best. To sum it up — near everything is as undercooked as a raw Christmas ham.
If there is any reason to stick with To All a Goodnight, Kiva Lawrence broached it succinctly in an interview about the film. She highlights how we, as a culture, look back at things of the past with a sort of endearment that is almost indescribable to anyone outside the circle. What might be thought of as a ho-ho-horrible movie may very well be someone else’s winter weakness. It’s a matter of taste and leniency.
“One might argue Hess and Rebar’s movie helped pave the way — whether that is purely coincidental or not is up for debate — for not only vengeful motives but also motifs.”
Alex Rebar was well aware of other kindred movies with killer Kris Kringles. Especially those that came after his. To one’s surprise, he doesn’t feel slighted by the likes of Don’t Open Til Christmas or Silent Night Deadly Night. In fact, he feels honored that he might have started a trend that horror fans take for granted. Prior to the 1980s, Christmas was more or less sanctioned as an untouchable affair when it came to filmmaking. In those days, you either wrote an uplifting, family-friendly movie, or you just didn’t bother making anything at all. Yet, in what feels like a buck to the status quo, Rebar and Hess alongside Bob Clark (Black Christmas) jump-started a shift towards more subversive Christmas films. And anyone who appreciates the cynical side to the holidays that’s so common nowadays, they should owe a bit of thanks to To All a Goodnight.
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