SILENT NIGHT starts out so wonderfully well that I knew it wouldn't be able to sustain the momentum, but it's very much worth watching.
Early in the first act we meet a girl of roughly junior high age whom we first see back-talking her mother and using language that would make a sailor blush. Of course, everybody knows that in slasher movies a cardinal rule is that harm cannot be done to children. Guess what? Moments later a masked Santa is at the door and he bloodily dispatches her on screen with extreme prejudice.
It's Christmas Eve in a backwater town in Wisconsin (the grass and trees are green as can be, but we're not supposed to notice this). Aubrey (Jamie King) is a young widow who's a deputy to Sheriff Cooper (the wonderful Malcolm McDowell, gleefully overacting and eating scenery faster than a bulldozer).
The town has been in the doldrums since the mill shut down, but has mustered an air of festivity for the holiday celebration and the Christmas Parade, the highlight of which is a competition for Best Santa Claus which has hundreds of contestants.
Aubrey and her parents (her dad is a retired police officer and her mother a pleasant cipher) are among the town's few sane, normal residents. Drugs, adultery, promiscuity, theft, the production of pornography, a totally creepy priest, you name it, it's going on here. As the sheriff wonders aloud, "How has this town gotten so perverted?" The closing of the mill is cited as a possible cause for the town's decline, but that subtext goes unexplored.
As the corpses begin to pile up, the sheriff should have called for outside assistance. Alas, he suffers from Delusions of Competence and is steadfast in his refusal to seek outside aid. So the killer in the Santa suit continues his rampage.
Jamie King is, as always, solid in her characterization. I'm not sure if Malcolm McDowell's performance is "good acting" as such, but he has such fun with it that I'm in no mood to argue. Best of all, Donal Logue is one of the Santas, a cynical man who is a strong suspect to be the killer. When he's arrested, he and Jamie King have a dynamic scene at the jail at the end of the second act in which he expresses how Christmas has been a series of disappointments to him over his failure ridden life. His anger and and frustration and Ms. King's wordless reaction to what she's hearing are riveting.
The cinematography in SILENT NIGHT is excellent. The use of color, especially red, is what reminded me of Dario Argento's films. And Kevin Riepl's atmospheric musical score keeps up the tension throughout the story.
There is plenty of gore here, but unlike, say, HOSTEL, it's used effectively in telling the story and never seems to be there for its own sake.
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
At the end of the third act the sheriff is dead, the jail is burning, and Aubrey is squared off against the killer Santa. I'm sitting there trying to figure out just who it could be under that mask. The problem is, every suspect I could think of at that point was dead.
It turns out that the killer is not a character who's been part of the narrative. I know, it's not a law that the guilty party in a mystery has to be a character to whom we have been introduced. It's not in the Bible, it's not in the Code of Criminal Procedures. But it's a rule that Agatha Christie would have followed.
One of the prime suspects had been a man named Stein Karsson. He had told Aubrey a story about a man who had dressed in a Santa suit many years ago and gone on a killing spree with a flamethrower.
It turns out that this wasn't an urban legend. Several decades ago the man, Ronald Jones, had indeed done exactly what Karsson had said, and been gunned down by a young rookie police officer.
The young officer was Aubrey's father. And the flamethrower Santa's young son, Ronald Jones Junior, had seen everything that happened and had seen his father die. Here, many years later, he has come back for his revenge.
Five paragraphs ago we saw Aubrey and the killer Santa in mortal combat. Aubrey gains control of the flamethrower and the present day killer Santa is ablaze, just like his father many years ago. He falls to the floor, presumably dead.
Aubrey and Brenda, the presumably sinless dispatcher, stagger out the front door of the police station/jail, which is blazing like a proverbial Yule log. A large municipal building in the heart of town is afire but no crowd has gathered, no firetrucks have arrived but (like the green grass and leaves on the trees) we aren't supposed to notice that.
Ronald Junior somehow survives (sequel?) and gets out of the building. We see him in his truck driving out of town.
I should mention that this is a loose remake of SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT which created a sensation in 1984 by daring to present a killer Santa. Protests by parents' groups caused Tri-Star to withdraw it from theatrical distribution. Publicity from the protests made it a runaway hit on videocassettes (younger readers will have to Google that) and inspired several direct-to-video sequels.
SILENT NIGHT is a very solid, effective thriller. However, I'll admit that the first two acts work better than the third. If I'd written it the story's climax would have been centered around the Santa Parade and, yes, the killer would have been introduced in the first act.
Of course, maybe that's why the producers didn't seek me out to write it.
Parents' note: Drug use, gore, nudity, profanity, and violence. Rated R for a reason.
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