... aka: Death House
... aka: Night of the Dark Full Moon
... aka: Zora
In 1950, on Christmas day, Wilfred Butler (Philip Bruns) died a fiery "accidental" death at his Arlington, Massachusetts home. No one attended the funeral, but Wilfred left behind his home and all its belongings to his oldest living relation; his grandson Jeffrey. He stipulates in the will that the house is to remain just as he has left it "to remind the world of its inhumanity and cruelty." For twenty years the house laid empty and completely unchanged. Now it's finally up for sale. In charge of selling the place at Jeffrey's behest is big city lawyer John Carter (Patrick O'Neal), who's married but decides to bring along his young mistress Ingrid (Astrid Heeren) on the trip. John goes to Town Hall to meet with Mayor Adams (Walter Abel), deaf newspaper publisher Charlie Towman (John Carradine), communications director / switchboard operator Tess Howard (Fran Stevens) and Sheriff Bill Mason (Walter Klavun). The city seems keen on purchasing the property. In fact, they've spent years begging Jeffrey to sell it. Now they finally get their chance, if they can come up with the 50,000 asking price; just one-fifth of what it's really worth.
Though the Mayor and the other old-timers in town behave suspciously and try to convince them to get a hotel, John and Ingrid decide to spend the night in the Butler House instead while they wait on an answer. Little do they know, but someone has just escaped from the Margaretville State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, stolen a car, knifed a dog and is hiding out on the top floor of the large home. Later that night, whoever it is sneaks into the bedroom while the lawyer and his lover are having sex and chops them both up with an axe. The killer then calls the Sheriff, lures him there and murders him with a shovel, then gets Tess to come over and she disappears inside the home also. The killer makes taunting phone calls in a whispered voice trying to lure people his or her way, claims their name is Mary Ann and make other references to Christmas Eve in 1935. It seems whoever's doing the killings doesn't want the house to be sold and is willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that doesn't happen.
Chief among the suspects is Jeffrey Butler (James Patterson) himself. He mysteriously materializes in town from California and starts lurking around. He beats in the windshield of a car with a tire iron, steals the dead lawyer's car and ends up going to Adams' home, where he meets the Mayor's daughter Diane (Mary Woronov). While at Towman's office, Diane scours through old newspapers and discovers that Wilfred Butler's wife died of tuberculosis and his 15-year-old daughter Mary Ann had been raped, got pregnant and then gave birth to a baby boy; Jeffrey. The Butler home was then turned into a mental home and Mary Ann was committed there as one of the patients. Some portions of the papers have been cut out, so Diane is unable to get the full story, but it's eventually revealed when someone gets their hands on Wilfred's journal. There are some superbly creepy, sepia-toned flashbacks which recount the sordid and blood-soaked history of the home to bring things full circle.
BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) is often seen as an inspiration behind HALLOWEEN (1978), but this film - with its killer lurking around in a large old house, mysterious phone calls from someone masking their voice and giving out crypic clues, creepy POV camerawork and the holiday setting (complete with instrumental Christmas songs on the soundtrack) can just as much be seen as an inspiration behind Black Christmas. Despite some jagged editing cuts and a few poorly done, awkward moments, there are lots of eerie fish-eye camera shots on trees and house, a fair mystery and decent performances from the entire cast.
A public domain title now, the most circulated print is a grainy, heavily-damaged one. However, in this particular case the scratchy look actually enhances the eerie ambience of the whole thing. Some parts seem to have been removed from this version (there are a few jumps in audio and within violent scenes), but I can't be 100 percent sure about that. Lloyd Kaufman was the associate producer and also worked on the same director's SUGAR COOKIES (1972), which also starred Woronov.
A remake / "re-imagining;" SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT: THE HOMECOMING (2012) should be out sometime next year.