Saturday, December 24, 2022

To All a Goodnight (1980)

... aka: Feliz Nochebuena (Merry Christmas Eve)
... aka: Goodnight
... aka: Kauhun yö (A Night of Horror)
... aka: Terreur dans la nuit (Terror in the Night)

Directed by:
David Hess

Firstly, Happy Holidays to you all, my friends! I truly hope everyone out there has a wonderful Christmas and I'd like to also take this opportunity to thank everyone for visiting and for your comments, support and feedback over the years. Without that, I don't know if I'd still be here doing what I do, so my sincerest gratitude to you all! I also know I'm seriously backlogged on comments and emails due to my work schedule and some other unforeseeable events, but I plan on remedying that here soon. While I won't be posting tomorrow, I'll be back the following day and this year I'm fortunate enough to have an entire week off. I'll be spending much of that cranking out as many reviews as I can until New Years hits. A few years ago, I set a goal of at least 100 new reviews per year. Right now I'm about ten shy and I'll be damned if this is the year where I don't crack triple digits!

As much as I'd like to keep a seasonal theme going right now, I've gone on so many holiday horror benders in the past that I've pretty much now exhausted all pre-1990 Christmas-themed genre films. That then leaves me the task of going back to some of my earlier, shorter reviews, fleshing them out a bit and making some screen caps for them. Even though I didn't like To All a Goodnight the first time out, it's as good an option for an update as anything else right now. I'd only written a couple of brief paragraphs about it and my initial review was based on the horribly transferred Media VHS release, which was so impenetrably dark and blurry that the night scenes were almost impossible to make out. Since then, this has seen numerous restored DVD and Blu-ray releases from companies like Scorpion and Kino Lorber, plus the Germany outfit Cinestrange Extreme, so it's a title ripe for a reevaluation. At the very least, I should be able to actually see what's going on this time!

Examining the credits, seasoned B movie fans will likely notice this film's sleazy pedigree right away. For starters, it was the directorial debut of Hess, star of such notorious titles as Wes Craven's breakthrough hit The Last House on the Left and HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK, a trashy Italian Last House copycat from Ruggero Deodato. The screenplay was written by Alex Rebar, who had also worked a stint in Italian exploitation and then played the title role in The Incredible Melting Man. Producer Jay Rasumny has a filmography boasting such titles as Young Girls for Sale and Wham Bam Thank You Spaceman. And the whole shebang was "presented" by Sandy Cobe, president of Intercontinental Releasing Corp., distributor of such titles as Alice Goodbody, The Sexplorer and Terror on Tour. While this film is a little sleazy (half of the main females have nude scenes and Deep Throat star Harry Reems even shows up for a pseudonymous cameo as a pilot who gets chopped up by his airplane propeller!), it's certainly nowhere near as sleazy as one may expect given who made it.

At the ritzy Calvin Finishing School for Girls, a Christmas prank gone wrong ("Sorority! Sorority! Sorority!") sends one young lady over a balcony to her death on the concrete below. Two years later, when both the superintendent of the school and most of the other students are away on Christmas break, the remaining six young ladies (who had - amazing coincidence here! - almost all been involved in the prank death) are still up to no good. Hopefully they won't kill anybody else this time! Left in the care of kindly cook / housemother Ruth Jensen ("Katherine Herrington" / Kiva Lawrence), the co-eds secretly arrange for Leia's (Judith Bridges) rich football jock boyfriend T. J. (William Lauer) to fly there on his father's private plane. He'll be bringing along three of his college buddies for what everyone's hoping will be a sex-filled holiday weekend. To keep Ms. Jensen out of their way, the girls lace her drink with enough sleeping pills to keep her knocked out for 10 to 12 hours.

Right from the start, this almost comically plays right into the cliché slasher 'sex = death' trope to the point where it almost seems like some kind of parody. All of the female victims (described by one staff member as being "rich little pompous bitches") are loud, promiscuous, obnoxious, rather rude and seem to only have one thing on their mind, and that thing is getting laid. When the fellas show up, most of them are exactly the same. Conversely, our final girl Nancy (Jennifer Runyon) is a sweet, wholesome, shy, pristine blonde virgin who dresses conservatively in her cute little overalls, loves kittens, drinks milk while the others drink beer and smoke weed, uncomfortably squirms in her seat at the mere mention of sex and speaks in hushed baby tones. The plot also makes sure she's a new transfer to the school and wasn't involved in the deadly prank from two years prior.

This also trots out the creepy / half-witted handyman stock character with Ralph Kramer, the school groundskeeper. Ralph constantly lurks around carrying a set of garden shears, rambles on about evil and the devil and does silly things like barging into a girl's room with his shears to tend to her potted plants (?) "It's our duty to take care of the plants. God put 'em here to give us pleasure" he says in his slow, monotone voice. Cast in this role is "Buck West," who is better known as West Buchanan. Just like Hess and Rebar, the very tall, very blonde actor was an American expatriate who spent a good deal of time in the Italian film industry in the 1970s; in his case mostly as a stuntman and bit part player.

Someone gets their hands on a Santa outfit (which all of the guys arrive wearing) then starts knocking everyone off. Cynthia (Lisa Labowskie) is the unlucky first victim in a hilariously unsubtle scene where she steps outside and the killer walks up to her, casually plants a knife in her chest and then just walks away. This scene and many others show just how poorly planned and directed the film actually is. Though they were on a tight ten day filming schedule, it's clear that they didn't shoot enough footage. As a result, the entire film is filled with tons of medium shots and appears to be missing the multiple camera angles and close-ups needed to generate shock moments in the editing room.

Nevertheless, the killer's still got a lot of killing to do, even if it isn't horribly exciting for us to watch. High society ("Bring me some perfume will you... the Chanel") British tart Trisha (Angela Bath) is surprised in the kitchen with a blade across the throat while her date has his head smashed in with a large rock. Now decked out in a suit of armor (!?), the killer shoots a crossbow arrow through one of the guys' heads and then decapitates budget Debra Winger Samantha (Denise Stearns) with a medieval axe while her dead date's still lying on top of her. And that's just the first night of festivities. There's more to come...

Apparently having done a spectacular job of cleaning up all of the blood and burying all of the bodies the night before, the oblivious survivors; Nancy, Leia, T.J., Melody (Linda Gentile) and the nerdy Alex (Forrest Swanson), awaken the next day with no clue there'd even been a blood-soaked murder spree the evening before. However, the killer picks an inopportune time of relieving poor Ralph of red herring duties and, when his corpse is discovered in the woods nearby, the police come calling.

Since Detective Polansky (Sam Shamshak) and his men can't find any bodies aside from Ralph's, who had a long criminal rap sheet prior to working at the school, he posts a couple of guards at the school to keep watch on things. That gives the killer an opportunity for a second round of carnage, something the cast makes exceptionally easy for them by behaving like complete idiots the entire time. With the home secured, one guy opens the door to look outside and doesn't re-lock it. Another couple go outside for a "walk". As for the posted officers, they're just as bad as the students. One of them just walks right up to Santa outside and gets an axe planted in his skull while the other goes upstairs to take a nap and has sex with one of the students!

While not very well made and almost unbelievably stupid at points, I can at least give this a little credit for including most of the bells and whistles slasher fans expect. There's a decent body count, a wide variety of different kills coming at a pretty speedy clip, plenty of blood courtesy of Mark Shostrom, a bit of nudity and a couple of absurd plot twists thrown out toward the end. It pretty much operates as expected so fans of this type of film shouldn't be too horribly disappointed. Others will find less to enjoy here.

Goodnight is mostly noteworthy as one of only three killer Santa Claus movies to predate the controversial SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984). The other two were the "And All Through the House" segment in Tales from the Crypt (1971) and the same year's CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980). None of these received anywhere near the press or notoriety of Silent Night, which had been blasted by film critics, prompted angry parent's groups to picket theaters that played it and was pulled from circulation early as a result. Goodnight received the least amount of publicity of all of these, probably because it was an extremely limited theatrical release that came and went without anyone noticing.


Dead Girls (1990)

Directed by:
Dennis Devine

Two days before Christmas in 1985, heavy metal loving Reno, Nevada residents Raymond Belknap and James Vance got drunk, smoked weed, went to a church playground and stuck a 12-gauge shotgun under their chins and pulled the trigger. Belknap was killed instantly while Vance only managed to blow off the bottom portion of his face. After countless hours of reconstructive surgery and endless pain, Vance passed away three years after the incident. The young men's parents then did what a lot of people in similar situations do: Tried to blame-shift the pain away. They found their boogeyman in Judas Priest's 1978 cover of Spooky Tooth's "Better by You, Better Than Me" and subsequently sued the band for killing their kids. The claims involved supposed subliminal messages (such as "do it, do it, do it") being hidden inside the song somehow brainwashing their sons into taking their own lives. The civil case went to trial, experts testified for both sides and the judge threw the lawsuit out soon after. The case had been percolating and making front page news in the American press for years before the actual trial and appears to have been something of an influence on the film we're about to watch.

A bunch of sullen, big-haired teens gather together by some candles in a dark room. They're all fans of a female "death rock" group called Deadgirls, whose dark lyrics are all about death, destruction, depression and suicide. The ringleader of the group - Brooke (Ilene B. Singer) - reminds everyone that "Life is a dog! A total bummer!" before they all whip out knives and slit their own wrists. Everyone ends up dying except for Brooke, who's now unresponsive and has somehow willed herself into a psychosomatic coma. Brooke's estranged sister, whom she hadn't even spoken to for two years prior, also happens to be Gina Verelli (Diana Karanikas), lead singer and chief lyricist of Deadgirls.

After the death of her parents in a car accident when she was just eight, Gina was raised in a small town by her hyper-religious aunt and uncle and was a church choir singer prior to being discovered by pushy talent agent Artie (Brian Burr Chin) and thrust into the band. But everything about Deadgirls is a gimmick. They make jokes about how untalented they all are and don't really mean what they sing. It simply sells. Each of the members have their own stage name, own style, own shtick and own persona. Gina, for instance, goes by "Bertha Beirut" and likes to strangle herself with an American flag while on stage. Away from her Deadgirls stuff, she's sensitive and sweet.

There's also bitchy former magician Susie Stryker aka "Cynthia Slain" (Angela Scaglione), who "eviscerates" herself during performances, the weapons-obsessed Amy aka "Nancy Napalm" (Kay Schaber Wolf), who chooses not to reveal her "past reality" and boasts about knowing "how to use over 200 different military-issued anti-personnel devices," Julliard-trained drummer Mark Grant aka "Randy Rot" (Steven Kyle) and Dana aka "Lucy Lethal" (Angela Eads), who's in charge of the make-up and is either Marky's sister or his girlfriend or perhaps both. It's complicated... so complicated I could never make sense of it myself!

Due to Gina's rapidly crumbling mental health, prompted not only by Brooke's suicide attempt but also death threats, frequent nightmares, hallucinations and premonitions and her bandmates' opposition to her wanting to change the doom-and-gloom direction of the group ("We're the Deadgirls, not The Shirelles!"), the band decide they need to take a short break to regroup and arrange a vacation at a secluded mountain cabin. Gina insists on dragging her sister, who's finally up and getting around but still a little loopy, along. Also coming are Brooke's private nurse (Deirdre West), Jeff the security liaison (Jeff Herbick) and weird female "super groupie" / stalker Karen (Mara Holland), who goes everywhere the band goes whether she's invited or not! Waiting for them when they arrive is a stuttering, voyeuristic handyman named Elmo (David Williams), who one girl describes as being "retarded or something."

Gina will be leaving behind a long list of aggrieved people, who either directly blame her for the suicide deaths or have other, more self-serving objectives. Her aunt (Carol Albright), who has recently lost control over a significant amount of inheritance now that Gina's of age, tells her "I hope you burn in hell for this!" A local reverend (Marshall Martin) whom the aunt had been forking over large amounts of cash to, views the girls as "lost sheep" and may now have to look for a new revenue stream if they aren't feeling as generous as the aunt. Brooke's pissed off boyfriend threatens, "You're gonna pay!" Now that I think about it, basically everyone else in this backwards small town would probably have a motive for revenge, though she also reconnects with supportive former boyfriend Mike (David Chatfield).

Considering all that's going on (quite frankly, too much!), it comes as no surprised when someone slaps on a disguise (rubber skull mask, trench coat, fedora) and starts laying into the group. Whoever is doing it is also patterning their killing spree after the band's songs, selecting titles like "Nail Gun Murders" and "Drown Your Sorrows" as inspiration. Though most of the death scenes are pretty tame, there's at least some variety. There's a hanging, a drowning, a stabbing, a throat slashing, a few shootings (by nail gun and pistol), a head beaten in with a tree branch, someone getting blown up, an eye gouged out with a crucifix and, in the most gruesome and bloody bit by far, fingers and a hand chopped off with an axe.

Almost a decade ago, I made a list of twenty hidden gems made in the 80s (LIST HERE) that I thought more genre fans should check out. I included Dead Girls on said list and didn't think much of it at the time, then laughed my ass off after stumbling upon the following comment referencing that list on Letterboxd:

While I think having me euthanized for having a differing opinion is a bit extreme, it did get me thinking about that list and this film's place on it. If I had to make the list all over again, right now, would I include Dead Girls? Nope. I've now seen many good obscure 80s genre films and this one would not make the cut. Do I stand by my original statement that this is a fun movie? Yep. Still do. And this revisit after so many years did nothing to alter my original assessment.

Where Dead Girls differentiates itself from other low budget U.S. hack-and-slash flicks of the era is doing a better-than-usual job setting up its premise like a whodunit, with loads of potential suspects (basically everyone!) and red herrings. The script by Steve Jarvis then manages to capitalize on all that in a big way by using said suspects to deliver one unexpected turn after another during the last 20 or so minutes, leading to a grim, unexpected twist. There's also some witty dialogue and most of the primary characters are fleshed out in an entertaining way.

All that said, this low budget 16mm production is far from perfect. It's too long (105 minutes), drags at times and it's clear as day watching just where some of that fat should have been trimmed. First thing to go should have been all of the stuff involving Gina's ESP abilities, a plot angle that's introduced, goes nowhere and is then simply forgotten about for the rest of the film. There are some technical issues, too, especially with the audio recording and editing. A hair is also on the lens during some scenes. Most of the acting is amateurish, though Karanikas is a solid lead and there's strong support from Eads and West. Many of the people seen here also appeared in Devine's previous film: the shot-on-video FATAL IMAGES (1989).

This was first released on video by Raedon, who had one of the worst catalogs of the entire VHS era, which makes Dead Girls one of their best releases by far. I do however wonder if the person who wrote the plot synopsis on the back of the case actually even watched the film. In 2022, Vinegar Syndrome finally released this on Blu-ray on their set "Home Grown Horrors: Volume 2" along with the low budget slasher MOONSTALKER (1989) and Hanging Heart (1989). It's restored from the original camera negative, so it's looking about as good as it ever will now. Their release also comes with two commentary tracks and the 93-minute documentary Dead Girls Rock: Looking Back on Dead Girls, featuring interviews with the director, writer and a number of the cast members.

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