Tuesday 24 December 2013

Silent Night, Bloody Night: The Homecoming

Director: James Plumb
Writers: Andrew Jones, James Plumb
Producer: Andrew Jones
Cast: Mel Stevens, Alan Humphreys, Philip Harvey
Country: UK
Year of release: 2012
Reviewed from: screener

Silent Night, Bloody Night: The Homecoming is a very interesting film. I’m not convinced that it succeeds in what it sets out to do, but neither am I convinced that I’m necessarily the target audience. And in any case, the ways in which it fails to live up to its lofty ambitions are fascinating and make it very worthy of your attention.

This is one of the new breed of PD remakes. Instead of some bloated Hollywood studio remaking an old movie that was already perfectly good, at a thousand times the budget, creating some soul-less cinematic behemoth, PD remakes are totally independent film-makers remaking an old movie, often one that actually wasn’t very good but is now conveniently within the public domain, at a budget even lower than the original.

Andrew Jones (The Feral Generation) and James Plumb have collaborated on this and also on the first British entry in the somewhat confusing pantheon of Night of the Living Dead remakes and sequels. The original Silent Night, Bloody Night was made in Long Island in 1972 and released two years later. It stars genre fave Mary Woronov as Diane, daughter of the Mayor of a little town where a troubled house comes up for sale. John Carradine plays a mute newspaper editor, there are various Warhol acolytes in supporting roles and Lloyd Kaufman was an associate producer (though it is not, and never has been, a Troma film).

I was advised by the film-makers to watch the original film after their remake and I would advise you, unless you are already familiar with it, to do the same. It’s widely available on various el cheapo-cheapo DVDs and it’s probably all over YouTube too. Watching the 1974 film not only clarifies some of the choices made by the 2012 film-makers but also, truth be told, highlights some of their problems too. Thus, much like the Macbeth porter’s booze, ”it provokes, and unprovokes; ... it makes him, and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him.” There y’are - that’s classical, that is.

So here’s how the original goes. Back in the 1950s, a man named Wilfred Butler returned to a house outside town which he owned but never lived in, and promptly managed to set himself on fire, fatally. The house was inherited by his grandson, Jeffrey Butler, who has also never lived there, and the townsfolk would like to get rid of the place because of its ghoulish history.

On Christmas Eve, a lawyer appears who has been hired by Butler (over the phone) to offer the town the house at a knock-down price, provided that the money is paid in cash, within 24 hours. The town is represented by the Mayor (Diane’s father), Carradine’s newspaper editor, the Sheriff and the town’s switchboard operator, a large, dowdy woman. The lawyer and his girlfriend plan to spend the night at the Butler House but they are interrupted by an axe-wielding maniac, who then phones up the four local worthies and invites them to the house. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Butler himself turns up at Diane’s door and the two head up to the house to work out what is going on. Wilfred Butler’s diary reveals that, back in the 1930s, he turned the house into a private mental asylum where the patients included his own teenage daughter, Jeffrey’s mother.

Or something. The whole thing is framed as a flashback as Diane takes one last look at the building before the bulldozers move in.

So that’s the original Silent Night, Bloody Night (not to be confused with the 1984 picture Silent Night, Deadly Night or any of its many sequels). The above synopsis pretty much covers the remake as well, with just a few tweaks. The framing story has been dispensed with, two of the worthies have been combined so that the fat, dowdy woman is now the newspaper editor, and the whole story has been updated, so that the self-immolation now takes place in the 1980s and the private asylum was set up in the 1970s. In Wales. All of these changes, however, create problems.

Without the framing story and the snatches of narration from Woronov, the whole diary sequence comes across as a massive tell-don’t-show infodump; the film just stops for a while so that we can be told about a bunch of stuff from the past. It has to be said: the sequence works much better in the original.

John Carradine, with his piercingly quizzical stare, slightly wonky dicky-bow, ever-present cigarette and lack of vocal chords (presumably caused by same) really looks and behaves like a newspaper editor. I can also believe that the fat lady is the switchboard operator (which obviously is not a 21st century profession). But I don’t for a second buy the remake’s large local lady as a newspaper editor. Nor do I buy the ‘newspaper office’ location (where, in this version, Diane now works as a cub reporter) - it’s not nearly cluttered enough to be believable.

Then, as regards the updating (which is of course unavoidable), that only works if we suspend all disbelief and accept this as some sort of fantasy, parallel world. It is believable that an individual might turn their home into a privately run lunatic asylum in the pre-war United States. But not in Great Britain in the 1970s. We have a little thing over here called the NHS.

James and Andrew have had fun recreating in their script some of the most memorable aspects of the original. For example, there’s a rather notorious sequence where somebody’s eye is gouged out with a broken wine glass and this is dutifully re-enacted. They’ve kept character names (and had fun adding other, fan-friendly ones into the credits like the Fulci-inspired ‘Freudstein’ - or indeed, ‘Woronov’). But in other respects I think they’ve taken their eye off the ball, being too faithful sometimes and on other occasions missing out fairly crucial elements.

There is, to be more specific, a distinct lack of motivation in the remake: characters do things but we’ve no idea why. In the original, Diane greets the stranger at her door with a gun, and takes quite some persuading to accept that Jeffrey Butler is who he says he is and not the escaped maniac from a different, nearby lunatic asylum who has been reported on the radio to still be at large. In the 2012 film (which features a mass inmate break-out in the first act), Butler steps through Mary’s door and they just instantly bond.

Likewise, in the 1974 film the slimy lawyer has a wife and kid back home and the reason he wants to stay in the Butler house overnight is for a torrid night of passion with his bit on the side, whereas 28 years later there’s no obvious reason why the lawyer and his girlfriend are staying there. The biggest motivation concerns the truth behind the town, a revelation about the film’s victims which I won’t reveal except to observe that it is, quite coincidentally and somewhat bizarrely, the same plot element as the prologue of a Bollywood comedy I watched recently! In the original, this is revealed, out of the blue, in dialogue very near the end. If it’s mentioned in the remake, I missed it, but actually I think this is an improvement. It’s a pretty daft plot point which gives the killer a reason to pick these people beyond their being pillars of the community. In this instance, I don’t buy the original and prefer the slightly random killing of the remake.

Not that I am particularly a fan of slasher films anyway. I can take them or leave them, but I know there are fans out there specifically devoted to the slasher subgenre. And I have no doubt that SNBN:TH will give slashers fans precisely what they’re looking for. In that respect, it hits its targets. But I can only report, as a more general fan of horror, that I enjoyed the original more than the remake: partly (and this is something that could never be fixed) because its age gives it a certain nostalgic charm, especially given the tattiness of certain prints used for the various PD transfers, which glosses over its narrative failings.

Maybe it would be better to watch the remake in isolation. I don’t know. It’s a choice between not knowing why certain things are the way they are and understanding those things but also seeing how some other things could have been better. For example, while conflating the newspaper editor and the switchboard operator into one character, James and Andrew have simply dispensed with the eccentric chain-smoker, then taken the dowdy woman, crossed out ‘operator’ and written in ‘editor’ with a biro. But newspaper editors aren’t like that, especially in today’s commercial environment, they are hard-nosed businessmen/women. They are still mostly a bit eccentric and I bet they all chain-smoke (or at least they should do in films).

A couple of other things concern me. At one point a character escapes from some handcuffs using a piece of broken pottery to gouge chunks out of their wrists. And while that makes for a bloodily gruesome effect, it should be plenty obvious that You Can’t Do That. Even if you were to find a shard of pottery sharp enough to cut through flesh (we’ve all picked up broken plates - they’re not exactly razors), the thing that keeps a handcuff on you is not your wrist, it’s the fact that your hand is considerably bigger than your wrist. You would need to somehow break the bones in your hand - and there’s a lot of them so you’re looking at crushing rather than snapping - and then gouge chunks out of the heel of your thumb. Or cut your whole damn hand off (but with a plate?). But what we see on screen here, though the prosthetic is good and the image is squeamish and gory, makes no sense.

And finally: Christmas. Truth be told, in neither original nor remake is the Christmas setting particularly relevant. The only way it affects the story is that it makes it a bit more problematical for the town to find a large amount of cash within 24 hours. And I suppose it explains why there’s hardly anyone else around. Really, it’s just a novelty thing in the original: let’s set a horror movie - at Christmastime! There’s an uncomfortable contrast between the general goodwill of the season and the nastiness and violence that ensues.

But at least the 1974 film looks like it’s set at Christmas. There are holly wreaths on the doors, decorations and cards in the interior sets, and snow everywhere. People mention the season. It feels like Chrimbo. There are precious few decorations on show in the remake, and I don’t think anybody ever wishes anyone else happy Christmas. Most egregiously, the film was shot in April so in daytime exterior scenes we can see that the trees and hedges are lush and green with new leaves. Obviously you can’t guarantee snow (unless, like The Children, you spend half your production budget on fake stuff) but this is screamingly obviously not December. There is one gratuitous killing of a random person dressed as Santa, but that’s about as festive as it gets.

The trouble with writing a review like this, where I point out a relatively small number of problems and detail why they are problematical (and sometimes how they might have been solved) is that the piece overall becomes very negative, with these criticisms outweighing the positives. So please consider this review in this context: there are many good points to the film, albeit ones which don’t require individual paragraphs to elucidate. It is well-directed, the acting is fine, the camera-work and sound are good. The horror sequences (including one which was not in the original: an attack on a horny young couple using the empty house as a conveniently isolated location for a spot of Percy Filth) are particularly well-managed, combining slick editing with impressive gore effects. For slasher fans, this is clearly the stuff that is important, not whether the editor of the local rag looks like Aunty Mabel or the leafiness of the hedgerows round-abouts. But like I say, I could never describe myself as a ‘slasher fan’, just a guy who likes horror movies, some of which could be classed as slashers.

And so to the cast and crew round-up. Philip Harvey (who appeared briefly in The Last Horror Movie) is Wilfred Butler, Alan Humphreys (Panic Button, New Years Evil) is his grandson, Kathy Saxondale (Old Zombies) is his wife Marie in flashbacks and Mel Stevens stars as Diane (who, despite being the central character, doesn’t appear until nearly halfway through). Also in the cast are Sule Rimi (Daddy’s Girl, Panic Button, Elfie Hopkins), Richard Goss (In the Dark Half, I am Cursed) and Friday the 13th’s Adrienne King in a voice-only role.

Executive producer Robert Graham was production accountant on a selection of indie features including The Feral Generation, Stormhouse, Panic Button and Outpost 11 (a steampunk horror feature unrelated to Nazi zombie sequel Outpost II) and is clearly now a busy guy. His IMDB listing cites 15 features he has ‘in development’ including Requiem for the Ripper, Legacy of the Ripper and three films called Dragonman. The other exec prod is Manish Patel (The Amityville Asylum) who mostly makes health videos for the NHS. Music, cinematography and editing were all handled by James Morrissey who previously made impressive 2008 half-hour short Alone with the Dead. Alex Harper (Dead of the Nite) was responsible for the make-up effects and Mick Bahler (Red Kingdom Rising) handled the visual effects, including the self-immolation in the prologue.

Needless to say, many of the cast and crew also worked on Night of the Living Dead: Resurrection.

Is SNBN:TH worth watching? Absolutely. Does it work? Sort of. Is it as good as it could have been? Yes and no. Some parts work, others don’t. A few Christmas decos wouldn’t have busted the budget (they’re usually pretty cheap at the start of the year!) and a little less fidelity to the original might have been beneficial - because it’s only relevant to those viewers who watch both, and the film should be able to stand alone. On this basis. I retain high hopes for NOTLD:R, not least because that ‘franchise’ is already so diverse that there’s less to be faithful to, and I think this will give Andrew and James more leeway to make their own film, rather than tying themselves up with trying to accommodate ideas from four decades gone-by.

MJS rating: B

No comments:

Post a Comment