After Silent Night, Deadly Night: Part 2 failed to garner even half the reaction that the original film did, the subsequent installments in the franchise from that point forward all went straight-to-video. It was in 1989 that rights holders LIVE Entertainment – who had released the first two films on VHS – spearheaded the revival of the series, rushing a second sequel into production.
Independent producer Arthur Gorson was the man put in charge of the third installment, hired for the job in March of 1989 with the mission of having the film finished and released on video in time for that year’s holiday season. Gorson was and still is to this day good friends with veteran filmmaker Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop), who he suggested as director of the project. Though Gorson says it didn’t take all that much to convince Hellman to come on board, Hellman’s side of the story is a tad bit different.
Story goes that Hellman was suffering from a nasty case of the flu at the time Gorson approached him about the film, which played a key role in the decision process. “There was nothing about it that caught my interest,” Hellman says. “In my weakened state, I only agreed as an act of friendship.” Hellman went on to say that he is not a fan of horror films, and only watched the first two installments in the Silent Night, Deadly Night franchise at the insistence of Gorson.
Whatever the reason, Hellman agreed to direct the film, but not before one stipulation was met; a screenplay had already been written, and Hellman wanted no part of the project unless it was promptly thrown out the proverbial window. With Hellman on board, the original screenplay was indeed scrapped, and a new one based off ideas from Hellman and Gorson was written in a single week by a man named Carlos Laszlo.
…at least, that’s the name listed in the credits. In truth, Carlos Laszlo was actually the name of a baby seen in the beginning of the film, and it was Carlos’ father who wrote the first draft of the new screenplay. From that point forward, the name Carlos Laszlo was used as a pseudonym for all the different writers that contributed, including Steve Gaydos and even Monte’s daughter Melissa!
The ending of Part 2 left questions as to whether or not Ricky survived the events of the film, left for dead after cops unloaded a blizzard of lead into his body – the film ends with him smiling into the camera, suggesting his reign of terror is far from over. It was this ambiguity that served as the basis for Better Watch Out, a continuation of the story that picks up six years later and again centers around Ricky Caldwell, who is in a coma at a California hospital. Lucky for Ricky, a twisted doctor is presiding over his lifeless body, and the doc decides to use a blind psychic (Laura) to attempt to communicate with him. Because why the hell not?
Of course, the experimental procedure doesn’t exactly go as planned, and Ricky develops a psychic link to the young girl, before coming back to life and breaking free from the hospital. From there, it’s off to grandmother’s house that the psychic and her brother go, not realizing that Ricky is very much alive, and hot on their trail. As Ricky pursues Laura, a cop that was involved in the shootout from Part 2 (…but not really) pursues him, intent on once and for all putting an end to the Caldwell family killings.
Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the relatively boring third installment in the Silent Night, Deadly Night franchise is the cast, which is filled out with a handful of familiar faces. A pre-Mulholland Drive Laura Harring plays Jerri, the girlfriend of Laura’s brother, while legendary actor Robert Culp plays Lt. Connely, the Dr. Loomis to Ricky’s Michael Myers. As for Ricky himself, he’s played by horror icon Bill Moseley, and it’s Moseley that is largely responsible for making the film worth watching – as is the case with many of the films he’s appeared in over the years. Better Watch Out was filmed just three years after Moseley’s breakout role as Chop Top in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Part 2, and though he unfortunately doesn’t get to do all that much in the film, it’s nevertheless a joy to see him as the lead villain in a slasher flick.
Making his silent and subdued performance all the more memorable is the fact that Ricky wears a clear glass dome atop his head, his brain completely visible underneath - the result of a life-saving operation after the events of Silent Night, Deadly Night: Part 2. The explanation is that Ricky’s brain was destroyed in the shootout, though of course anyone who has seen the film knows that no shots were fired at his head. Nevertheless, it’s a fun addition to an otherwise dull movie, and it’s again a joy to watch Bill Moseley walking around with his brain exposed.
The Valencia, California shoot was completed in a matter of weeks, production wrapping in April 1989 and editing finished by May. Better Watch Out made its premiere on the festival circuit in July of that year, hitting home video on November 17th – a mere eight months after the new screenplay was written.
Director Monte Hellman has fond memories of the production, admitting that it’s not his best film, but nevertheless considering it some of his best work as a director. He says he was happy to have done the movie, and seems to be quite proud of how quickly he and his crew were able to put it all together. They were all under the gun from the word go, the distributor breathing down their necks to get the film in the can and out in time for Christmas, and though those aren’t exactly the best conditions to make a movie under, they managed to pull it off and succeed in their mission. An impressive accomplishment, regardless of how the movie turned out.
With Ricky once again left for dead at the end of Better Watch Out, whether or not he survived the finale again being left up to the viewer to decide, it would seem that he was primed and ready for a return in another sequel. And though another sequel did soon follow, Ricky was nowhere to be found…
The first of two sequels to completely abandon the Caldwell family storyline that the first three films in the franchise were centered around, Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation began production in 1990, with producer Richard Gladstein taking control of the series. Though Gladstein went on to become a two-time Academy Award nominee, for both The Cider House Rules and Finding Neverland, he was at the time very new to the business, and in fact had gotten his start just one year prior - executive producing Silent Night, Deadly Night 3 for LIVE Entertainment.
Gladstein set his sights on continuing the franchise, and it was while brokering a home video deal for Bride of Re-Animator that he found the man to take the helm. Gladstein wasn’t a horror fan, but he was impressed with director Brian Yuzna’s work on Bride, and so he asked Yuzna if he had any interest in directing the fourth installment in the Silent Night, Deadly Night franchise. Though Yuzna wasn’t exactly keen on the idea of making a low-budget slasher sequel, and had no interest whatsoever in directing a movie about a killer Santa, he was tempted by the allure of more work, and so he took the job. But only under one condition. “I didn’t want to do the Christmas thing,” Yuzna told me. “And so I didn’t.”
Though a script had been written for the film by S.J. Smith, which included the character of Ricky Caldwell, that original screenplay was re-tooled by Yuzna, Gladstein and Bride of Re-Animator writer Woody Keith, who removed any and all connection to the previous films in the Silent Night, Deadly Night franchise – even the Christmas element was mostly excised from the screenplay. What they were left with was a bizarre tale of a cult, a coven of women (plus Clint Howard) who are obsessed with the idea of resurrecting the Egyptian Goddess Isis.
When an aspiring female journalist named Kim begins investigating the apparent suicide of a young woman, she soon finds herself in way over her head - the cult hell-bent on turning her into their new queen. As you might imagine, the titular initiation process isn’t exactly a pleasant one. Kim is subjected to all sorts of torture and torment by her new friends, ending in a rooftop showdown where the cult leader (played by Bond girl Maud Adams) attempts to finish the initiation process with a sacrifice; the murder of Kim’s boyfriend’s little brother.
Focusing less on story and more on strange visuals, wild effects and surreal imagery, Initiation is a whacky movie that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas - aside from the fact that it takes place around Christmastime - and looking back Yuzna regrets many of the choices he made with the film. He describes himself as having a “weird ambition” at the time, and that the various things he was trying to convey with the movie simply didn’t work out as planned. “I know it’s not a very watchable movie,” he admits, “but it’s one of the most ambitious films I’ve ever made.”
That ambition most definitely shows on the screen, Yuzna’s obsession with mythical figure Lilith, simulacra and stream of consciousness imagery resulting in Initiation being a bit of a clumsy and messy movie, but one that is nevertheless full of memorable moments and some really interesting ideas. From a bizarre sex ritual to the oral birth of a massive squirmy bug, Initiation is absolutely chock full of unique images and wild ideas, which serve to make it a highly entertaining watch - even if those images and ideas are present in the film without any real explanation or exploration.
As Yuzna himself pointed out to me, one of the real highlights of the movie is the effects work of the always impressive Screaming Mad George, who had previously worked on Bride of Re-Animator as well as Predator and A Nightmare on Elm Street: Part 4 – he was the man behind the incredible cockroach death scene in the latter. George is billed in the opening credits as being the ‘Surrealistic Visual Designer,’ a title that perfectly sums up his work on Initiation and all of the films he worked on throughout his career. Some of the more memorably grotesque effects in the film include a couple sequences of body horror-style skin binding, as well as enough icky creatures to earn the film the alternate title of Bugs – which it was released under in the UK.
Yuzna’s other big regret, aside from the lack of focus on a coherent or engaging story, is that he wishes he had embraced the franchise, and ran with the idea of a killer Santa. Today, he says, the idea of a Christmas horror movie is really appealing to him, but at the time he felt the best thing to do would be to stray as far away from the previous films as possible. “Sometimes, you’ve just gotta go for it and see what happens,” he told me. “Sometimes great stuff happens, and sometimes it doesn’t.” He cites the ambitious art film approach to Silent Night, Deadly Night 4 as being one of those ideas that just didn’t work.
LIVE Entertainment released Initiation on home video on November 21st, 1990, approximately seven months after the California shoot was completed. It wouldn’t be long afterwards that Yuzna got the chance to make a proper Silent Night, Deadly Night sequel, when Richard Gladstein once again came knocking in 1991…
After filming wrapped, Brian Yuzna felt bad about how Initiation turned out, and he had by that in point in time realized that straying away from the Christmas theme of the series wasn’t the best idea. Though he never expected to get a chance to do another one, he nevertheless began brainstorming an idea for a horror movie about an evil toy maker – an idea that came in handy when Richard Gladstein approached him about returning to direct Silent Night, Deadly Night 5.
Initiation had made enough money on home video to warrant a sequel, and it was during a visit from Gladstein to the set of a Yuzna-produced film called Guyver (which marked the directorial debut of Screaming Mad George) that the plans for Part 5 were set into motion. Yuzna pitched Gladstein on his idea of making the movie about an evil toy maker, who uses toys to do his dirty deeds, and Gladstein was all for it. Only problem was, Yuzna didn’t want to return to the director’s chair, a combination of being too busy at the time and just not being interested in directing the film.
The script supervisor on the set of Guyver was Martin Kitrosser, whose name is likely to ring a bell for hardcore Friday the 13th fans. Kitrosser was the script supervisor on Friday the 13th and its first sequel, and it was he who wrote parts 3 and 5 of the Friday franchise. Yuzna was incredibly impressed with Kitrosser, and how good he was at his job, and he saw Silent Night, Deadly Night 5 as the perfect opportunity to help out a friend, and get Kitrosser started as a director.
Originally titled Toy Boy, Yuzna and Kitrosser penned the screenplay together, with Kitrosser in charge of directorial duties. Amending his mistakes from Initiation, Yuzna fully embraced the idea of Christmas-themed horror for the sequel that became known as The Toy Maker, redeeming himself by co-writing a standalone story that was directly linked to the holiday, rather than one that merely took place in December.
In the brilliant opening moments of the film, a young child witnesses his step-father’s brutal demise, after opening a Christmas gift that attacks him and latches itself onto his face. From there, we meet drunken toy shop owner Joe Petto (get it?) and his strange son Pino (GET IT?!), and it soon becomes evident that one of them is responsible for the booby-trapped toy. With an amateur sleuth beginning to unravel the mystery, all parties involved ultimately collide in one of the most gloriously bizarre finales in horror history… but more on that in a minute.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Silent Night, Deadly Night 5 is the man chosen for the role of Joe Petto; none other than Mickey Rooney (seen above, in a rare behind the scenes Polaroid). While it’s strange enough that such a big name star agreed to appear in the low-budget fifth installment of a horror franchise, the casting decision becomes a whole lot more interesting when you take a look at Rooney’s thoughts about the original Silent Night, Deadly Night.
Just a handful of years before signing on to star in The Toy Maker, Rooney – who has played Santa Claus on more than a couple occasions throughout his career – blasted Silent Night, Deadly Night for its depiction of a killer Santa, quoted as saying that “the scum who made that movie should be run out of town.” How he ended up being involved in one of the sequels is something I only wish I could get a hold of Rooney to ask, though I can only assume it was a situation where money talked. Everyone’s got a price, as they say.
While Bill Moseley is the highlight of Better Watch Out and the gross-out effects are the highlight of Initiation, it’s the killer toys that make this Christmas tale a real joy to watch. Though Yuzna told me he wasn’t happy with the way the toys turned out, as they weren’t half as cool or elaborate as he had imagined when he came up with the idea, the scenes of toys wreaking havoc in this one are nevertheless the personification of holiday horror entertainment.
In one particularly gruesome scene, a toy larvae jumps into a man’s mouth and exits out of one of his eye sockets, and in another a sex scene goes horribly wrong when a cavalcade of army men, dinosaurs and robots interrupt the romantic proceedings. Another humorous sequence shows a young boy riding around on rocket-powered roller-skates, which propel him into an oncoming car. He survives the ordeal, presumably because killing off kids is quite taboo… even in the world of horror films!
But the most memorable toy of all is of course Pino himself, who we find out at the end of the film is a walking, talking Ken doll – created by Joe Petto after his wife and unborn child died in a car accident. The handiwork of Screaming Mad George, Pino’s toy body is revealed in the shocking finale of the film, wherein he disrobes and proceeds to sexually assault Sarah, the woman whose husband was killed at the start of the film. We also find out during the finale that it was Pino who rigged up the deadly toys, and the toy boy ultimately meets his end thanks to a few strikes with an axe and a well-placed stomp of the head.
It’s bizarre and unique scenes like these that make The Toy Maker one of my favorite installments in the franchise, second only to the original, and the film is quite frankly the embodiment of everything I love about the fusion of horror and the most joyful holiday of them all. Much like Halloween 3, The Toy Maker is a film that likely would’ve benefited from not being connected to the franchise it was connected to, a sentiment that Brian Yuzna himself agrees with. Because horror fans had long given up on the series, after the trainwreck that was Part 2, few have bothered over the years to give it the chance it most definitely deserves.
November 7th of 1991 saw the home video release of Silent Night, Deadly Night 5. Though the ending of the film suggests that some of the dolls in Joe Petto’s lair may be as alive as Pino, The Toy Maker ended up being the final installment in the controversial and highly troubled series. “I guess I’m the guy who killed the franchise,” jokes Yuzna.
Proving that Silent Night, Deadly Night is as relevant today as it ever was, the original film was remade in 2012, over 20 years after the final sequel in the franchise was released. Dropping the ‘Deadly Night’ portion of the title, last year’s Silent Night was directed by longtime fan Steven C. Miller, a loosely connected reboot that took the idea of a killer in a Santa suit and used it to tell quite a bit of a different story. In Silent Night, there’s no Billy, no Ricky and no childhood trauma, but plenty of winks and nods to the original film (and even a particularly humorous ‘garbage day’ reference), along with a whole host of creative and incredibly gory scenes of carnage.
Not surprisingly, Silent Night didn’t draw the ire of critics or parents the way Silent Night, Deadly Night did, showing that a whole lot has changed since the days when the mere suggestion of a killer Santa Claus had the power to turn parents into protestors. As Brian Yuzna pointed out to me in our phone conversation, nothing is sacred or off limits in our society anymore, and the saga of Silent Night, Deadly Night is the perfect barometer of that societal shift. The times they have a-changed, to say the least.
And that about wraps up our mega-sized retrospective of the Silent Night, Deadly Night franchise. We hope you’ve enjoyed this journey through one of the more unique horror franchises of all time, and all of us here on FEARnet wish you a very Merry Christmas…. and a HAPPY GARBAGE DAY!
**Many thanks to the following people, without whom this retrospective would never have been possible; Steve “Uncle Creepy” Barton, Justin Beahm, Eric Freeman, Rob Galluzzo, Arthur Gorson, Lee Harry, Monte Hellman, Michael Hickey, Elric Kane, Linnea Quigley, Scott Schneid, Michael Spence, Chad E. Young and Brian Yuzna.**