Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Better Watch Out for the Initiation of The Toy Maker! It's Time for SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 3, 4 and 5!

It's Christmas Eve and time to dish out a look at the mother of all Christmasploitation series' – or at least its three direct-to-video sequels. So build a fire, sit back and pour yourself a glass of eggnog. But whatever you do don't open any presents labeled 'Don't Open Till Christmas'!

My love for the original SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT is well documented. Not only am I totally enamored of everything from Grandpa's speech and "The Warm Side of the Door" to the antler scene, deaf faux Santa, the drunken toy store owner and Billy's declarations of "Naughty!" and "Punish!" but the flick brings back fond memories of far simpler times.

I first saw it over Thanksgiving break 1984 as a college freshman and even met longtime pal and ER co-founder Lou "The Gonster" Goncey that night. Alas, no PTA protestors or picketers were there to enliven the festivities but my Dad did give me his patented disappointed headshake the next day when he asked what my buddies and I had gone to see.

And while the flick has become required holiday viewing in our house I had never bothered with more than the somewhat entertaining, but totally ludicrous, direct sequel – SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT PART 2 (1987) – in which Billy's younger brother Ricky (Eric Freeman) relates an edited version of the first flick's shenanigans before going on his own caterpillar-eyebrowed murderous rampage.

But it seemed like 2013 marked a groundswell of renewed interest in the trio of direct-to-video sequels that emerged during the video store boom of the 1980s. Maybe it was FearNet airing them. Maybe it was the triple feature DVD set that suddenly seemed ubiquitous. Maybe I just wanted to feel like part of the in-crowd when The Liberal Dead podcast did their series retrospective.

Whatever the reason, it became apparent that I needed to take the plunge into this strange trio of flicks, at least one of which is so tangentially a Christmas flick that you have to admire the chutzpah of the producers.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

"Hey, vegetable! Who's your favorite singer? Perry Coma?!"
1989's SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT III: BETTER WATCH OUT! is the last of the series – for now, at least – that even attempts to maintain a connection to the original two films. Directed by minor cult figure Monte Hellman (TWO LANE BLACKTOP and the Warren Oates head-scratcher COCKFIGHTER), the flick picks up after "Santa Killer" Ricky Caldwell was supposedly gunned down by cops, including the wise-cracking Lt. Connelly (always reliable, ever tan Robert Culp).

Turns out that he's not dead at all, but has been "diagnosed" with a coma and has some sort of clear helmet attached in place of the top of his head, which gives us a clear look at his psychotic brain. And, yes, it's a sight that is just as great/ridiculous as it sound.

With the aforementioned Freeman off teaching the Fine Art of Eyebrow Acting, bed-ridden Ricky is now portrayed by Bill Mosley, who has developed a cult following – which definitely does not include me – thanks to his beyond-over-the-top "performance" as Chop Top in the excruciating TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (1986). Luckily, Mosley has little to do here but lie in bed and communicate with some blind girl... until a drunken Santa comes along and screws it all up.

Laura (Samantha Scully, who resembles a poor man's Jennifer Connelly) lost her sight in a plane accident that claimed the lives of both her parents, but is now imbued with psychic abilities and the power to communicate with Ricky (and see recycled footage from the first flick). The sinister-ish Dr. Newberry (Richard Beymer) wants to exploit Laura's Santa Killer Mind Meld with Ricky so he can use him as some sort of serial killer snake venom. I think.

Man, this flick – and the next sequel – make me long for the more innocent days when you could just make a flick out of a Santa-fearing maniac hunting down a mean old nun.

Roused from his coma by the drunken Santa's antics, Ricky shuffles after Laura, her brother (Eric Da Re who appeared in TWIN PEAKS along with Beymer) and his new girlfriend (Laura Harring, who looks a bit like Scully and appeared in TWIN PEAKS creator David Lynch's MULHOLLAND DRIVE) as they venture off to spend Christmas with their grandmother.

It all comes to a head when Ricky trudges his way over the river and through the woods - decked out in brain helmet and hospital gown - to granny's place for the, er, thrilling showdown between good and evil.

Neither unwatchable nor great, I must admit that I did fall asleep a few times during BETTER WATCH OUT and had to revisit entire segments to make sure they were actually in the movie and not part of some SNDN3-inspired fever dream.

"Kill the man. Become a whole woman."
With Ricky finally dead (or is he??!!) it was time for the producers to SEASON OF THE WITCH the series and take things in an entirely different direction from its predecessors. And if you're looking to take your horror series as far from its slasher roots as possible, Brian Yuzna is probably a good guy to have on speed dial.

The most tenuously-connected-to-Christmas entry in the series, the Yuzna-directed INITIATION: SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 4 (1990) stars Neith Hunter as Kim, a wanna-be reporter who is currently the calendar-compiler for an LA-based city paper published by Eli (genre stalwart Reggie Bannister). When she stumbles upon a story about a flaming woman leaping to her death from a rooftop it seems like the perfect opportunity to unleash her inner newshound, despite attempts by the paper's boys club to keep her on the outs.

Her research on spontaneous combustion leads to Fima (the still sexy Maud Adams), a bookstore owner who has a tight circle of galpals and likes to give books about virgin goddesses to reporters she has just met. Kim soon finds herself being brought into Fima's odd inner circle, which includes fellow newspaper employee Janice (Allyce Besley) and Ricky (Clint Howard), a homeless dude with a penchant for yanking squirmy monsters out of roof vents and showing up in Kim's life in order to murder people.

I suppose it's not surprising that INITIATION's mix of murder, madness, slime, beasts, secret societies, mutations and bodily fluids reminded me of other Yuzna flicks like SOCIETY (1989), THE DENTIST (1996), FAUST (2000) and BEYOND RE-ANIMATOR (2003). And if I liked Yuzna's other directorial efforts that might be a good thing. Unfortunately, I've never really been able to connect with his work and INITIATION left me similarly cold, making INITIATION my least favorite installment of the series.

"I'm your son now! Not HIM!"
The last (?) installment of the far-reaching Christmasploitation series reconnects with its holiday roots in the certifiably quirky SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 5: THE TOY MAKER (1991). Directed by Martin Kitrosser – probably better known for his work on screenplays for FRIDAY THE 13TH III and V – THE TOY MAKER is the most goofball outing (and my favorite) since the original.

In a wonderfully inspired bit of casting, former child star, longtime Hollywood icon and SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT buzzkill Mickey Rooney stars as Joe Petto, the angry, drunken owner of a failing toy store who regularly berates his son Pino (Brian Bremer) over the store's failures.

Could they be the ones leaving deadly presents at the home of little Derek (William Thorne)? Or is it the mysterious Noah (Tracy Fraim), a leather jacket-clad loner who is stalking widowed Sarah (Jane Higginson) and Derek?

Either way the toys are claiming victims left and right as Derek's curious dad Tom (Van Quattro... what a name!) buys it on a fireplace poker after being attacked by a Santa sphere, neighbor kid Lonnie (Conan Yuzna) lands in the hospital after strapping on some super-powered skates, two lovebirds get attacked by a parcel of toys in a scene that feels like it's right out of a Full Moon flick, and RE-ANIMATOR's morgue security guard (Gerry Black) is attacked by a plastic Larry the Larvae toy that crawls in his mouth and bursts out of his eye.

And, in a totally unexpected and probably unnecessary nod to INITIATION, the aforementioned Lonnie – along with Kim the reporter and Ricky the homeless dude – are supposed to be the same characters from Yuzna's INITIATION. Seems that Kim ended up with custody of her dead boyfriend's little brother while Ricky went on to life as a mall Santa after his beastie-wrangling and murder spree.

But leave it to THE TOY MAKER to make up for all the sequels' collective ills with its final 20 minutes as Sarah and Noah track Joe – who has kidnapped Derek – to his store. There, the pair confront the toy maker and his son in a totally gonzo finale that is at once both gut-busting and head-scratching but also a strangely satisfying wrap-up to the series.

So put the kids to bed, shut off the lights and fire up a little Christmasploitation to ring in the holiday!

SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 3-5 are available from Amazon.

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