Well, this is it — the original killer Santa film, To All A Goodnight . Released to a handful of US theatres back in the wintry month of January 1980 (which would put its filming most likely during the second half of 1979), this energetic and eerie Santa slasher predates the better known Silent Night, Deadly Night (or SNDN ) by over four years, yet has a higher body count and some surprise twists thrown into the mix. I imagine it was made at roughly the same time as the superb Lewis Jackson film Christmas Evil , which is more of a psychological suspense/black comedy than a slasher film but features a murderous Santa nonetheless, so I suppose it’s really a tie between Christmas Evil and To All a Goodnight as far as being the original killer St. Nick flick, but this is definitely the first Santa slasher (set in a sorority house, The Calvin Finishing School for Girls), and I enjoyed every cheesy minute of it.
Though the body count in To All a Goodnight is higher than SNDN as mentioned, with at least 15 characters being slaughtered throughout the course of the film, the kills themselves are less explicitly bloody and not as drawn out as those in SNDN . Still, some of them are pretty inventive conceptually, particularly for 1979!
To illustrate my point, here’s a recap of all the film’s on-screen murder scenes in order of appearance (spoilers!):
1. In the film’s somewhat rushed 45-second prologue, a teenage girl falls to her death from a second-story balcony to one of the bedrooms of her sorority house after being chased there by some taunting sorority sisters . Not an interesting or original death (and not really a murder but an accident), but it sets the foundation for the rest of the film and leads into those CREEPY synthesizer-scored opening credits.
2. While waiting outside in the woods near the sorority house for his cute blond girlfriend to arrive, a teenage male is accosted and wrested to the ground via POV by an unknown assailant wearing black gloves. We don’t actually see him get it, but we can be assured he does as the last thing we see is the more powerful killer overtaking the frightened lad and getting ready to plunge a gargantuan butcher knife into his temple.
3. The cute blond girlfriend exits the sorority house to meet her now-dead teenage paramour, smiling blissfully, her face alight with anticipatory young desire, when out of nowhere a gloved hand plunges a butcher knife into her chest, knocking her to the ground as she moans during the throes of death. Decent jump scare here; though it won’t surprise jaded horror fans, it was pretty effective for its time.
4. Trisha, an ample-bossomed yet sex-starved British sorority sister, has her throat slit from behind by the assailant (now decked out in the trademark Santa costume with creepy mask and beard) as she hunts through the refrigerator for a midnight snack before sex with her newfound lover. The bizarre musical score is effective in this scene, the tone rising dramatically as the killer’s knife slices its way across her throat, but the scene is a bit darkly lit so the blood is only mildly visible.
5. Trisha’s boyfriend comes looking for her when she doesn’t return, but after discovering her corpse gets his head smashed in by the killer with an enormous rock. Again, great use of that creepy score in a mildly bloody but still somewhat darkly lit scene.
6. In one of To All a Goodnight ‘s most memorable death sequences, the killer, disguised in a suit of armor, spies on a couple having sex on the floor. In the blink of an eye, the guy gets an arrow through the back of his neck and out his mouth with a spear gun during orgasm (ouch!) Promptly, his girlfriend literally screams her head off as she’s decapitated by a single swipe of a very sharp axe. At this point, we’re getting single scenes featuring multiple deaths with multiple weapons, which was very unusual for 1979 — usually the victims were alone and totally vulnerable during this early phase of the slasher genre.
7. While necking with the lovely Melanie outdoors in the cold night, college hunk T.J. manages to get a wire noose wrapped around his neck by the Santa killer hiding in a tree above him, lifting him off the ground and garroting him to death as blood spews from his throat and splashes a screaming Melanie. Again, great scoring, decent gore, just a little dark but still definitely visible.
8. In what is perhaps the film’s most revered murder scene, Melanie and a very drunk pilot are simultaneously decapitated by the propellers of an airplane when the engine is turned on by the Santa killer. You don’t explicitly see the blades cutting off their heads, just blood splashing on the plane’s windshield and gore splattering off the side of the aircraft, but it’s a decent and original effect for its time in spite of its cheesiness.
Many people criticize To All a Goodnight for its somewhat poor lighting in certain scenes, but considering the film’s age and probable budget it’s not as dark as some reviews would lead you to believe. You can pretty much always make out what is happening on screen, unlike the 1982 Canadian slasher film Humongous (which had a much bigger budget than this), and if anything the darker lighting helps to conceal any possible “fakeness” in the gore effects and make them look a little more realistic than explicit gore effects in some other slashers from this period.
One of my favorite things about To All A Goodnight is its otherworldly, off-tune synthesizer score, which I actually didn’t care for the first time I saw the film! It’s a little grating on the ears the first time around because it’s so off-key and weird, but believe me, it grows on you! I can’t say I’ve ever heard a score quite like it, so there’s no accusing it of stealing John Carpenter’s famous theme for Halloween like several other slashers from the late ’70s/early ’80s did (1980’s He Knows You’re Alone bearing the most blatant Halloween copycat score). It’s simultaneously eerie and cheesy music that makes To All a Goodnight have a personality and charm of its own among its slasher brethren and I love it — simple as that.
Now to the acting — uh-oh, you’re thinking: A cheap slasher film from 1979? The acting has to stink worse than Limburger cheese. Well, some of it certainly does, but not all, making it a mixed bag in the important area of character acting. The only true acting ability belongs to Jennifer Runyon (Charles in Charge , Up the Creek ) as the sweet and virginal Nancy, Judith Bridges as the feisty and flirtatious Leia, Katherine Herrington as the vengeful Mrs. Jensen, William Lauer as the bedhopping TJ and Sam Shamshak as Detective Polansky. Oh, there is an entertaining little cameo by the director’s mother, Judy Hess, playing the world-weary Mrs. Ronsoni with great Italian flair, and Forrest Swanson isn’t bad at all as Nancy’s newfound love interest Alex who goes from nerd to hero over the course of one deadly Christmas night. Linda Gentile is pretty terrible as sexy Melody during most of the film (though she looks great), but she perks up at the end when she has to become hysterical and displays slight acting talent. Buck West is serviceable in his hilariously badly written part as Ralph, the caretaker with a pea for a brain who senses the impending doom and tries to warn Nancy of it.
I have to wonder whether To All A Goodnight copied off of Friday the 13th ‘s Crazy Ralph character or vice-versa, because it’s one of the major elements that both films have in common, and they can’t possibly just be coincidences. Also, both films are mysteries that reveal vengeful mothers as the demented, child-haunted killers, which also makes you wonder… Nevertheless, we’ll probably never know for sure, since this film has fallen into such obscurity and no one would be likely to admit to copying off of another slasher film.
To All a Goodnight was released only once on VHS by Media Home Entertainment in around 1983, so obviously it’s notoriously difficult to find and rather pricey when you do. It is unlikely to ever be legitimitely released on DVD as no one has an original negative of it, not even the director himself! I think it deserves better and shouldn’t have fallen through the cracks the way it did, and I rate it a 7.5 of 10 for its creepy score and sheer entertainment value alone.