The 1990s were a magical time for cinema, as independent American features and smaller-release foreign movies invaded the market in a big way. The indie boom of the 1990s saw an explosion of creative new auteurs entering the landscape. We witnessed the rise of Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, Jane Campion, Allison Anders, Quentin Tarantino, Todd Solondz, Gus Van Sant, Kevin Smith, and many others. But did you know that a lot of this wouldn’t have been possible without a crappy straight-to-video horror sequel? SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 3: BETTER WATCH OUT! may be responsible for reshaping the entire industry.
The original SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT was released in 1984 to widespread critical hate. Siskel & Ebert famously trashed the movie, and many critics felt it was the end of tasteful cinema (as if it ever had taste). The film, however, was still surprisingly successful, outgrossing A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET which was released on the same day. SNDN, as you may intuit, was a film about a young man who, thanks to a series of Christmas-time traumas, dons a Santa Claus suit and murders people in holiday-themed slayings. It’s considered something of a staple in the Christmas horror genre, although as a film it’s pretty shabby stuff. Nonetheless, it spawned four sequels (yes, four) and one remake.
SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT PART 2 is well-remembered to this day thanks to the notorious internet proliferation of a central murder sequence featuring the film’s lead actor Eric Freeman. You’ve likely enjoyed the “garbage day!” sequence numerous times. If not, we present it here, along with every other kill in SNDN 2. This is as far as you need to go when consuming this film. The rest is pretty awful.
The interesting part of this story comes when SNDN 3 was put into production. The year was 1988, and B-movie polymath Monte Hellman was looking for a project. Hellman, as you may know, received a lot of acclaim in 1971 when he made the seminal low-budget movie TWO-LANE BLACKTOP and was something of a gadfly of production. He edited The Monkees’ movie HEAD. He was the second unit director on ROBOCOP. He edited a few Corman features and directed some of the more notorious ones like THE TERROR and BEAST FROM THE HAUNTED CAVE. He would also go on to make notable cult films like THE IGUANA and COCKFIGHTER. He completed several abandoned movies (like THE GREATEST) and would shoot extra footage for a lot of forgotten TV projects. He even shot the TV-safe footage for A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS.
Hellman always had a keen eye for low-budget art and has expressed in interviews his interest in indie filmmaking. He wanted to support upcoming artists and produce new, low-budget projects. Sometimes, though, you need to take the job for the money.
The story goes that Hellman had already scoped out a young filmmaker named Quentin Tarantino and was eager to produce the man’s first feature. The chronology doesn’t quite hold this out – in 1988, Tarantino was not actively making RESERVOIR DOGS – but Hellman was actively planning to gather together enough money to produce something of his own choosing. He had approached a studio about doing just such a thing and a deal was made. You can have the money, and you can have the clout to executive produce the project of your choice, but you have to do the studio a favor first: You have to direct SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 3.
Hellman knew that slashers were big business, especially in the 1980s, so he agreed. From the first draft of the screenplay to the final cut of the film, it took him only two and a half months to make.
The story of SNDN 3 is ludicrous, as it features a braindead version of Ricky from the previous film (played now by Bill Moseley) reaching out to a psychic girl named Laura (Samantha Scully). Eric Da Re, Laura Harring, and Richard Beymer – who would all, incidentally, go on to work for David Lynch – also appear. Robert Culp played the cop. The film is atmospheric, I suppose, but offers little to audiences beyond the usual slasher thrills and a few titillating nude shots. It also provides a unique visual in the form of Ricky’s transparent skull. Ricky was injured at the end of SNDN 2 and now sports a glass dome over the top of his head. You can see his brain. It’s pretty neat looking.
Hellman has said that the film is not good, but he’s proud of how well it all came together given the limited time frame under which he worked. I defy any filmmaker to make a flick that looks even average given such a time crunch.
With the money he made from SNDN 3, Hellman actively began to be involved in the production of RESERVOIR DOGS, the insanely popular and influential Tarantino debut from 1992. Tarantino was still working at a video store when he wrote the film, which he was able to show to producer Lawrence Bender. Bender gave it to his acting teacher, who gave it to his wife, who gave it to Harvey Keitel. Keitel said he’d act as co-producer to attract actors and funding. They attracted Hellman.
RESERVOIR DOGS became one of the seminal films of the indie boom of the early 1990s. The movement was already rolling with films like SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE and DO THE RIGHT THING, but RESERVOIR DOGS attracted a passionate cult audience bigger than those other two. The success of RESERVOIR DOGS might be seen as a watershed moment for indie film, as it proved that studios could not only make money and garner acclaim, but also attract a coveted segment of the moviegoing public: the young male. It won many awards. You’ve likely seen it, and you likely love it.
Hellman’s involvement in the film’s production was vital. Like any executive producer, he helped wrangle the production, and it’s likely the film would not have been made without his initial involvement. Which means that the world owes an enormous debt to SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 3: BETTER WATCH OUT!.
Of course, the film industry has always been vast tapestry of interconnectivity. Producers switch projects, actors fall out, scripts get re-written, and deals are always made. Some filmmakers will not be allowed to make a passion project unless they agree to make a more commercial film (or two, or four, or a dozen) first. Some producers have to make a long string of successful schlocky films before they can support the films they want. When you hear the stories, you become astonished that any film is made at all.
Hellman’s deal was that he had to make a slasher before he could work on his passion project. This proves the importance of supporting horror cinema. Even bad horror cinema. You never know where the tendrils connected to the horrible cheapie you’re watching may be reaching. The connection between SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 3 and the boom of independent cinema is inextricable.
So the next time you’re hunkering down to a bad, cheap, straight-to-video horror sequel, know that you may not be merely wasting time and brain cells on a casual Friday night. You may be supporting, in a roundabout way, the next Tarantino. Those bad Netflix-only bloodbaths may be the strongest lode-bearers of great cinematic art.