I have seen nearly every Christmas movie ever made, but there was one I couldn't wait to see that kept eluding me: Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! (1989). Why, you're wondering, would I waste my time on this crappy, sub-par horror series whose only claim to fame was irritating a group of parents back in the 1980s? Because this third part of a five-film series was the "comeback" feature for one of the greatest American directors of the 1960s and 1970s. Finally, Lionsgate has released the film on DVD for the first time, in a three-disc box set, no less, that also contains Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation (1990) and Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (1991, starring Mickey Rooney!). I finally got to see it. But more on that later.
Like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme and others, Monte Hellman (born 1932) started working for Roger Corman. He made his directorial debut on Beast from Haunted Cave (1959), and according to legend, he was one of five directors who worked on The Terror (1963). He also earned some cash directing a few fill-in scenes for the American television broadcast premiere of A Fistful of Dollars. But in 1965, Corman sent him on an assignment. He was to go to Utah and shoot two Westerns back-to-back with the same actors, costumes and budget. And he came back with two masterpieces, so great that they played in Paris theaters for an entire year.
The young Jack Nicholson was among his cohorts. At the time, Nicholson wasn't much of an actor and was also flirting with writing and directing. He wrote the first screenplay, called Ride in the Whirlwind. Fortunately, he also starred in both films and Hellman helped him begin to find and refine his screen persona. The second film, The Shooting, was written by Carole Eastman under the pseudonym "Adrien Joyce." She would go on to earn an Oscar nomination for writing Five Easy Pieces. Also in the cast were Warren Oates, Millie Perkins, Harry Dean Stanton and Cameron Mitchell. The two films were bare bones, and generally took place in a single location (or at least in the middle of nowhere). But Hellman imbued them both with a bizarre, existentialist slant, not only providing thrills, horses and gunfire, but asking about the meaning of it all.
His next film was a race car/road movie, Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), which was even more existentialist; it had been heavily hyped before its release (the entire screenplay, by Rudy Wurlitzer, was published in Esquire) and subsequently tanked after its release. But a generation of fans came to read volumes into its stripped-down characters, their dead-eyed behavior, and the film's unforgettable, frustrating, brilliant ending. Next came Cockfighter (1974), a great adaptation of a Charles Willeford novel, again starring Oates as the title character, who refuses to speak after having shot his mouth off one too many times and losing a big match.
By this time, Hellman's films had lost more money than they had earned, and jobs became more sporadic. He made another quasi-Western, China 9, Liberty 37 (1978), which today is difficult to find in its complete, uncut version, and then ten years later he made a really bizarre -- and slightly unpleasant -- period adventure film, Iguana (1988), about a deformed harpooner who makes himself king of a remote island. In the early 1990s, Quentin Tarantino (a fan, naturally) very nearly hired him to direct what would become Reservoir Dogs, but Tarantino decided that he'd like to direct it instead, and Hellman earned credit as a producer.
A few years ago, buzz started circulating about Hellman's comeback, and we were all very excited. But that comeback turned into Trapped Ashes (2006), a below-average horror compilation that pretty much went straight to DVD in 2008. Hellman's segment, Stanley's Girlfriend, was probably the most interesting segment, but it was too little, too late. Which brings us back to Silent Night, Deadly Night III, the only film Hellman made in the 20 years between Iguana and Trapped Ashes. Like a good Hellman fan, I watched the film carefully, looking for some of the visual or existential -- or just bizarre -- touches that had characterized his best work.
It begins with a great nightmare sequence as pretty, blind Laura (Samantha Scully, a Jennifer Connelly lookalike) races around in some distorted, completely white corridors, running away from serial killer Ricky (Bill Moseley), who used to dress up as Santa Claus, but now just wears a clear glass bowl on his head filled with brains and some sloshing liquid. There's another great scene where Laura, waiting in the hospital reception area, suddenly hears everything get quiet. She approaches the receptionist, but Hellman keeps the camera on Laura's face only so that we can't see anything more than she can. She reaches out to touch the receptionist, and ... eek!
But as the movie goes on, the stupid screenplay -- apparently re-written by Hellman -- keeps getting more and more annoying, as do the characters. Little moments of lucidity and invention keep creeping in, only to duck back out again. Worst of all is a sequence in which Ricky breaks through the front door and tries to strangle Jerri (a young and luscious Laura Elena Harring, later in Mulholland Drive). It's so badly staged that you want to laugh. Then you've got Robert Culp and Richard Beymer (as a doctor and a police lieutenant) driving around for most of the movie, having bizarre conversations, and extended clips from The Terror on television (aren't there any Christmas movies on?).
So... am I disappointed? No. Not really. It's an interesting experience, more so than if it had just been a bad horror sequel. There are glimpses of Hellman in there, and it makes me wonder what happened. I want to know more. That's how it is with directors we love.