Monday, November 24, 2014

Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! (1989)

It all starts with a traumatic experience: it’s Christmas day and a family goes to visit their grandfather in an elderly home. One of the boys is told to watch out and this really shakes him up – for good reason. On the way back they see a drifter dressed up as Santa Claus, and as they stop to help him… Guess what he does? He shoots the father and brutally cuts the throat of the mother! This will be the traumatizing moment for the two boys who, luckily, get away. But, after all of this, they are put into a Christian orphanage and later on in life, when they are more grown up, this experience will come-up and haunt them, leading to some very violent consequences.

The Silent Night, Deadly Night series is a remnants of Eighties exploitation horror cinema. Do they provide scares? Yeah. Are they entertaining? For sure. But on a whole the premise is pretty far-fetched, the acting could be pretty bad, and by the time of the fourth and fifth film it’s not even worth trying to make sense of the plot. But of note is its third installment Better Watch Out!, which is directed by Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop, The Shooting). Bill Krohn, writing in Cahiers at the time, in his article Hollywood a l’Heure du “Déjà vu” (N.423) emphasizes its implicit critique of franchise films and sequels (the whole premise of the film is about resuscitating one of the near-dead killer sons) through one of the jokes in the film: “What do you call when you experience a déjà vu twice? Stupid.” Krohn also sees in Hellman, “the most important American director,” and Better Watch Out!, “the first contemplative slasher film,” through its use of framing and identification.

Maybe one of the best in the franchise, which is based on the original Charles Sellier film, Hellman’s installment feels a lot like a David Lynch film. Better Watch Out! is an exercise in filmmaking style and is very atmospheric. In it there are a couple of scenes where people are watching an old Roger Corman film that Hellman worked on, The Terror. And it is this low budget, direct-to-video filmmaking approach, which for Hellman goes back to Beast from Haunted Cave, which Better Watch Out! continues with, and which Hellman is loyal too, even today with his most recent neo-noir Road to Nowhere.

In Better Watch Out! a young blind and clairvoyant woman (Samantha Scully) – a protagonist that shares many similar traits with the one from Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 – after participating in a speculative medical study, leaves the city with her brother and his girlfriend to their grandmother’s house for Christmas dinner. Where Silent Night, Deadly Night II recycles over forty minutes of the first film before shifting its focuses towards the other younger brother as he becomes a sociopathic killer; Hellman reinvents the potential of the series' original traumatic premise as he gives Better Watch Out! an almost mythic quality with references to Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood, Frankenstein, and Black Cat.

It’s less a film about a brutal murderer (the Santa Claus Killer from the previous one is incapacitated, with his brain outside of his head in a strange medical bowl) than one of an unfriendly and violent world. Better Watch Out! takes Hellman’s interest in the absurd and Becket to its logical conclusions. The whole film is a nightmare that has a way to unnerve and get under one’s skin. The psychic murderer builds on Oberlus from Hellman’s Iquana (which he just made the previous year) and the nighttime driving scenes, where the different characters discuss their existential philosophies, evoke Two-Lane Blacktop.

Brad Stevens even views it as an important feminist film, “Better Watch Out! is the point Hellman’s cinema had been inexorably moving towards. The earlier works’ feminist elements here solidify around an active-heroine, while the masculine viewpoint is unambiguously rejected.” Even though it was only a contract film (“A movie I did not want to make,” says Hellman) for a producer friend, Hellman was able to re-work the original script with Rex Weiner, Steven Gaydos, and his daughter Melissa (who has a small role as Dr. Newbury’s assistant) to tell the story he wanted to tell and to make it his own. And he’s still proud of it today as he discusses it in recent interviews.

But if Better Watch Out! stands out it’s for being a certain kind of horror cinema that is no longer made today. A lineage could be traced from Jacques Tourneur to Dario Argento to Hellman and to Lynch. But what are the new films or who are the new directors that are still carrying this psychedelic and eerie torch? None come to mind (except for maybe Refn). But it's worth connecting Hellman to Lynch a bit further, as Lynch’s European-financed productions and side-projects provide a general idea of other directions Hellman could have gone towards. There are many actors and actresses even in Better Watch Out! that would go on to work with Lynch (Laura Harring, Richard Beymer, Eric Da Re). The original popularity of Twin Peaks (regardless of its network failure and compromise) could be seen as the black hole of this surreal, psychedelic filmmaking style. And for more on this subject there is Andy Burns’ upcoming book Wrapped in plastic. Twin Peaks (ECW Press) which provides its history, reasons for its importance, and impact. It’s the book the series truly deserves.

This Lynch connection is important to stress. If the psychedelic qualities of the original Jack Nicholson-Hellman collaborations dissipated later on in the actor's career (The Shining excluded), it is the actors that would go from Hellman to Lynch and then Lynch outwards that would be the seed of a new found mysteriousness in film and television culture in the Nineties. With Better Watch Out! and then Twin Peaks these actors portray characters whose depth lies in their frightened, mysterious and evil qualities. Some other roles these actors participated in include Ray Wise in Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing, David Patrick Kelly in Mark Rappaport’s Exterior Night, all the way to the most recent appearance of Sheryl Lee in Gregg Araki’s White Bird in a Blizzard. Before things can be normal again, they’ll have to be weird.