Killer Santa Claus movies have been the go-to Christmas horror films ever since the slasher movie came into prominence in the early eighties. The 1984 bloodfest Silent Night, Deadly Night is the film that comes to most people’s minds when they think of killer Santas, but it wasn’t the first. Cinema Fearité has already discussed Christmas Evil, a similar themed film that came out in November of 1980. However, one movie beat even that one to the punch; in January of 1980, a psychopath in a Saint Nick suit was killing kids in To All a Goodnight.
To All a Goodnight takes place at the Calvin Finishing School for Girls, where a young girl is accidentally killed during a hazing prank. Two years later, during a weekend in which the headmaster is away, the female students plan a party, complete with their boyfriends sneaking in after dark. The guys show up and the party begins, but people soon start disappearing from the festivities. Everyone assumes that the missing kids are just out having sex, but the real reason for their absence is soon discovered; there is a psycho killer in a Santa Claus outfit stalking the premises, killing everyone who he finds. The girls and guys must find a way to escape the killer and survive the night.
The creative team behind To All a Goodnight is made up of a couple of guys who are better known for being in front of the camera rather than behind it. The film was written by Alex Rebar, who played the title role in The Incredible Melting Man. Furthermore, it was directed by David Hess, who was the villainous Krug in Wes Craven’s controversial The Last House on the Left. Story-wise, here’s not a lot to To All a Goodnight; it’s a typical story of kids being picked off one by one by an axe-wielding maniac. The plot is formulaic, the dialogue is sophomoric, and the cast is made up of inexperienced no-names (this biggest star in the film is Jennifer Runyon, who would go on to play Gwendolyn Pierce on “Charles in Charge”). Even with its killer Santa motif, To All a Goodnight was outdone by Christmas Evil and the Silent Night, Deadly Night franchise. However, instead of simply dropping off of the slasher movie map, To All a Goodnight has built a fairly healthy cult following. Looking back on the film 35 years later, it’s easy to see how influential it really was.
Viewed through modern eyes, To All a Goodnight appears to be a standard slasher movie, maybe even a cheap knockoff of a superior film. It’s only when one is reminded that it was released in 1980, before the golden age of the slasher was in full swing, that it can be appreciated for being so ahead of its time. To All a Goodnight hit theaters a good four months before the first Friday the 13th movie, so it’s likely that the two films were in production at the same time. Now, Friday the 13th director Sean S. Cunningham produced The Last House on the Left, which starred To All a Goodnight director David Hess, so it’s entirely possible that the two shared a single vision that became two separate films. Whatever the reasons are, To All a Goodnight shares many conventions with the Friday the 13th movies, which in turn became tropes for the entire slasher genre. There’s the disposable cannon fodder of young victims, the creepy caretaker, the terrible accident flashback. There’s even a twist ending. To All a Goodnight has it all…and had it before all of the classic slashers made it stereotypical.
To All a Goodnight was shot by cinematographer Bil Godsey, who was known for shooting both soft-core skin flicks like Abigail Leslie is Back in Town and wilderness adventures such as Cold River. His one horror credit is as a camera operator on Brian De Palma’s Sisters. Despite his limited experience with the genre, Godsey makes To All a Goodnight look dark and menacing, using plenty of high-contrast light and shadows. His camera shows exactly what needs to be seen, using motion that is both practical and economical; if a door knob or a window needs to be shown, Godsey’s camera shifts its gaze in that direction. Godsey also builds suspense by showing only the killer’s feet as he is creeping and stalking – the boots and red pants are obviously those of the psycho-Santa, but Godsey’s photography still adds an air of mystery to the scenes. For as simple of a film as it is, the cinematography in To All a Goodnight is masterful.
Like any good killer Santa movie, To All a Goodnight has some fun makeup effects. The effects were designed by Mark Shostrom (The Boys Next Door, The Slumber Party Massacre), and they include all of the kills that would become stereotypical of psycho-slasher movies; there are beheadings, throat slittings, arrow shootings, axes-in-foreheads…a little of everything. The dark cinematography actually becomes an asset to the makeup effects, as Shostrom is able to hide some of the limitations of his work in the shadows. That helps him stretch the meager budget so that he can really let the blood flow for the shots that really count. Like many elements of the film, the visual effects in To All a Good Night are groundbreaking for their time.
The soundtrack to To All a Goodnight, written by Richard Tufo (Home Sweet Home), is another aspect of the film that sounds clichéd in retrospect. The score is made up of repetitive synthesized beds, rhythmic and pulsing with an almost industrial rock sound. There are also plenty of Bernard Herrmann-esque staccato stingers that drive the jump scares home. Through today’s ears, the music sounds like many other slasher scores, but in 1980, it was fresh and new. One of the more inventive pieces of the score involves a haunting melody that is sung over and over by one of the characters. Not only does the simple-yet-spooky line function as a nice break from the electronic maelstrom of the rest of the score, but it provides an unsettling little vocal theme to the picture that sets it apart from the average slasher soundtrack. By no means does Richard Tufo deserve to be elevated to the level of respect of, say, a Harry Manfredini, but his score for To All a Goodnight deserves more recognition than it gets.
Maybe it’s because it was released in January, after the Christmas season had ended, but To All a Goodnight never caused the same uproar as Silent Night, Deadly Night, and it didn’t shock people as much as Christmas Evil. To All a Goodnight just kind of came and went, and now flies under the radar as a forgotten classic. It may not be the best killer Santa movie, but it did come first, and that’s worth talking about.