Monday, October 9, 2017

"God Bless Airplanes" - To All a Goodnight (1980)

What should one expect from a film written by the incredible melting man himself, Alex Rebar, and directed by Last House on the Left's Krug himself, David Hess? An instant classic, of course. Fortunately, the one film that meets these criteria, To All a Goodnight (1980), despite the unusual presentation of the two-word phrase "good night," meets all our expectations, and then some.

Many of your universe's critics are not moved by the holiday spirit when it comes to this film. On IMDB, capkronos writes, "This forgettable horror film wraps up with a pathetic and desperate twist ending." (How can a twist ending, or any ending for that matter, be desperate, capkronos?) Also on IMDB, gwnightscream writes, "This film is disappointing. Many scenes are dark which makes me want to go to sleep, the characters are unlikable...the editing stinks and the ending is kind of predictable and ridiculous." Michael_Elliott writes, "it's a pretty sluggish affair because there are obviously all kinds of corners being cut. It's obvious watching the film because some scenes just appear to be first takes that they had to use because they didn't have more time."

It would likely take more than holiday spirit for these reviewers to come to their senses regarding this film, so I will describe its praiseworthy qualities in as much detail as I can muster.

The film begins at a large estate, helpfully captioned "Calvin Finishing School for Girls." Another title tells us it is "Christmas Vacation, Two Years Ago." The edges of the frame are fogged as well, which helps us understand this sequence occurred in the past.

In this flashback, giggling teenage girls are chased by an axe-wielding Santa Claus, until one of the girls accidentally falls to her death down a one-story stairwell.

After this prologue, which lasts only one minute, the film shows its main titles, then cuts to "Christmas Vacation, The Present."

It wouldn't be a Christmas vacation if one of the girls didn't give her black cat to another girl in a car who is driving away for the holiday. In this case, it is Charles in Charge's Jennifer Runyon who is giving up the cat.

Other girls are saying their goodbyes. A tall, tap-dancing girl tells her friend, "If you get a chance, bring me back a little present okay? Men."

Six girls remain at the school over the break, including Ms. Runyon and the tap dancer, along Mrs. Jensen, the house mother.

Meanwhile, we watch as a gloved man uses a knife to cut up a piece of paper. He also looks at a framed photo. Helpfully, director David Hess intercuts shots of the girl from the prologue falling to her death, so we instantly understand that this potential killer's motivation has something to do with the accident.

Because the film is a slasher movie from 1980, it can dispense with some of the traditional setup because the filmmakers were aware that audiences had watched a good portion of the hundreds of other slasher movies from the past two years. Thus, the first murder occurs very quickly, as a boyfriend illicitly stalking his girlfriend from outside is knifed.

For good measure, his girlfriend is stabbed  a minute later as she looks for her boyfriend.

Inside, meanwhile, the girls are having dinner and discussing the group of boys who will be sneaking into the school at midnight. Cleverly, these boys will be arriving on a private jet owned by one of the boys' fathers. "Bless whoever built that airstrip," says one of the girls.

The tap dancer adds, appropriately, "God bless airplanes."

Jennifer Runyon is less amused, and more spooked by the nearly-empty house, than the other girls.

The others ignore her. "Bring me some perfume, will you?" asks the tap dancer as her friend goes off to look for a Kleenex. "The Chanel."

We are soon introduced to the red-shirted, slow-witted gardener, Ralph Kramer, who carries garden shears with him indoors.

In the kitchen with Mrs. Jensen and Ralph, we are introduced to yet another new character, Tina Ranzoni, a deeply philosophical Italian woman who looks about 45 years old. "Death is no stranger to me," she says. "I buried three husbands. So you think that's so bad? After the third one, it's just a piece of cake."

Profound words, indeed.

Mrs. Ranzoni is the most clear-headed thinker in this slasher movie. As she leaves the school, she says, "Listen, I'll stop by on my way back from Mrs. Willoughby's, that is, if the Grim Reaper doesn't come calling."

Playing on her good girl image, though feeling guilty about it, Ms. Runyon slips a mickie into Mrs. Jensen' warm milk so she will sleep through the planned tryst when the boys arrive by plane at midnight.

Fortunately, the airstrip is on or very close to the school grounds. The boys arrive, all of them dressed in Santa suits that they apparently wore the entire flight. They pair off with the girls and head back to the school.

The kids, nearly as death-obsessed as Mrs. Ranzoni, discuss the advances of medical science. "By the time you're 30, we should have most things licked," Alex, one of the boys says. "Except accidents." Ironically, he does not mention murder.

Speaking of murder, it is truly fortuitous that the boys made their plane trip dressed as Santa Claus, because the killer is now dressing in a Santa suit. He surprises one of the girls in the kitchen, and she thinks it is her paramour. It is not. The mistake costs the girl a slit throat.

The Santa killer next crushes a boy's skull with a rock, then has the decency to bury his victims.

The remaining couples decide to retire to the girls' bedrooms. The girl paired up with Alex, the medical student, says amorously, "Come on, Einstein. It's time for your advanced relativity." (This raises a question: Is there such a thing as a zero entendre?)

In the kitchen, Ms. Runyon and another girl find blood covering the floor, but they think that Ralph must have cut himself with the shears. Ms. Runyon starts cleaning up the mess, until she is interrupted by bespectacled Alex. Both of them are in the kitchen looking for a drink of wholesome milk.

When Ms. Runyon takes her milk outside, the film offers another of its poetic reflections on death. She hears moans and screams. At first, we believe it to be one of the couples making love nearby, but as it continues it strikes us that it might be one of the killer's victims, still barely alive.

Ms. Runyon goes closer to a window and looks inside. The moaning is in fact a couple making love, but the film has skillfully made us question the thin line between passion and death.

Ironically, after Ms. Runyon leaves, the film continues its meditation by replaying the primal cautionary scene of the teenage lovers murdered by a slasher. In this case, the killer has been hiding in a suit of armor on the other side of the room, waiting until the lovers climax to fire a crossbow bolt into the boy's head and chop off the girl's head with an axe.

Later, Ms. Runyon returns to her bedroom, but she is startled when Ralph enters through the window. "Miss Nancy, I'm a man of the land, and I know you all don't think I know much, but I know when something is wrong. You gotta watch yourself."

Ms. Runyon is the only person Ralph cares about, so he gives her a little bible and tells her to pray so the devil won't take her. He promises to take care of her. Then he leaves through the bedroom door.

The next morning, Mrs. Jensen serves the surviving kids breakfast. Only Ms. Runyon, two girls, and two boys remain. "Hey, where are the others?" one asks.

"Who cares?" is the response.

After the kids have a picnic, they finally discover the danger they are in. Ms. Runyon trips and falls into a bush, which somehow forces the gruesome body of Ralph to sit up. She screams.

The police arrive in the person of a checker-jacketed detective named Polanski. He tells the kids, "Thanks for your help, but from the way Kramer was's obvious he...what happened."

Thus, at the halfway point in the film, the filmmakers have disposed of the character clearly meant to be a red herring. They deserve credit for this pleasantly efficient plot point.

"I been a cop all my life," says Polanski, a praiseworthy though perhaps dubious achievement, to be sure. "Been chief of police here for almost a year, never had a case I couldn't figure. I don't intend this to be the first."

Ms. Runyon tells Polanski that Ralph came to her room last night and told her something evil was going on. Polanski curls up a fist as if he is about to punch the girl, but then he grabs her chin and reassures her by informing her that Kramer was both a criminal and a mental patient.

Polanski holds Ms. Runyon's face far longer than social conventions would dictate, which moves some of the audience's suspicions from the late Ralph Kramer to the quirky Police Chief Polanski.

Inside the school, a love triangle is forming between Ms. Runyon, Alex, and the girl to whom Alex lost his virginity the previous night.

Outside the school, Polanski gives orders to two plainclothesmen to watch the school 24 hours a day. The officers look more like hired thugs than policemen. In another of the film's self-aware moments, one of them says, "I think we'd do better being the bad guys."

His partner replies, somewhat awkwardly, "There's a lot of material around here to be bad with," referring to the presence of the teenage girls.

Of course, one of the detectives starts flirting with one of the girls, who is receptive to his flirting, but not enough so to actually sleep with him.

The topic of conversation turns toward the pilot who flew the boys to the school. We have not seen the pilot for an entire day. The boy, TJ, whose family employed the pilot does not want the pilot to come to the school because he hates him. "He did something for my father a few years back, saved his life or something."

The two characters most worried that their lives are in danger, Ms. Runyon and Alex, wander through the dark halls of the school.

Meanwhile, the Santa-suited, hatchet-wielding killer finds one of the detectives and dispatches him with an axe to the forehead.

In a spectacular shock sequence, a girl finds her friend's severed head hanging on the shower head, and she turns around to find her lover, the second detective, with a knife in his back and Santa Claus threatening her with yet another knife.

In another spectacular, though perhaps slightly implausible, shock sequence, Santa Claus sits in a palm tree, lowers a wire downward, slips it over a boy's throat, and garrotes him bloodily.

The film has reached its third act, so it is time for our surviving heroes to find the murdered bodies strewn throughout the house. Ms. Runyon, Alex, and two of the other girls have survived, but one of the girls, the dancer, appears to have been driven insane.

Alex runs to use the phone.

Coincidentally, at that moment, the killer cuts the telephone line with gardener's shears.

Surprisingly, Santa Claus enters the living room and immediately pulls off her mask, revealing her to be Mrs. Jensen!

"You killed my baby," she says, referring to the death in the prologue.

Her mask gone, Mrs. Jensen makes a less than competent killer. When she lunges for Ms. Runyon, she falls over and knocks herself unconscious.

Despite Mrs. Jensen' harmless state, Ms. Runyon runs to her room and hides behind the bed.

Another unexplained death occurs when one of the girls reaches the plane and the pilot. When the pilot attempts to fix the engine, the propellor blades suddenly start turning, and blood splatters messily onto the side of the plane. (The pilot, according to IMDB, is played by the late adult film star Harry Reems using the pseudonym Dan Stryker--which may be either a reference to the pilot character Ted Striker in 1980's Airplane or to Mr. Reems' real name, Herbert Streicher.)

In the end, Mrs. Jensen confronts Ms. Runyon on her bedroom balcony, reenacting the death of Mrs. Jensen's daughter two years ago.

Somehow--we do not see how--Mrs. Jensen falls off the balcony.

In a shocking twist, however, we see that there is a second Santa-outfitted killer. He carries Mrs. Jensen into the house, to where Ms. Runyon is sobbing. "You killed my wife," says this second Santa, "You killed our daughter." It is Police Chief Polansky!

Will Ms. Runyon be saved in the end? (Spoiler: Yes.) Will Alex, mysteriously missing for the finale, return? (Spoiler: Yes.) Will we see more of death-obsessed Mrs. Ranzoni? (Spoiler: Tragically, no.)

Released in January 1980, To All A Goodnight is the first full-length slasher film to feature a killer Santa Claus, though it was preceded by the "All Through the House" segment of the anthology film Tales from the Crypt (1972). As such, To All A Goodnight is a groundbreaking template for many films that would follow. Some of them would even add elements to the Christmas slasher mythology, such as snow and gifts and holiday music. As it is set in a mostly empty school in temperate Santa Barbara, much traditional Christmas atmosphere does not appear in To All A Goodnight, and some might say it is a struggle for the audience to remember the film is even set during the holiday season.

Some other aspects of the film seem missing or underutilized as well, though these are easily explained because the film was so new, original, and groundbreaking in 1980. One example is the girl's death in the prologue, which is never remarked upon in the main body of the film, even though it only occurred two years earlier when many of the students were still attending the school. Many films would use such a tragic backstory as a way of establishing suspense early in the film, but To All A Goodnight avoids such commonplace narrative tricks--until the end, when the events of the prologue burst surprisingly into the present narrative.

In the end, I can only say to the unfortunately late David Hess and the fortunately not late Alex Rebar that I thank them for their efforts in moving the then-nascent slasher genre forward, and for their commitment to telling the tragic story of not one but two killer Santas.

And to that I can only add, of course, "God bless airplanes."