Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation (1990) – ‘Tis the Season…

… Of the Witch! Just in time for Christmas, Matty looks back at Brian Yuzna’s criminally underappreciated festive frightener.

Though Brian Yuzna has since gone on to say how he’d now embrace the ‘killer dressed as Santa’ concept, when the bones of SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 4: INITIATION (1990) were presented to him, the slasher hook at the heart of the holiday horror franchise didn’t interest the Re-Animator (1985) producer in the least. However, in early 1990 Yuzna was in the middle of a professional crisis. His preceding directorial ventures, Society (1989) and Bride of Re-Animator (1990), were still awaiting U.S. distribution [1] and Yuzna had convinced himself he’d never be able to direct again. Just wanting to keep working, he agreed to shepherd Silent Night, Deadly Night 4, his arm twisted by a unique opportunity afforded to him by the film’s producer, Richard N. Gladstein.

Having connected with Yuzna while brokering the North American video rights to Bride of Re-Animator, Gladstein was an executive at LIVE Entertainment and the man in charge of expanding the Silent Night, Deadly Night series. And as it transpired, he was tired of the saga’s shtick too. Thus the enterprising mini-mogul — who, a few months later, would give a lad by the name of Quentin Tarantino his big break after falling in love with a script he’d written called ‘Reservoir Dogs’ [2] — gave Yuzna carte blanche to create as he saw fit. Gladstein’s only stipulations were that Silent Night, Deadly Night 4 be set at Christmas to maintain thematic tethering to the Silent Night, Deadly Night brand; that it be done quickly and cheaply; and that Yuzna use a screenplay that Gladstein, S.J. Smith, and Gladstein’s Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! (1989) collaborator, Arthur H. Gorson, had been cooking — about a coven of witches and a Christmas Eve ritual — as his blueprint. The rest? “Go wild,” was Gladstein’s instruction. Recruiting his Society and Bride of Re-Animator co-conspirators, scribe Woody Keith and FX wiz Screaming Mad George, to help him whip Silent Night, Deadly Night 4 into something more to his liking, the result was a truly wacky shocker that, in a catalogue of already highly distinctive titles, stands as one of Yuzna’s best offerings.

Fundamentally, Silent Night, Deadly Night 4 is the Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) to Society’s Devil’s Backbone (2001). They’re sibling pictures — brother and sister to be precise. Where Yuzna’s megaphone-wielding debut dealt with a young man uncovering the monstrous secret lurking beneath the glamour of Beverly Hills, Silent Night, Deadly Night 4 finds a young woman thrust into a nightmare festering among the proles in downtown Los Angeles. A berserk and masterfully delivered auteur vehicle dripping with its maker’s obsessions, said nightmare includes: Yuzna’s usual fixations on kinky sex, fleshy mutations, and class struggles; the helmer exorcising his childhood fear of insects with copious scenes of creepy-crawly mayhem (notably, a deeply unsettling moment built around a whopping-great cockroach effect that Screaming Mad George had previously employed in the bravura roach motel vignette in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)); and a wealth of simulacra and double-ended images (cf. the aforementioned Society, alien baby opus Progeny (1998), and gruesome comic book adap Faust: Love of the Damned (2000)). Contorted faces appear on heavily stained walls, and shots linger on pseudo-innocuous details that teem with a goose-pimpling sense of malevolence. Apartment door numbers, street signs, backwards license plates, and the film’s recurring spiral motif, itself echoed in Keith’s serpentine narrative structure… Everything that Yuzna positions in front of Phillip Holahan’s lens serves a macabre purpose. Silent Night, Deadly Night 4 is awash with dark warnings and evocative, doom-laden flourishes as its downtrodden protagonist, rookie journalist Kim (an uninhibited performance from stunning ex-model Neith Hunter), edges closer and closer to madness (a notion Yuzna would return to in The Dentist (1996) and its sequel). 

And yet, at Silent Night, Deadly Night 4’s core is an audacious question:

Is Kim’s plight really that bad?

Certainly not at the start is Yuzna’s bold suggestion. 

Inspired by the story of Lilith — the first wife of Adam, and a demonic figure in Judaic mythology — Kim’s investigation into the strange, fiery death of an equally harangued young woman has her happening upon a bug-worshipping cult led by the glacial Fima (former Bond girl Maud Adams) and populated by perennial bit-players Marjean Holden, Allyce Beasley, and David Lynch alum Jeanne Bates (Eraserhead (1977), Mulholland Drive (2001)). The cult’s radical and empowering feminist ideology slaps extra hard today, in the age of accountability, post #MeToo — particularly as the men in Kim’s life — from boyfriend Hank (Tommy Hinkley) and his bigoted father (Society’s Ben Slack); to her chain-smoking boss (Phantasm (1979) hero Reggie Bannister, cleverly cast against type), and his sniveling lackeys (producer Gladstein and future Saturday Night Live writer Hugh Fink) — corner the market in terms of entitled and repugnant behaviour. It’s clear they’re more than happy to keep the ambitious Kim in place personally and professionally.

But as seductive and appealing as her welcome into Fima’s queer-coded sect immediately seems to be, Yuzna has the strong-minded (and well written) Kim catch on quick: the domineering Fima and her throng are as controlling as the chauvinist pigs in Kim’s orbit. Worse is that they’re total hypocrites — as evidenced by them needing a man, Clint Howard’s bumbling vagrant Ricky (who may or may not be the same Ricky from Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 and 3 [3]), to facilitate their body-warping magick.

Designed specifically for video, Silent Night, Deadly Night 4 hit tape in the U.S. on 21st November 1990 via LIVE Home Video before screening on Cinemax five-and-a-half weeks later, on New Year’s Eve. Here in the U.K., Silent Night, Deadly Night 4 was released on cassette as ‘Bugs’ in autumn ‘96 by Guild Home Video following eight seconds of BBFC-mandated cuts (they removed a shot of Hinkley suspended on meathooks, S&M-style). In a canny move, Guild ignored the film’s Christmas trappings and elected to promote it in line with two of Yuzna’s then-recent successes: “The director of Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993) and the producer of Ticks (1993) brings you a skin-crawling new dimension in terror”.

‘Bugs’ marked the second Silent Night, Deadly Night entry to land on British soil under a different moniker. The first was the instalment that Gladstein and Yuzna produced when the pair of them decided to ‘do a Halloween III (1982)’ and anthologise the series: 1991’s Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker, which High Fliers issued on VHS as the handle-free ‘The Toy Maker’ in spring ‘93. Odd but understandable: the Silent Night, Deadly Night tag held no value for British audiences. Prior to The Toy Maker, no one had bothered to pick up Silent Night, Deadly Night 1 and 3 for distribution, and Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (1987) was rejected when it was submitted to the BBFC in late 1987 [4].  

[1] Premiering in London at The Scala’s Shock Around the Clock Festival in 1989, Society sat on the shelf stateside until 1992.
[2] As Tarantino told Charlie Rose in 1994: “Gladstein was the guy at the company, at LIVE Entertainment, that said “I’m going to take a chance on this kid”. I really owe my career to him… He loved [the Reservoir Dogs script] so much that he said “unless this kid is a complete jerk, I’m going to make this movie”.”
[3] If you’re asking me, it’s him. He even admits it: in a brilliantly bizarre and meta flourish, Ricky identifies himself as the “Santa Claus killer” when he catches Silent Night, Deadly Night 3 on TV during his attack on Kim and Hank.
[4] Due to its depiction of a small town shooting spree, Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 was ruled too contentious in the wake of the Hungerford Massacre, which had occurred in the August of that year.

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