Following the impersonal efficiency of the first Silent Night, Deadly Night and the proud trashiness of its immediate follow-up, the third installment of the franchise tried to go in for something more dignified even if its maker, the unexpectedly chosen Monte Hellman, was probably too pressed for time to settle for a viable centre and develop the possibilities he may have come across without initially planning to.
As with many later entries in franchises in danger of self-repetition, Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out!, which was released straight-to-video, feels as if it stemmed from a script not conceived as a series entry but eventually doctored into one with the help of some token grafts. This is actually not quite the case: Hellman rejected the script initially offered him and quickly elaborated a story of his own in collaboration with another writer. And it shows in a way, as the resulting film is independent in tone and story from the earlier two, and only justifies its status as a sequel with some reused flashback footage to the pilot and a tenuously link to Part II by acknowledging its mad slasher villain as a revivified incarnation of Ricky, the Santa murderer who had taken over the second time around. Except for such routine hooks, the title, the Christmas setting and the presence of a Santa Claus suit used early in the narrative as a convenient catalyst but never seen again, Hellman’s film could have qualified as a standalone effort or even the beginning of a new franchise of its own. At the same time, however, it is the last in the five-film series to even attempt to take up where its predecessor ended, as the next two so-called sequels, directed by other hands, started from scratch and merely retained the basic notion of using Christmas Eve as the backdrop for a horror tale.
In the Hellman, Ricky Caldwell, the second of the two Santa-suited murderers in the series now lies comatose on a hospital bed, his brain having been artificially recomposed by a mad doctor type by the name of Newbury (Richard Beymer, long after West Side Story, shortly before Twin Peaks) who wants to gain insight into his mind, and that of homicidal criminals in general, with the help of a young blind psychic called Laura (Samantha Scully). The sessions between Ricky and Samantha start affecting both parties to the extent that a distant link has been created between the two. Now more energised, Ricky (well played by Bill Moseley, who has very few lines) rises from his bed when unwittingly provoked by the drunken hospital Santa and, in his present incarnation as a semi-zombie with a transparent dome protecting his brain, finds himself journeying in the same direction as the girl who has partially become his other self. Laura, meanwhile, is on the way to visiting her grandmother in the company of her brother and his girlfriend (Eric Da Re and Laura Harring, lots of future David Lynch folks here) . With the help of Newbury, Lieutenant Connely (Robert Culp) is able to establish where Ricky is heading and the two men drive off to catch up with him before he reaches the grandmother’s country house.
Hellman has prided himself less on the finished product as such than on his ability he showed to sail through its pre-production, shooting and post-production so hastily and still come up with a presentable film. What this simultaneously implies, of course, is that he was unable to bring any sense of personal commitment to the project and, indeed, the results suffer from an inability to settle for one directorial policy that could serve for the whole movie. Sometimes Hellman seems willing to make an above-average horror film (and one, by the way, rather short of bloodletting for an 80s slasher film); at other times, he appears to amuse himself by rehearsing familiar horror tropes and dropping film-buff references (including Corman’s The Terror, for which Hellman did some second-unit work); now and then, he includes some touches of humour (such as the image of the hitchhiking Ricky), and elsewhere he seems mainly concerned with getting on with his job. The latter attitude surely informs the long, tedious climax pitting the murderer against the proverbial “final girl” when most story interest has died along with most of the other major characters.
Better Watch Out! is predictably at its most successful in some of the moments when it is most serious. Compared with its two predecessors, this is a much more atmospheric film by a long distance, as well as the most somber in tone, particularly as it bypasses the well-populated small-town settings of the first two in favour of several small, isolated backgrounds (the country house taking up much of the action, a van, a gas-filling stations), some of them with just one inhabitant and separated from one another by long distances. Such lonely surroundings are apposite for the two main antagonists. The killer anti-hero (a Norman Bates type the first time around; a Freddy Kruger-like jokester in the first sequel) has evolved here into a lumbering, occasionally benign-looking brute in the manner of Boris Karloff, capable of peaceful, even kindly behaviour unless the sight of some Santa-related motif or just plain rejection returns him to a state of murderous rage. Laura, for her part, is something of an outcast herself, due less to her blindness than her status as a psychic and a penchant for unfriendliness that she only sheds in the company of her beloved brother. The relationship between the two characters reaches a point of ambiguity in the epilogue when Ricky is either dead or gravely injured (this is deliberately left unclear). At the end, when the ever-glum Laura wishes the Lieutenant a merry Christmas, this is followed by the final image of the vision she has of a serenely smiling, tuxedo-suited Ricky wishing her, and the audience, a happy new year. This registers less as a simply facetious coda than as an expression of the bond (perversely bordering on a embryonic fondness) Laura has found herself forming with a man who has killed her brother and grandmother and was intent on killing her as well, but who has also become partially incorporated into herself.
On the whole, this is a promising but failed film, irregular in both interest and attitude and not always well acted. The best performance comes from Elizabeth Hoffman, who is excellent in her brief role as the grandmother, while Samantha Scully, although very attractive and with an intelligent presence, acts unevenly as the female lead. Also, the semi-comedic interplay between Robert Culp and Richard Beymer (a quirky variation on the relationship between Dr. Loomis and Sheriff Brackett in Carpenter’s Halloween) works less well than it should because of Beymer’s arch delivery of his lines.
The Culp-Beymer scenes, well-conceived in themselves, do seem to belong in another film but then Hellman was essentially out to deliver a project he had little personal affinity for and which he had had undertaken as a favour to a friend, which means that filling in gaps and finding occasional moments for amusement took precedence over creating a unified whole. It all certainly movies in fits and starts but now and then a greater involvement than the director himself had presumably expected emerges. At the same time, it’s also typical of a career that has alternated between personal works and doing second unit or doctoring work for others. Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! represents the latter trend, albeit extended to one entire movie – the last film, by the way, Hellman directed in the last century. Just one final note: considering some of the actors here and the presence of Everett McGill in the immediately preceding Iguana (1989), does David Lynch makes casting choices from watching Hellman movies?