“It sure doesn’t feel much like Christmas.”
Growing up in Minnesota summers that seemed both endless and much-too-short, I always got a kick out of seeing “Christmas in July” advertisements, especially when I was digging through the previous week's newspaper in search of the Sunday comics after a sun-drenched week at summer camp. Along with slashed-down prices, the ads usually featured some version of a vacationing Santa kicking back on a pool float with a tropical shirt, sunglasses, and a dollop of sunscreen on his nose. This marriage of Christmas and July seemed odd to me. Other than occasionally wishing that a North Pole breeze would blow in on those sweltering summer days, Santa Claus and Christmas were distant memories when there was baseball, barbeques, and a tall stack of Goosebumps books from the library to keep up with.
But those ads must have done the trick, because years later I still think about “Christmas in July” savings in that sweet slice of time between Fourth of July fireworks and the Dog Days of Summer. Maybe that’s why, when I was trying to figure out the second movie to write about in our Class of 1980 series, I gravitated towards To All a Goodnight. What’s left of the purist in me might have waited until there was snow on the ground before diving into the ever-growing Christmas horror subgenre, but I think most of us could use an early Christmas gift this year, and as it turns out, I’m glad I unwrapped this one when I did, because To All a Goodnight might just be the ultimate “Christmas in July” horror movie… even though it takes place in December.
Directed by David Hess (probably best known for playing the brutal Krug Stillo in Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left, but who also was a successful songwriter for Elvis Presley and Pat Boone) from a screenplay by Alex Rebar (who played the title character in The Incredible Melting Man), To All a Goodnight often seems to be left out of the conversation when it comes to cinematic Yuletide horror, pressing its face against the window and looking longingly inside as more celebrated movies such as Black Christmas, Christmas Evil, Krampus, and Silent Night, Deadly Night are viewed and discussed in the glow of Christmas tree lights every December. Which is all the more reason to watch To All a Goodnight in July, for even though the film takes place during Christmas vacation, its palm tree-filled setting, ill-fated picnic outing, and nearly empty school housing backdrop ooze a wholly summertime slasher vibe, with some Christmas decorations thrown in for good measure.
Released in the post-Halloween slasher boom that was blossoming in the early ’80s, the story for To All a Goodnight doesn’t reinvent the slasher wheel, but it sure does get some mileage out of it. In the opening scene that feels straight out of a hazy midsummer night’s dream, we see a terrified young woman being chased through the halls of the Calvin Finishing School For Girls by her classmates during Christmas vacation—a seemingly innocent prank until it ends with the young woman accidentally falling to her death from a balcony. Flash-forward two years and it’s Christmas vacation once again. Most of the students are packed away into cars by their family members and whisked away for the holiday, but Nancy (Jennifer Runyon) and several of her friends remain, along with housemother Mrs. Jensen (Katherine Herrington), a group of guys who show up by plane to party… and a mysterious person dressed as Santa Claus who seeks to pick them off one-by-one.
It doesn’t take a Christmas miracle to figure out that the sins of the past are haunting the students of the present at Calvin Finishing School For Girls (even if they weren’t all there the night the young woman died), and that someone is intent on making them pay for the school’s sins with their blood. As a whodunit (or “whodunits,” as the bodies continue piling up), the mystery can be solved (at least partly) with some key giveaways in the film’s first third, but the mystery of who’s doing the killing isn’t the only gift to be unwrapped here. There are other presents to be found under this blood-soaked tree.
You know how some kids get one big gift for Christmas while others get a bunch of smaller presents to balance it out (especially if you’re siblings)? In this case, the viewer is treated to the latter. It’s the little things that make To All a Goodnight enjoyable: the chemistry of the jocular cast (who spend most of the movie getting along just fine, even when they’re casually swapping partners), the quirky and sometimes bonkers dialogue, a score from Richard Tufo that sounds like a synth-infused version of the Jaws theme, and some gnarly kills brought to life by Mark Shostrom’s makeup effects. And if that weren’t enough, we get the gift that keeps on giving (as Cousin Eddie would say) in the form of the unsettling Ralph (Buck West), who lurks around corners and even comes through Nancy’s window one night to hand her a Bible, proving that Friday the 13th’s “Crazy Ralph” (Walt Gorney) wasn’t the only guy named Ralph who had a knack for ominously warning teens of evil, death, and corruption on the big screen in 1980.
Perhaps the biggest gift of all, though, is the fact that despite taking place around Christmas and featuring a killer dressed as Santa Claus, To All a Goodnight never feels like a Christmas movie. When Nancy tells potential boyfriend Alex (Forrest Swanson), “It sure doesn’t feel much like Christmas,” it’s like she’s a voice for everyone watching at home. Yes, there are Christmas lights strung up inside the house and plenty mentions of the holiday in passing, but that’s about it. There’s no making out under the mistletoe, no present unwrapping, no carol singing, nearly no holiday traditions of any kind to be found here, other than Santa Claus running dealing death to the “naughty” ones instead of coal. And therein lies the movie’s charm. With its warm, tropical setting and utilization of Christmas as more of a vague backdrop and an excuse to feature a killer Santa, To All a Goodnight feels like a Christmas movie that takes place in July rather than December, as if the counselors at Camp Crystal Lake had strung up some red and green lights just before Jason showed up with the eggnog. It doesn’t use the holiday, per se, but rather just uses it differently, embracing absurdities and creepy kills along its merry way.
It might just be me, but I don’t see “Christmas in July” advertisements like I used to as a kid (other than Hallmark’s “Christmas in July” lineup, but that’s a story for another article). Just like the summer camp I visited as a kid that is now closed for good, gone are those images of Santa chilling poolside with a cold beverage in one big hand and not a care in the world about who’s being naughty or nice. Gone too are the carefree days of childhood. But the memories from that cherished time live on, and so too does the bizarre vibe I got from seeing Christmas and July paired together in the heat of the summer. As odd as it may sound, To All a Goodnight unintentionally brings that same quirky feeling back to life for me. And if a slasher movie can make me feel like a kid again, I think that’s a pretty damn good gift, one that might be best unwrapped in July rather than December.
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