These days there’s no shortage of Christmas-themed horror movies, especially ones that feature a killer dressed as Santa Claus. But in the slasher genre’s earliest days, that hadn’t yet become a trope—1972's Tales From the Crypt gave us a red-suited maniac, to name maybe the most notable early example, and 1980's To All a Goodnight picks up what that anthology put down, while also borrowing generously from what’s still the greatest Christmas slasher of all time, 1974's Black Christmas.
Probably the biggest trivia point that To All a Goodnight brings into the world, however, is that it’s the first and only narrative feature directed by David Hess, a horror icon thanks to his creepy star turn in Wes Craven’s 1972 Last House on the Left. Released the same year as Friday the 13th, which raised the bar for splatter thanks to Tom Savini’s gruesome special effects, To All a Goodnight feels relatively bloodless despite its decent body count. Many of its kills happen offscreen, no doubt a result of what was clearly a bare-bones production budget—also likely why the entire movie takes place in a single setting, and the acting is so uneven.
Horror fans will recognize all the expected beats in place for its script (writer Alex Rebar’s other efforts include 1980's Terror on Tour, essential viewing for your next “rock n’ slaughter” theme night)—but again, 1980 was relatively early for a slasher film, so perhaps audiences at the time might not have anticipated everything that happens like contemporary viewers will. Or maybe they did; To All a Goodnight is hardly subtle, though it does whip out a twist at the end that’s both completely unearned and just wild enough to work.
After a prologue that sets up the killer’s motivation—it’s the usual: revenge after a prank gone wrong—within literally the first minute, we jump ahead two years, where students at the “Calvin Finishing School for Girls” (a fancypants California boarding school, conveniently situated in the middle of nowhere, where all the high-school girls look like they’re about to graduate college) are flouncing off for Christmas vacation. The kids are accurately dubbed “rich little pompous bitches” by one of the few adult characters on hand, who include the resident housemother, Mrs. Jensen (Kiva Lawrence), and the creepy groundskeeper, Ralph (West Buchanan). The killer begins to strike once the few students who’re sticking around over the break launch into what they’re anticipating will be a nonstop party with boys who fly a private plane in for the occasion. Are the boys also rich little pompous bitches? Of course they are!
There’s really only one character whose death you aren’t actively rooting for, and that’s the baby-voiced Nancy (Jennifer Runyon, who made her debut in To All a Goodnight but enjoyed reasonable success after, including playing the pretty student Bill Murray pretends is psychic in Ghostbusters). Nancy is fond of kittens and pigtails, and sips on milk instead of beer. She’s so glowingly innocent that Ralph, whose name might as well be “Red Herring,” takes a shine to her, something that would likely freak her out even if he didn’t roam the dorm toting a pair of garden shears and saying things like “There’s evil here, I can feel it. The devil’s here!” (As it happens, though they were both released in 1980, To All a Goodnight came out several months before Friday the 13th, which also features a “Crazy Ralph” character who tries to warn everyone of their imminent doom, but is so demented nobody pays him any mind.)
Even semi-awake viewers will easily clock the killer’s identity by process of elimination—who’s curiously absent whenever the ho-ho-homicidal fiend appears?—but To All a Goodnight does manage to leave some treats wrapped under the tree. One is the twist at the end, which reminds us that everyone looks the same in a Santa suit, and also that Santa suits are easy to come by just in case, say, you needed more than one person to be running around in disguise.
There are also some weird details sprinkled amid the otherwise obvious plot. These include oddities like an angry sign posted on the dorm refrigerator scolding any would-be food thieves (the camera lingers on it more than once, for some reason); bizarre acting choices (as when a cop character delivers a zoned-out monologue while gripping Nancy by the chin); and stuff that you’d expect from any ‘80s-era teen-centric movie, including extreme horniness even when the kids know there’s a killer in their midst. Also, Deep Throat star Harry Reems has a funny cameo as the private plane pilot. The characters may be genuinely obnoxious, the gore disappointing, and the dialogue less-than-memorable, but To All a Goodnight captures a moment in time when Christmas slashers hadn’t been done to death—and helped pave the way for future classics like Silent Night, Deadly Night, which insured that variations on psychotic Santas would become a heartwarming holiday tradition.
To All a Goodnight is now streaming on Prime Video.