David Hess is best know for playing the psychotic murderer/rapist in Last House on the Left (1972). Less well known are the times he played basically the same role in Italian exploitation movies: Hitch-Hike (1977) and the House on the Edge of the Park (1980). Still less well known is the pointless, violent yuletide slasher he directed, which is of course, the subject of today’s review. Making the jump from actor to director is not in-and-of-itself out of character for Hess; he was always something of a Jack-of-all-trades. Indeed, his career began not with acting but singing: where under the name David Hill he holds the curious historical footnote of being the first person to record the future Elvis Presley hit “All Shook Up.” Hess was evidently a very practical man, when it became obvious that he was not cut out to be a rock star he turned into an A&R man for Mercury Records. Likewise, after directing this largely forgettable slasher he promptly abandoned directing, only taking it up again thirty years later to produce a short documentary about a Steel Drum competition in Trinidad.
Sometimes hazing gets out of hand: New kids at school are bullied mercilessly, Pledges at a fraternity are forced to drink too much, girls at a finishing school chase each other around with a medieval battle-axe. The target of this rather barbaric form of initiation winds up leaping off the school’s third story balcony to escape her tormentors. We see her body, laying crippled on the ground, the girl apparently dead. This is what happened two years ago at the Calvin Finishing School For Girls during Christmas break. Now, the current students at the school are all heading home for the holiday vacation. Well, all that is except for a handful that either cannot stand to be around their parents for that long, or whose parents are too busy with their jet-setting lifestyle to come and get them.
My readers who are under 50 and grew up outside of highest echelons of our ruling oligarchy may be wondering just what a finishing school is. Put simply a finishing school was an institution that prepared young ladies for their entry into Society (capitalization intentional), teaching them all the subtle graces that elites use to like to lord over the rest of us. They also handled the more conventional education of girls and young women, which is why some of these schools were turned into Liberal Arts colleges when finishing schools fell out of favor. This began to happen during the 1960s with women’s liberation and continued into the 1970s. I am surprised to learn that a finishing school was still operating as a finishing school as late as 1980, much less in America where the ruling nobility is defined more by their bank accounts than by their bloodline. The exact location is not specified, but the fact that the school grounds are dotted with palm trees and the students walk about in short sleeve in December suggests California or Florida.
The students who have remained behind are: Conservative good-girl type Nancy (who we’re not suppose to see as attractive because she’s wearing overalls, at least they’re more convincing than Hollywood’s go-to glasses), British slut Trisha, Melody/Leia/Sam who don’t really have much of a personality but will be hanging around for a while, and Cynthia will die almost immediately so who really cares about her? The girls are under the not-very-watchful eye of their chaperone Mrs. Jensen, who is in charge of the school while Ms. Calvin, the eponymous headmistress, is on vacation. There’s also Ralph, the creepy, southern gardener/handy man lurking around, comparing the girls in general and Nancy in particular, to flowers. Ralph lays on the red herring vibe so thick that it becomes obvious within minutes of his introduction that there is no way he’ll ever be the actual murderer.
The girls are bored stiff, and since only Trisha seems game for Sapphic dalliances, sexually frustrated as well. Fortunately Leia has a solution, her boyfriend TJ is gonna fly his father’s jet down for the weekend and bring along a few of his strapping young friends. All the girls have to do is drug Mrs. Jensen’s milk (a job that is pawned off on Nancy) so she’s out for the whole night and cannot interfere with the revelries. They aren’t worried about Ralph, the weirdo lacks any real authority over the girls and is unlike to tattle on them to Jensen when she wakes up. TJ has brought along one guy for every girl, except for Nancy and with the exception of nerdy, virginal Alex they are all meatheads like him. I won’t bore you with their names; they won’t be sticking around for long.
Now that the cast is top heavy with expendable meat, it’s time to get carving, and in To All a Goodnight’s defense it doesn’t waste much time. Cynthia’s boyfriend turns up while all the girls are at dinner and TJ and his party haven’t even arrived yet. He calls her to the window and while he’s waiting for her to get dressed an unseen killer stabs him to death. Next is Cynthia herself, she meets her demise as soon as she steps out to find her boyfriend. Nobody notices Cynthia’s death or later disappearance; indeed she will never be mentioned again in the film. The killer takes a breather, puts on a Santa Claus costume complete with creepy plastic mask and then gets busy again. Shortly after TJ and the other boys show up the kids split off into easily slash-able groups to drink and have sex. Trisha and her paramour are the first to go, then Sam and the guy she’s banging. The latter scene is probably the best murder in the whole film, and the high point of the movie, even though it is unbelievably silly: The two kids are having sex in the den, when a hitherto unseen suit of armor springs to life, killing Blake promptly and then decapitating Sam in the middle of her orgasm. How long was the killer hiding in that suit of armor? When did he get inside it? Why even bother when he already has a perfectly serviceable Santa Claus disguise? If questions like these are important to you, then you’ve clearly come to the wrong movie.
The killer is done for the night, so he buries the bodies and high tails it away from the school. The next morning the survivors don’t seem to be too concerned about their missing friends, they just assume they are sleeping it off somewhere or screwing around still. Overnight the nerdy Alex has finally gotten laid, to Melody and has undergone a complete personality readjustment (did he literally have his brains fucked out?). Alex is glad to have lost his virginity, but he’s starting to notice that Nancy is the hottest girl here, even thought she does wear baggy clothes. While horsing around with her that afternoon they stumble upon a dead body. It seems that after the killer finished burying the dead from last night he decided to kill one more victim for the road. The unlucky guy is none other than our red herring-in-chief, Ralph. The disappearance of six people didn’t bother the kids at the Calvin Finish School much, but even they can’t ignore a corpse: It’s time to call the police.
Whatever town this film takes place in is such a Podunk little village that the police chief himself, a very loud man in a used-car salesman’s suit, comes to investigate personally. The kids, except for Max and Nancy still aren’t convinced that the have anything to worry about. Evidently boarding school is a good deal rougher in American than in Europe, this kind of mayhem and murder wouldn’t even go unnoticed at the Tanz Dance Academy! The chief is a bit more sensible about the whole matter; he regards the missing kids as either victims or suspects and assumes that the killer, whoever he is, will be back soon. To protect the girls he assigns two of his officers to the detail. Since the chief has to warn his men not to have sex with any of the female student, you have to wonder if he vetted his choices carefully enough. True to form, one of the cops is screwing Leia inside an hour of his boss’ departure. Naturally, TJ isn’t thrilled about this turn of event, but he’s a modern sophisticated man and Leia is an adult who can make her own decisions. If she’s gonna bang the cop whose probably a good ten years older than her so be it, TJ will content himself with Melody’s warm embraces.
Internal sexual dynamics aside, the killer naturally returns to the school to finish the job he started last night. The priority targets are of course the two police guards that the chief assigned: they are dispatched without much issue. After this comes the film’s second best murder, and also a down right fun cinematic homage. When Leia goes to take a shower she finds Sam’s severed head stuck on the faucet. The killed appears, cornering her naked in the shower. All the while a slightly modified version of the famous Psycho (1960) musical cue plays. Surprisingly the killer doesn’t murder Leia; instead the whole experience just drives the poor girl mad. When next we see her she’s singing and dancing despondently, apparently insensible to the world around her. The killer then strangles TJ with a piano wire that he strings around the boy from a distance with what looks like a marionette’s control bar. Melody gets away and manages to sound the alarm once she finds Alex and Nancy.
The big twist is (please stop reading now if you can’t stand spoilers) that the killer has been Mrs. Jensen this entire time. The girl who fell from the balcony in the film’s opening was Mrs. Jensen’s daughter. The grieving mother doesn’t just blame the girls responsible for the crime. No, she holds every student past and future of the finishing school responsible. This is why she goes after Nancy who is only on her first year at the school, and therefore couldn’t possible have done anything to the poor woman’s daughter. This twist and reveal will be very familiar to genre fans, as it was ripped off later that same year by a vastly more successful and well-know slasher: Friday the 13th. I did not know this going into To All a Goodnight, but I must confess that this revelation has lowered my already minuscule appreciation for Friday the 13th. Mrs. Voorhees is a great deal creepier than Mrs. Jensen; the fact that she cheers herself on using her dead son’s voice (kill her mommy, kill her) is probably the only genuinely frightening moment in that turd of a film. But, all the same, Mrs. Jensen is a more effective twist, mostly because she’s actually present in the movie before the big reveal. The twist itself is fairly predicable, even though the filmmakers do a good job selling her as a harmless old biddy, though ultimately she’s betrayed by a lack of credible suspects following Ralph’s murder. I feel bad for David Hess, sure he enjoyed a respectable career but this is the second time he was on the ground first only to be eclipsed by later rivals. He might not have minded loosing out on rock stardom to Elvis, but being eclipsed by the fame of piece of crap like Friday the 13th must have stung.
That said, To All a Goodnight is not much of a movie. The characters are either nondescript or utterly cliché. Of the actors, only the girl playing Leia acquits herself at all well. A couple of the murder scenes are well staged and technically impressive, but for the most part they are as unremarkable as everything else about the film. There are occasional glimmers and a few arresting images, particularly the shot where Nancy cowers outside the window while Jensen lurks within, but for the most part this is a bland, unremarkable movie.