HAZINGS FOR THE HOLIDAYS: THE SORROW OF MRS. JENSEN AND DETECTIVE POLANSKY IN ‘TO ALL A GOODNIGHT’

Any good slasher movie worth its salt gives us a villain that has some traumatic event that sets off their murderous frenzy – their “trigger,” if you will. Sometimes it’s horrifically tragic, sometimes it’s tragically hilarious. Sometimes, there’s no motivation at all. And sometimes, there’s too much motivation. With Triggered! we’re singling out one insane individual from some of the best and worst slasher films to see if we can make sense of the method behind their madness. For this installment, we’re focusing on the maniac behind the slayings in To All a Goodnight, Mrs. Jensen and Detective Polansky.

On January 30th, 1980, Intercontinental Releasing Corporation, a company behind a litany of cheapie grindhouse films, released the Yuletide hack-and-slash feature, To All a Goodnight. The film serves as the only feature directed by the late David Hess, star of such lurid titles as The Last House on the Left and The House on the Edge of the Park. Notable also are the writer and executive producer, Alex Rebar, star of the sci-fi/horror mashup The Incredible Melting Man, and Jennifer Runyon in the lead role of Nancy, the mousy final girl, who would go on a few years later to a small, but memorable, part in 1984’s Ghostbusters. Though it seems to take its visual cues from Bob Clark’s 1974 seminal slasher classic, Black Christmas, To All a Goodnight can be considered the first to lay out the body count template: isolated location, nubile gals and horny guys, a prophet of doom and gloom, and a killer obsessed with revenge (this template Paramount Pictures’ Friday the 13th would perfect just four months later to great financial success).

The plot of To All a Goodnight begins with a group of young women at the Calvin Finishing School for Girls who accidentally kill their classmate by scaring her into falling off a balcony during a prank or maybe a hazing–it’s not really clear. Two years later, a new batch of sorority sisters and their boyfriends are partying at the school the weekend before Christmas when a maniac dressed as Santa Claus takes it upon himself to kill them off in various violent ways. As the film draws to a close, the remaining survivors discover that the kindly housemother, Mrs. Jensen (Katherine Herrington), is one of the killers, her daughter being the girl killed at the beginning of the film! But wait, there’s more! The film then adds another twist by revealing that the detective, Polansky (Sam Shamshak), who has been investigating the disappearances of the victims at the school, is her husband and partner in crime.

Alex Rebar created a revenge template for slasher movies with the wrongful hazing death in To All a Goodnight. Wrongful deaths from hazing have occurred intermittently since the mid-1700s, when a young man named Daniel Rees suffered fatal burns from a flaming liquid during his initiation at the Masonic Temple in Philadelphia. A 2008 study states that 73% of fraternity or sorority members have experienced hazing, most lucky enough to have survived, but experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. Hazing deaths range from accidental shooting, drowning, electrocution, gassing, neck-breaking, being struck down by a train or car, sepsis, pneumonia, and, as the horrible trend continued into more modern, cruel ways of initiation, alcohol poisoning. The victims of this abhorrent behavior are mostly men; few women have actually suffered deaths at the hands of their sorority sisters, though there are always exceptions. In 2016, one young woman, Jordan Hankins, committed suicide after enduring repeated emotional abuse from her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sisters at Northwestern University, despite telling them that the hazing was triggering her PTSD; her mother filed a lawsuit against the sorority. Mrs. Jensen and Detective Polansky attempt similar legal proceedings, but as Polansky mentions to his officers in the film: “You know, the people who send their kids to this school, they have a lot of political power.” It’s almost assured that any type of suit against the sorority, the school, or the party involved in their daughter’s death got off scot-free, or with only a proverbial slap on the wrist. With the hole in their hearts not healed by financial compensation, what other recourse did they have but to make others feel the pain they feel?

However, like Friday the 13th, the killers in To All a Goodnight aren’t targeting the individuals directly responsible for the death of their daughter, but a completely different group of girls and their lovers. There’s no specificity as to what triggered them to kill these folks right now, as opposed to the actual murderers two years earlier. To use a similar example from the aforementioned Friday the 13th, we know why Mrs. Voorhees wipes out Steve Christy and the Camp Crystal Lake hotties: once the camp re-opens, a similar fate to that of her drowned child, Jason, could befall another child. The closest thing to a motive that could rationalize why Mrs. Jensen and Detective Polansky are killing the teens in To All a Goodnight occurs halfway through the film, after the homicidal couple has already killed off a sizeable chunk of the cast. Protagonist Nancy has found the freshly-slain corpse of groundskeeper Ralph and the police are notified; the kids are all brought into the living room to be interrogated by Polansky. Next to him is Mrs. Jensen, his wife (though again, we don’t know that yet). She says to the gathered kids, “Please, if anyone knows anything, tell the officer. This is very serious.” He adds, “Look, I know you might feel like you need to protect the others…” We get the feeling this is the very same conversation held after the death of their daughter, and the sisters responsible for it kept their lips sealed.

But why two years? For someone who has lost a beloved family member, the first holiday afterward is likely the hardest–that’s when it would’ve been natural for them to commit their revenge on Christmas vacation, one year later. The couple are trapped in a fragile mental state, in which they keep reliving the moments after their daughter died–even the investigation–but this time they are going to right the wrongs by killing those they deem responsible, which they probably feel they should have done so immediately after her death.

Hess manages to create some effective moments throughout To All a Goodnight, like when Alex and Nancy creep through the massive dark house alone and we catch glimpses of the madman watching them from afar, but, sadly, those moments are rare; as Hess never talked about the film and has since passed away, we have no inkling of what he was hoping to achieve. Because this is one of the first post-Halloween slashers, and the slasher archetype hadn’t yet been perfected, there are pacing issues. The cold open, in which the coeds kill the girl accidentally, is wrapped up in 60 seconds, and by ten minutes into the film, the gamut of slasher tropes are displayed in dizzying fashion: gratuitous nudity, shaky point-of-view shots, and two victims under the murderer’s belt. After such mayhem, the film exhales, focusing on the characters’ interpersonal sexual politics, as the cast swaps partners like a ’70s key party in the San Bernardino Valley. Unfortunately, with the girls’ amateur investigation of their missing pals, the film meanders until its lively cat-and-mouse-with-the-killer third act, but by then the credits are ready to roll. The music by Richard Tufo is odd, but entertaining–at times workmanlike, giving the best approximation of a what a slasher movie score should sound like, but other times sounding like a ’70s slapstick comedy. There is a healthy dose of violence throughout, courtesy of special effects whiz Mark Shostrom: stabbings, slit throats, decapitations, and axes to the head. At one point, the killer uses an airplane’s propellers to kill two victims at the same time, but it’s too dark to see.

To All a Goodnight is a decent detour for those seeking a holiday slasher because there are some enjoyably silly and logic-defying moments (i.e. a husband berating his wife for taking too long picking up their daughter because he’s got a bet on a game, the killer dressing up in a full suit of armor for two kills, an airplane pilot sleeping under the aircraft in the cold December night, etc.), but that is part of its oddball charm. There are superior Christmas slashers, such as the original Black Christmas and the cruelly-cold Silent Night, Deadly Night (Surprisingly, To All a Goodnight experienced none of the controversy that met Silent Night, Deadly Night on its release in 1984, despite the killers wearing the exact same outfit to carry out their carnage–I guess promotion is everything), but those alternatives are a lot more mean-spirited. There are plenty of holidays horrors to watch, but To All a Goodnight is a fun respite from the real horror of this year’s pandemic.