Few outside the slasher fanbase remember 1980’s To All A Goodnight. Even those inside will cite a hamhanded plot, slackjaw-inducing character actions, and an unconvincing yet excitable spray of oatmeal gore from an airplane propellor – but like many slashers from the era, like it or hate it, pointing out its misgivings is half the fun – and baring in mind a shoestring budget, credit must be given to any succeeded strengths. After the cover burned into my memory at a video store as a youngster, only 15 years later did I finaly nab a copy in a basement sale. This slasher’s strange attractor lies in its Santa suited killer who also wears an eerie clown mask to cover up any revealer of identity. The carnage the mystery killer commits is secondary to the foreboding feeling present in the film, as the narrative speeds – or rather stumbles – toward a then-unique final twist (that’s a spoiler warning by the way).
David A. Hess on the other hand is definitely remembered, from playing the central villian in Last House On The Left to a current successful album career. What few know is, he’s a director too, having helmed the subject at hand. And years later, Retro Slashers puts him on the grill.
Retro Slashers: Is this the first time you’ve been interviewed about To All A Goodnight?
Hess: No…yes. Questions, no, but an interview yes.
Retro Slashers: Tell us how you nabbed the directing gig.
Hess: I was well-known in the horror genre, and my friend Jay Rasumny, an L.A. character actor, knew Sandy Kobe who was doing 4 low budget independent horror films and submitted me for the directing job. It really was that simple.
Retro Slashers: How did you feel directing a slasher film in a time when they were being churned out for a quick buck?
Hess: I needed the quick buck!
Retro Slashers: What was the writer & executive producer Alex Rebar like? I know he was an actor in The Incredible Melting Man and too made an entry in the early 80’s slasher sweepstakes, Demented.
Hess: Working with Rebar was like working with a would-be studio head. He envisioned himself as the head of MGM and that’s the way he behaved. Other than that he was a pretty good guy.
Retro Slashers: How much was the budget and how well was it spent on set?
Hess: Every penny went into production, and the entire budget was $78,000.00 including the music. It set new standards for the word “deferred”.
Retro Slashers: Where did you get your cast for the movie? I thought some were servicable and some were attrocious, but they did their jobs…
Hess: Thank you. Anyplace and everyplace I could. Seriously, it was shot in Los Angeles so we had access to all of L.A.’s out of work actors which probably is a larger population than greater Adelaide.
Retro Slashers: Did your acting experience factor in how to direct the cast?
Hess: Of course. I’ve always been a director at heart, and a director is just the person who takes the responsibility to take chances. The captain of the ship. And I’d love to do some more directing.
Retro Slashers: Speaking of the actors, Judy Hess played Mrs Ronsoni, so was she any relation to you?
Hess: Only my sister. I also noticed the credits screwed up her name and called her a Mister… Don’t tell her that! She’s actually a very good actress with a lot of stage experience, so she was cast thoughtfully.
Retro Slashers: I think one of the strengths of the film is the isolated morbidity evoked in the Finishing School setting. Was that an intended purpose or just a fluke?
Hess: Totally intended. It’s a back-handed slap at the upper class!
Retro Slashers: Was it tough getting away with so much “day for night” shots?
Hess: It was easy because it’s all we had the budget for!
Retro Slashers: There were some editing errors in the film, like at the end when the killer is supposed to fall off the balcony – they go from sneaking onto the balcony to suddenly landing on the ground. What happened?
Hess: Not enough footage. We shot with less than 30,000 feet of film so we were shooting at somewhere between a 3 to 4-1 ratio, and we weren’t able to get all the coverage we needed, so when missed, we missed big.
Retro Slashers: What was the deal with the movie ending with the dancing girl in shock? Was that an artistic statement or merely a set-up for a sequel?
Hess: I hadn’t given it much thought. She was obviously in a state of shock because of the nightmare she’d just experienced, and it doesn’t hurt to keep someone alive in the event you want to a sequel.
Retro Slashers: Would you agree that the revelation of two killers was pretty unique at the time?
Hess: That’s why we did it!
Retro Slashers: Do you recall anything being cut from the pic? Like the gore…
Hess: We didn’t cut anything, we needed footage! Although I would’ve liked to have had another editor, I think he missed out on tempo. More so disturbing when you are a musician because timing is all important.
Retro Slashers: The gore effects were done by Mark Shostrom, who later became pretty big in the horror FX circle. Did you have any inkling of that at the time?
Hess: I knew that he was real talented, I knew that like all young artists he was anxious to get his start.
Retro Slashers: What kind of premiere and theatrical run did the movie have?
Hess: It never ran theatrically to my knowledge. As far as I was led to believe, it went directly to tape, was released by Media Home Entertainment and sold like 10 million copies, it was an enormous seller.
Retro Slashers: Did you read any reviews when it was released?
Retro Slashers: Were you later aware of the controversy surrounding that lesser Killer Santa movie, Silent Night, Deadly Night?
Hess: I think not only was I aware of it, but they borrowed a lot from us. Which I’m used to. (Wink)
Retro Slashers: If someone, say, wants to release your film on DVD, who do they go to? Who owns the rights to it?
Hess: This film? Good question, the rights were so convoluted that I don’t know who owns it. I do know that nobody ever got paid…again, a new definition for the word “deferral”.
At this point in the interview, while I had David’s attention, I enquired into two other slasher projects. The unfilmed sequel to Last House on the Left, and Ruggero Deodato’s Bodycount, an atmospheric Italo camp slasher where he played the grizzled father character.
Retro Slashers: Now I’d like to ask you about the mid 80’s when some folks tried to get Beyond the Last House on the Left off the ground. Had they approached you to do that?
Hess: I’ve been approached to do several sequels. I don’t remember the specific titles.
Retro Slashers: Were Sean Cunningham and Wes Craven to be somehow involved?
Hess: I don’t know.
Retro Slashers: I know your character was in the script, how was he supposed to have survived the first film?
Hess: Movie magic? If this was the Danny Steinman project that you’re talking about, he survived the chainsaw but was totally messed up and ugly. I didn’t feel that it would be fair to my fans to be that ugly, ’cause I’m beautiful. (Wink)
Retro Slashers: Were any promos, trailers, or footage shot for this phantom sequel?
Hess: Not with me in it.
Retro Slashers: Why didn’t Beyond come to fruition? Seemed like a natural project for the horror franchise driven 1980’s.
Hess: I wouldn’t know, sorry.
Retro Slashers: Lastly, I’d like to ask you what your thoughts are on acting in the slasher film Body Count, and how would you compare acting in a slasher movie to directing one, since you’re the rare guy to say he’s done both?
Hess: It was always fun, a giggle, even though I have a love/hate relationship with Ruggero. We’re both very bull-headed which makes for good filming, but bad dynamics. On acting vs. directing: I don’t think that the two are necessarily comparable, I think they can compliment one another and if you’re a good actor there’s no reason, if you do your homework, that you can’t be a good director. As I said before, being a director is essentially being the captain of the ship.
Retro Slashers: Thank you David.
Hess: Back at ya, John. I’d love to come to Australia!
Credits to Joe from www.davidhess.com for setting the interview up and conducting it over the phone on our behalf, and Mr. Hess for kindly participating.