Despite the market’s lack of acceptance of Hanukkah-themed horror (both Menorah of Blood and Eight Deadly Nights failed to burn up the box office) Liberty Pictures took a chance on first-time director Clark Bernstein and his writing partner Jerry Skwiski and financed Dreidel of Dread under the company’s independent imprint, Liberation Films. Bernstein and Skwiski had never been involved in such a high-profile project before, mainly working on commercials and a few soaps, and many in the industry wondered if the duo could pull off what they were promising: A trilogy of holiday-themed horror films, delivered one after the other, for three years in a row.

When the deal was made in February 1991 and Dreidel was announced for a late November release, skepticism was high that the two newbies couldn’t deliver. Somehow, Bernstein and Skwiski were able to round up a hard-working crew, secure locations and secure some respected actors (including Mother May I star Tommy Cline) and produce a movie that is overflowing with white-knuckle tension and some pretty ingenious twists and turns before the grinding, grating stall-out at the end, leading into a bad sequel (The Twelve Slays of Christmas) and an even-worse third film (The Kwanzaa Killer).

Dreidel opens on a tight shot of a spinning dreidel and pulls back to reveal a woman tied to a chair, her mouth stuffed with cloth, her eyes wide. The dreidel teeters slightly and topples onto its side. The camera lingers on the dreidel, showing the Hebrew symbol for “all.” The bound woman’s eyes go wide and she tilts her head to stare across the table at the figure who’s beginning to stand. She begins to cry and the figure passes in front of the camera, blanketing the screen in darkness.

It’s the first day of Hanukkah, and soon we’re meeting Detective Rueben Goldman (Cline) as he approaches the spot where the gagged woman, Christine Abramson, was found, her nude body covered in stab wounds and frozen by the cold. In her hand is a dreidel, probably the same one she’d watch seal her fate. Goldman doesn’t speak during this scene, simply moving back and forth in front of the body, looking for anything that catches his eye. Even though it’s a fairly straightforward scene, it’s helpful at establishing Goldman’s mindset and his working style. The presence of the weathered Cline lends the production some gravitas and his face sells his emotions better than words ever could, which Skwiski must’ve realized because he doesn’t give Cline’s character a lot of dialogue.

As expected, the killer soon strikes again, kidnapping another young woman on the second day of Hanukkah. This time, however, we hear the killer explain the rules of the dreidel game he was playing with Christine Abramson: If the dreidel lands on “none” he will let you go. If it lands on “half,” he takes one of the things that you have two of — hands, eyes, feet, and so on. If it lands on “put” (as in “put in” or “give”), he will give you the chance to offer him something for your freedom. However, if the dreidel lands on “all,” you die.

As the raspy-voiced killer explains the rules, each potential outcome plays out, and soon the dreidel is spinning. We don’t see what it lands on, but we’re soon in a field with Goldman and the girl’s fate is revealed: she must’ve landed on “half” because th killer cut off one of her legs and then let her go. She bled to death and she froze.

Goldman soon receives photos of the second victim, the words “More to come” scrawled on the back. Later that evening, middle-aged David Walzer stumbles into the police station, beaten and bloody, but very much alive. He reveals how he was kidnapped from his apartment but during the game, the dreidel landed on “none” and the man flew into a rage and hit David in the face. When David awoke, he found himself outside his apartment.

The film plays out in predictable fashion, with more kidnapped victims, more murders and more near-misses by both the predator and his pursuers. There’s one particular moment near the middle of the film where Goldman and the killer are close enough to touch each other that had me on the edge of my seat. Unfortunately, the film never manages to achieve those levels of tension where they’re necessary during the finale. The killer’s reveal is downright absurd and so out-of-left field that even talking about it makes anyone listening that much dumber. Apparently the suits at Liberty and Liberation still wanted to see what Bernstein and Skwiski had planned for the final two films, and gave both sequels a greenlight during Dreidel‘s opening weekend. This would be a bad decision on their part and would lead to a downward spiral from which neither Bernstein nor Skwiski would recover.

For what it is, Dreidel of Dread isn’t terrible, but the ludicrous ending and the sequels that follow tarnish an otherwise good film. Cline is excellent, the camera work is effective and some of the supporting cast handle their own pretty well. It’s definitely worth a watch on a cold December eve, right after you’ve lit the Menorah and played some dreidel games.