Over the years there have been a number of Christmas-themed horror films. From Bob Clark’s proto-slasher film Black Christmas in 1974 to the surprisingly funny Santa’s Slay in 2005, Christmas horror is a subgenre with a long – but not particularly illustrious – history. Still, if you bring up Christmas slasher flicks in casual conversation most people’s minds immediately jump to 1985’s controversial cult classic Silent Night, Deadly Night.
Silent Night, Deadly Night is one of those movies that a lot of people have heard about but a relatively small number have actually seen. Yeah, it’s one of those movies. It’s famous (to use that term in the loosest possible sense) due the controversy surrounding it, while the actual film is really fairly obscure. As one might imagine, a film in 1984 depicting a guy in a Santa suit killing people really riled up a number of parent’s groups. Even then, sometimes the outrage about this movie tends to be overstated – many parents, understanding that any children young enough to be disturbed by the film would also never actually see it, were instead angry about the placement of commercials for the movie on television. Of course, you also had the good ol’ “War on Christmas” brigade waiting to leap out and be angry, but if they hadn’t had this movie to be angry about they’d have found something else to complain about. Ultimately the film only lasted about two weeks in theaters, supposedly as a result of the public outcry.
Before we begin, I’d like to point out that the version of the film I’m reviewing today is the 2003 Anchor Bay unrated DVD release. It’s unfortunately a two-sided disc (the second side holds one of the film’s four sequels), but it does have some deleted scenes that didn’t make it into the theatrical cut of the film. The extra scenes are from a badly degraded source, but it’s nice to have them included.
The film opens on Christmas Eve 1971 as young Billy, his baby brother Ricky, and their parents have set off to visit their ailing grandpa in a mental institution. Anyone who went against my advice and watched Enter the Ninja will recognize Will Hare, the actor playing catatonic grandpa, from his appearance in that film as Dollars the street merchant. I like to think that it’s the same character in both movies – That Dollars from Enter the Ninja was so traumatized by the nonsensical insanity of that film that he ended up institutionalized back in the States.
In any event, the instant Billy’s parents leave him alone with crazy ol’ gramps, the old man suddenly snaps out of his trance just long enough to spout off some crazy gobbledygook about Santa Claus killing people. Needless to say, Billy's little mind is blown and he spends the drive home fretting to his parents about Santa coming to kill him. It just so happens that his parents encounter a stranded motorist in a Santa suit on a remote back road, so they pull over to help him – and to defuse Billy’s fears by letting him “meet” Santa. Unfortunately, this Santa Claus is actually a psychopath who only moments ago blew away a gas station attendant over $31 during a robbery. Santa shoots Billy’s dad, then inexplicably tries to rape his mom before cutting her throat.
Billy and Ricky end up in a church orphanage in a sequence that lasts far too long. Billy’s unable to put his trauma behind him and has violent outbursts every single Christmas. His mental problems are exacerbated by the harsh Mother Superior, who delivers brutal beatings to anyone who’s “naughty” under her care. (The tottering old woman even somehow manages to deliver a beating to a pair of nearly-grown teens she catches humping.) A sympathetic nun named Sister Margaret tries to provide him with a gentle upbringing, but is constantly at odds with the authoritarian Mother Superior. The entire orphanage sequence takes up way too much of the film, though it’s highlighted by an uproarious sequence where Billy lays out a costumed Santa with a Hail Mary haymaker.
Billy ends up outwardly fairly normal, but he’s internalized bizarre ideas about what’s naughty and what’s nice. “Punishment is absolute, punishment is necessary, and punishment is good,” has been the Mother Superior’s creed, and this idea is always lurking on the periphery of Billy’s psyche, even after he’s grown up into a hulking teen played by Robert Brian Wilson in his lone theatrical role. Although he still apparently lives at the orphanage, Billy finds a community job working at a local toy store. Everything’s going pretty well for him (as the audience sees during a happy montage set to the incongruously cheerful song “The Warm Side of the Door” by Morgan Ames), but then Christmas time rolls around again. The upcoming holiday, combined with his guilt surrounding his burgeoning attraction to his coworker Pamela, starts bringing Billy’s neuroses to the fore once again.
When Billy is forced to play the role of Santa Claus at the toy store on Christmas Eve, his mental state is pushed to the absolute limit. Playing Santa is bad enough, but the ensuing naughtiness of the office Christmas party manages to shove him over the edge of insanity. (Hasn’t that happened to everyone?) When he walks in on his supervisor Randy trying to force himself on Pamela in the stockroom, Billy totally loses his shit and strangles Randy to death with a string of Christmas lights. He then decides that she too was naughty and eviscerates her with a box cutter.
So begins about 40 minutes of Billy wandering the streets in his Santa suit bellowing “naughty” and dispatching people in the usual slasher movie ways. The most creative sequence in the film, and one which was apparently heavily edited in the theatrical cut, involves Billy impaling a woman on the antlers of a deer’s head hanging on a wall. Horror fans will recognize the antler victim as Linnea Quigley from such films as Return of the Living Dead, Pumkinhead II, and The Guyver. Otherwise it’s a lot of hammer-to-the-face, arrow-in-the-back, axe-to-the-neck 1980s horror staples. It’s not bad, but they didn’t run with the Christmas theme as much as they could’ve.
Silent Night, Deadly Night is one of those odd early-ish slasher movies that tries to take itself super seriously. I’m not opposed to that per se, but this movie spends a lot of time early on trying to establish Billy’s character only to immediately have him devolve into more or less your standard slasher villain. Also, making a good “serious” horror movie requires a fair amount of finesse that this movie just doesn’t have. The ultra-dramatic music and camera work at the ending are textbook examples of unintentional humor. Also, the violence in this movie is pretty lingering and uncomfortable at times. That’s kind of a staple of early slasher flicks, but it doesn’t work especially well here given the ludicrous subject matter. I’m not saying that this movie should’ve been a comedy or anything, but I think it might have been more enjoyable to watch if hadn’t tried quite so hard to be a brooding, serious film.
I’d also be curious to know the details of the filming schedule for this movie. See, even though it’s set at Christmas, there’s not much snow to be seen. In fact, in some sequences you can see that snow has been laid out in a fairly small area while yards and trees in the background are completely clear. It’s kind of an odd thing to note, but the unseasonal weather is something that always sticks out to me about this movie. The other special effects are pretty simple as well, though the antler murder is done nicely. For a sense of perspective, this movie came out the same year as Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, which has vastly better visuals (and, to be fair, twice the budget).
Silent Night, Deadly Night isn’t an easy movie to judge. It doesn’t approach the quality of genre classics like Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street, but it’s also head and shoulders above films such as Happy Birthday to Me or Sleepaway Camp. Like so many horror movies, this is kind of a case of personal taste. I kind of like it, but if someone were to walk up to me on the street and ask me to recommend a good Christmas horror film (Hey, it could happen.) I’d probably recommend Santa’s Slay over Silent Night, Deadly Night, as the former is just plain more fun to watch. Silent Night, Deadly Night is kind of interesting for the history behind it and it’s certainly not unwatchably bad…but it’s not necessarily easy to recommend either. Also, a remake of this flick, with the abbreviated title Silent Night, came out at the end of November…so there’s that.As I alluded to in an earlier post, most of the movie reviews I’d planned for December are instead getting the podcast treatment over at Joe’s Awesome and Tommy Hates Everything. The first two episodes of the 2012 Christmas special are already up, so go check it out.