It’s December and that can only mean one thing: A Silent Night, Deadly Night marathon!
Hey, you have your traditions and I have mine.
The Silent Night, Deadly Night series is one of those slasher franchises of the ‘80s that falls somewhere in the middle when it comes to notoriety. It’ll never be one of the big dogs like Friday the 13th or Halloween or A Nightmare on Elm Street, but it still rates higher than say Prom Night or Slumber Party Massacre. It hits that grey area alongside Sleepaway Camp where it managed to score a lot of sequels and grow a dedicated fanbase, but not a whole lot of mainstream appeal. Still, it helps fill out the calendar if you’re one of those horror fans that lives their life by the “slasher film for every season” standard. And anyway, there are far more loathsome ways to squander your holiday season. Like caroling.
After visiting his creepy grandfather in the insane asylum on Christmas Eve, young Billy (Danny Wagner) learns that Santa Claus doesn’t just bring toys to the good kids; he violently punishes the naughty ones, too. And hey, what’re the odds? On the drive back, Billy’s parents get graphically raped and murdered by a criminal in a Santa outfit. Billy is then thrown into a brutal Catholic orphanage where the cruel Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin) beats him every time he does something “naughty”. Years pass and Billy grows into a seemingly normal young man of prodigious strength (Robert Brian Wilson). However, after being forced to dress as a toy store Santa by his new boss, Billy finally snaps and goes on a rampage; slaughtering all those he deems “naughty”.
While Silent Night, Deadly Night is more than a little tame by today’s Saw and Hostel soaked standards, it raised a considerable fuss in 1984 when it was released. Parents were outraged by a horror film spoiling the innocence of Christmas and even film critic Roger Ebert (who ran a notorious anti-slasher campaign in the ‘80s) rallied against the movie. A little strange, considering Amicus’s Tales from the Crypt featured a killer Santa back in 1972 and Black Christmas had further tainted the yuletide spirit in 1974. But who has time to do research? We’re angry NOW!
It’s all pretty silly in retrospect and the Anchor Bay DVD release even comes with a payload of vintage, authentic letters mailed in by furious parents and watchdog groups offended by the movie. They’re hilarious reading for a couple of minutes, but prove exasperating after a few minutes more. A cute and unorthodox bonus feature, either way.
I don’t see what the big problem is here. Looks pretty wholesome to me.
Disregarding the controversy that helped to publicize Silent Night, Deadly Night and garner it more fame than any advertising campaign could have dreamed of, the movie is actually more than your typical ‘80s slasherfest. The first half hour of the film is dedicated to Billy’s childhood and assembling the crippling psychosis that would eventually lead to him snapping like Santa’s whip on Blitzen’s rump. It’s basically one horrible trauma after another as the poor tyke can’t catch a break. My favorite moment is when Billy visits his Grandfather (Will Hare), who comes out of a coma just long enough to tell the kid that Santa’s gonna kill him. It’s one of the genuinely creepier moments of the movie, though kind of funny at the same time.
The first half hour of Silent Night, Deadly Night seemed like what Rob Zombie was trying to channel with the first half of his Halloween remake in 2007, albeit failing miserably in his attempt. Writers Paul Caimi and Michael Hickey, along with Director Charles Sellier, dedicate this portion of the movie to authenticating Billy’s origin, which they really didn’t *have* to do. As long as the movie featured a guy in a Santa suit slaughtering half naked teens, I don’t think the audience would have cared if Billy’s transition to axe-wielding maniac felt authentic or not. So for that extra exertion of effort, “Silent Night, Deadly Night” elevates itself above the forgettable glut of holiday-themed slasher competition that saturated the ‘80s.
The kills are all pretty good, though you might be disappointed that few of them really feel all that… Christmas-y. Billy strangles one guy with a string of Christmas lights and impales Linnea Quigley on the antlers of a reindeer trophy (you can tell its Linnea Quigley because she refuses to put a shirt on even when she’s standing on her front porch). Beyond that, though, most of the killings are unrelated to the holiday theme, as Billy axes people, arrows people, box-cutters people, hammer claws people and throws one dude throw a glass window (while doing Quigley on a pool table, he makes a “two ball in the corner pocket” joke, so he deserved it). My favorite kill in the film involves the bully on the sled, who gets clothes-lined with Billy’s axe blade. The reaction of his friend at the bottom of the hill, when the sled carrying his headless corpse comes sliding down, is just priceless.
The Anchor Bay DVD release restores all the cut footage from the film and you’d be surprised at how much gore hit the editing room floor. I grew up on HBO showings of the original R-rated cut, so I was really shocked at all the cool stuff I’d been missing. Anchor Bay was forced to use a grainy, unkempt copy for the restored footage, so whenever a “new” scene appears, the picture quality drops. It might be a little distracting at first, but it’s actually a good way of showing you just what was cut and what wasn’t when watching the film. Some really great shots of Quigley impaled on the reindeer trophy or the headless corpse in the sled were axed by the censors in the 80s and their restoration genuinely improves the movie, not just in terms of gratuitous gore but in setting the mood, too.
To try and stay ahead of the game and keep things fresh, the Silent Night, Deadly Night franchise would only proceed to get weirder and weirder with each sequel. One installment even ditches the killer Santa motif while another tries to capitalize on the Child’s Play phenomenon by including killer toys. None are as good as the original, however, and it always makes for a heartwarming Christmas Eve tradition. Toss it in your DVD player along with Black Christmas and Jack Frost: Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman as a surefire cure for the saccharine false-sentiment of the Holiday season.
And come back later, as I’ll be reviewing all the remaining sequels over the course of December! Next up: That shitty clip movie.