Synopsis: Traumatized by his parents’ Christmas Eve rape and murder, little Billy Chapman is brutalized by sadistic orphanage nuns. When a grown-up Billy is forced to dress as jolly St. Nick, he goes on a yuletide rampage to punish the naughty. Santa Claus is coming to town… and this time he’s got an axe! Robert Brian Wilson and Linnea Quigley star in this jaw-dropping horror hit that a nation of angry mothers still can’t stop!
eyelights: the opening sequence. the basic premise. Santa Claus as a bad @$$ psycho killer.
eyesores: the weak direction. the static staging. its lackluster performances. its inarticulate score.
‘Silent Night, Deadly Night’ is a 1984 psychological thriller of the slasher genre that tells the story of a severely traumatized young man who goes ape$#!t in a Santa Claus suit on Christmas night after an ill-advised first bender at his office party. It proved so controversial that it was pulled within two weeks of release, despite initially outperforming its competitor, ‘The Nightmare on Elm Street’.
But it was popular enough to spawn FOUR sequels and a remake.
You just can’t kill the Christmas spirit.
I knew absolutely nothing about this picture when I first picked it up (I think it may have been pre-Wikipedia) (kidding), but had been eyeing it ever since it was released as a double feature on DVD in 2003; there was something oddly appealing about a twisted spin on Santa Claus. Plus which a buddy of mine is a huge Christmas and b-movie fan, and this was the best of both worlds. It would serve as alternate programming.
What makes ‘Silent Night’ interesting is how much time it takes to set up Billy’s (its tortured villain) backstory. While most slasher films are just content to toss a dozen teenagers in a meat grinder, this picture wants us to understand what makes it tick before it allows Billy to go on a rampage. Oh, sure, it indulges in terrible pop psychology to contrive his descent into madness, but at least it makes an effort.
The first 20-something minutes of the picture consists of a two-part epilogue, beginning in 1971 with Billy, his younger brother Ricky, and their parents driving cross-country to go visit their maternal grandfather in a Utah Mental Facility for Christmas. This segment was reminiscent of National Lampoon’s ‘Vacation‘, what with the station wagon, the landscapes and the lengthy shots of them driving around.
Once at the facility, the seemingly catatonic old man is left alone with Billy, and proceeds to terrorize him by telling him that Santa punishes bad children, warning the young kid to run for his life. The parents have no clue, naturally, and they would pay for their ignorance later, as a gun-toting criminal dressed up as Santa Claus stops their car and proceeds to assault and murder them before Billy’s eyes.
Flash forward to 1974, and Billy and Ricky are now in an orphanage run by nuns. Billy is understandably troubled, especially around Christmas time, and Mother Superior is unrelenting in her abusive discipline of the poor kid. Her methods are unorthodox to say the least and he frequently gets punished for little reason. Between the strapping, being tied to his bed, and being forced to sit on Santa’s knee, he’s messed up.
The movie proper begins ten years later, by which time Billy is now a white-breaded blonde beefcake. His one ally at the orphanage has helped him land a gig at the local toy mart, Ira’s Toys. There he gets verbally abused by a colleague and he lusts after a cute cashier. This mixture of sex and psychological violence will collide when he is asked to fill in for the store’s Santa Claus in the lead-in to Christmas.
‘Silent Night, Deadly Night’ is not stellar film-making: the director doesn’t seem to know what to do with a camera to make shots interesting, the actors (with the exception of the ones in the 1971 segment) are of low caliber, the dialogues and character motivations are sometimes nonsensical, the violence is unimaginative and poorly-rendered and the sex is gratuitous. Even the ending is poorly staged and edited.
In essence, it’s your average ’80s slasher film.
Where it distinguishes itself is in the aforementioned backstory, its villainous Santa Claus carrying a double-axe and some of the performances. I was particularly taken with the youngest of the Billys, who was cute and expressive; he really made you want to like the character (Strangely, the second Billy looked nothing like him and was freakish -think a young Carrot Top- and the older one even less so, suddenly joining the Aryan race).
But, aside for these elements, there’s really nothing special about ‘Silent Night, Deadly Night’. It’s a guilty pleasure for some, but it’s really surprising that it inspired so many films in its wake. Perhaps its notoriety offered the promise of instant spotlight for future filmmakers, but there’s really very little to build on here. While it’s undoubtedly holiday season counter-programming, it’s also unremarkable.
Date of viewing: November 7, 2015