‘Silent Night, Deadly Night’ (1984): Claus, kills & controversy

Ho Ho Hold the phone while I get my axe!

By Paul Mavis

On December 5th, Shout!’s Scream Factory line of horror Blu-rays is releasing a spiffed-up transfer of the notorious 1984 slasher flick, Silent Night, Deadly Night, directed by Charles E. Sellier, Jr. (Yes…that same Charles E. Sellier, Jr. from family-friendly Schick-Sunn Classic Films!). A real media event for a few weeks back in 1984 (thanks in no small part to self-important humorless boobs Siskel & Ebert), parents and teachers and politicians really got ticked off at the notion of a serial killer dressing up as Santa. However, within three short years when the sequel came out…nobody cared anymore. The corruption of Western civilization was complete!

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Maybe we’re on someone’s naughty list at Shout! (we ask for a review copy of this new release…we get a lump of coal and a cease and desist order), so while we say our prayers and wait for that disc to come down the Movies & Drinks office chimney, let’s revisit Anchor Bay’s Silent Night, Deadly Night: Christmas Survival Double Feature release from 2013, with also included 1987’s “Garbage Day!” sequel, Silent Night, Deadly Night: Part 2. It’s a festive treat for like their mayhem with a dash of Yuletide cheer.

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Little Billy Chapman (Jonathon Best) is not having a good Christmas. Left alone momentarily with his institutionalized, catatonic grandfather (Will Hare), Grandpa suddenly becomes lucid and tells a frightened Danny that Santa Claus punishes little children who have been naughty. On the ride back home, when Mom (Tara Buckman) and Dad (Jeff Hansen) try and reassure Billy about Santa, they don’t count on a savage killer (Charles Dierkop), dressed as Kris Kringle, waylaid on the side of the road. Foolishly stopping despite Billy’s dire warnings, “Killer” Santa zaps Dad, and almost rapes Mom before slitting her throat―all while baby brother Ricky screams and Billy watches from a ditch.

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Cut to Saint Mary’s Home for Orphaned Children, where 8-year-old Billy (Danny Wagner) likes to draw pictures of Santa being stabbed, with Rudolph’s head chopped off (ohhhhh-kay…). Kindly Sister Margaret (Gilmer McCormick) tries to help, but hardass Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin) knows the Devil when she sees it, and soon takes over whipping the sh*t out of Billy, in-between Billy seeing two hot teen orphans getting it on (which brings up uncomfortable Oedipal images of his mother being attacked), and decking visiting Santa’s balls when forced to sit on his lap. Cut to Billy as stud 18-year-old (Robert Brian Wilson), who’s given a job at a toy store (uh oh…) thanks to Sister Margaret’s efforts. Everything is Yule, even with cute co-worker Pamela (Toni Nero)…except for those sweaty dreams he has about making love to her (it makes him feel funny in his bathing suit area). Before you can say, “The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,” Santa rips her apart for being naughty and nice. Too bad boss Mr. Sims (Britt Leach) asks Billy to play in-store Santa; it pushes Billy over the psychological edge, and that’s when the slay ride really begins.

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I didn’t see Silent Night, Deadly Night during its brief 2-week first run in 1984. Having been a big fan of The Hills Have Eyes and Deadly Blessing, I instead picked Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street on it’s opening November 9th, 1984 night. Silent Night, Deadly Night actually beat out Nightmare in that weekend’s Top Ten b.o. gross, ticket sales helped in part, no doubt, from all the bleating of the critics and pundits (hey–want to get upset over something, S & E? Ask America why it made George Burns’ atrocious Oh, God! You Devil! the number one movie that weekend…).

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I did eventually see Silent Night, Deadly Night at a drive-in (the wonderfully creepy, run-down Butch Cassidy Drive-In!), where it worked perfectly, but anybody who was into movies back in ’84 remembers full-well the controversy that came with the movie’s initial bow. Partly a combination of the widespread rumor that Santa Claus himself was doing the murdering in the movie (I wonder who started that profitable little white lie?), and partly the screams of parents, teachers, and politicians horrified at the exploitation of the iconic holiday figure in service of a cheapjack slasher movie, Silent Night, Deadly Night‘s media frenzy was the talk of late 1984’s movie scene, with TriStar eventually yanking it from theaters prior to Christmas (director Sellier, Jr., in a 2003 audio interview, claims TriStar shut the release down due to possible negative impact on a forthcoming stock offering―not the critical protests).

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What’s amusing today (or depressing, depending on your Prozac dosage) is how tame Silent Night, Deadly Night seems, compared to the outright pornographic mayhem that is available on a daily basis in movies, television, and on the internet. As slasher films from that period go, Silent Night, Deadly Night is no more egregious in its violence and nudity than others that were out in theaters at the time; only the inclusion of the “big fat man with the long white beard” motif sets it apart for its critics. As to Silent Night, Deadly Night‘s controversy, one can always count on someone getting worked up over something in the popular culture (and today, with the narcotic speed of Twitter, Instagram, and FB, and the out-of-control SJW virtue signaling, nothing is safe from phony outrage somewhere).

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What has proved to be hypocritical about those writing today about Silent Night, Deadly Night‘s protestors is who is conveniently left out of the analysis: lefty critics like S & E. If you read about the controversy now, only morally out-of-touch, conservative limiters of artistic expression apparently hated it (notice how feminist and pro-gay groups that felt equally outraged at media/movie scandals like Cruising, Dressed to Kill, and Basic Instinct, are lauded for exercising their free-speech rights to protest…while their opposite numbers on the political spectrum–who are absolutely entitled to hate something like Silent Night, Deadly Night if it offends their conservative sensibilities–are labeled as intolerant throwbacks who should be silenced?).

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Despite the media’s calculated squeals of indignation and outrage, nobody likes these kinds of trumped-up controversies more than the studios and moviemakers (arrested adolescent Tarantino’s entire career of “homages” to movies made by genuine artists has been fueled by these media straw man fits). So I believe Sellier, Jr. when he stated TriStar was already happy with the money Silent Night, Deadly Night took in (more than three times its tiny budget), pulling it before it had the chance to impact much more serious money involved with the upcoming TriStar stock offering. Movie studios just can’t buy the kind of publicity Silent Night, Deadly Night generated during its brief East Coast run…and they would have taken every dime they could.

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Seen out of this controversial context almost 30 years later, Silent Night, Deadly Night holds up fairly well, no doubt thanks to director Sellier, Jr.’s straight-ahead approach to the material. For a genre that spawned countless low-budget entries more concerned with outrageous “kills” than the most basic narrative continuity, it’s not surprising Silent Night, Deadly Night plays as well as it does if you consider Sellier, Jr.’s producing, directing, and writing pedigrees. In those various capacities, he contributed memorable (and highly profitable) exploitation efforts such as In Search of Noah’s Ark, The Mysterious Monster, The Adventures of Frontier Freemont, The Lincoln Conspiracy, In Search of Historic Jesus, Beyond and Back, The Bermuda Triangle, Hangar 18, and television’s The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams (somebody…I’m waiting for that Schick-Sunn Classic boxed set…). In his audio interview included on this disc, Sellier, Jr. seems a bit embarrassed by his association with this notorious title, but I would imagine at the time he came to it quite openly, considering how profitable the genre was in the early-to-mid ’80s (perhaps he was still counting his nickels from his successful production of The Boogens just three years before).

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You might find fault in Michael Hickey’s script (from Paul Caimi’s Slayride story) with the ham-fisted 1940s Freudian underpinnings that cause little Billy to eventually crack, but there’s no getting around the fact that Sellier, Jr. puts the movie over with simple-yet-effective storytelling, even achieving an increasingly giddy tone for the sick-joke-loving viewer (like myself) who can’t quite believe how outrageously far Billy is pushed before he snaps (by the time Sellier, Jr. shows Billy being forced to put on the Santa suit and scaring the begeesus out of the little kids sitting on his lap, you could have added a laugh track and created the SCTV skit to end all SCTV holiday skits).

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There’s a poker-faced grimness to the pre-massacre scenes depicting Billy’s horrific childhood that reminded me less of Schick-Sunn and more of Charles B. Pierce’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown-kind of drive-in exploitation (I’m surprised Catholics didn’t protest this part of the movie, too), while the kills, necessary to the genre, are executed with the required brio (the deer antlers are a highlight). Nudity is of course on display, as genre convention also demands (how fine is scream queen Linnea Quigley? Uh…extremely), while the performances get the job done (old pros Chauvin and particularly Hare―an original member of the Actors Studio―really sell their turns here). Sure it’s sick to see someone dressed as Santa Claus commit mayhem (little girls Siskel and Ebert famously shouted about “blood money” when they reviewed Silent Night, Deadly Night―talk about hilarious overreaction), but since it’s not the real Santa…I think grownups can handle Silent Night, Deadly Night if they so choose.

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY.

The Edpionage Filmography by Paul Mavis

 

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