The Film: Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
The Principals: Robert Brian Wilson, Lilyan Chauvin, Gilmer McCormick, Toni Nero, Britt Leach, Linnea Quigley, Tara Buckman. Directed by Charles E. Sellier Jr.
The Premise: Little Billy’s grandpa’s foreboding warning about Santa Claus comes true when his parents are killed by a Santa suit-clad convenience store robber on Christmas Eve. Billy grows up in an orphanage under the care of the cold-hearted Mother Superior (Chauvin), who teaches Billy that anyone who sins—be it bullying, cruelty to others or of course, premarital sex—is “naughty” and grounds for punishment.
Years later, when the grown Billy (Wilson) is forced to play Santa at the toy store he works at, he snaps, leaving a trail of bodies behind him. Can he be stopped? Can the kindly Sister Margaret (McCormick) find a way to see into his psychotic heart?
Is It Good? About as subtle as an axe to the chest in its attempt to smash yuletide cheer into pieces, Silent Night, Deadly Night is arguably one of the most tasteless films of all time based on the controversy it accrued alone. Politically incorrect to the highest power and sadistic in the way it carries out shock value, Charles E. Sellier Jr.’s magnum opus is a wildly inept train wreck of a horror film that treats its protagonist’s psychological descent by fear of Santa Claus without a lick of irony or compassion. As a whole—structurally, aesthetically, acting-wise—it bears to wonder that given how wretched a Christmas slasher like this was the product of $1 million in 1984 dollars, were those angry parents and critics on to something?
All due respect to anyone that holds high moral standards on their entertainment and art, I disagree with all that uproar-mongering sentiment. Silent Night, Deadly Night is an inverted masterwork of ineptitude that delivers on a grand account of political incorrectness and unintentional comedy. For starters, the backstory of the killer is that he is afraid of Santa Claus. Not that I would like to trivialize the strong possibility that some children (and adults) may share the same fear of St. Nick, but making a horror film based around that is grounds for immediate ridicule from filmgoers of all walks.
Look, I was petrified of Chucky as a kid. Traumatically, hopelessly, sickeningly scared of that ginger cocksucker. I never even brought myself to see Child’s Play until about two years ago, and I still haven’t seen the sequels. Why? Because it’s a regressed but still active point of terror in my mind from all those times in the video store. If any form of poster or home video art of Child’s Play 3 ever rears its head out of nowhere physically or digitally, the worst diaphragm reflex ever happens to me. The point of this anecdote is to illustrate that you, the reader, are probably smiling or laughing at this right now. Therefore, any kind of genre or dramatic work about my fear of Brad Dourif in My Buddy form will ever have the same effect as a film as it does in real life. This, my friends, is the exact reason why Silent Night, Deadly Night does not work.
As comedy, however, it works gangbusters. Effectively, the film is structured as The Three Christmases of Billy Chapman (that’s the subtitle of the film for its Criterion Collection release if and when it happens), telling young Billy’s rise from devastated, doe-eyed five-year-old in 1971 to the 18-year-old homicidal Santa Claus he evolves into in 1984. From the moment the title screen where “Silent Night” and a wreath approach the screen in slow motion—only for there to be a shattering effect and “Deadly Night” appears in red, paint-looking font as if this is some kind of horror movie for kids—we know there’s going to be shit going down. We’re continually reminded throughout the years that being “naughty” is a sin, whether as a dealbreaker for getting toys from Santa Claus or as grounds for punishment by nuns or horrible death. This is the kind of idea the film has about recurring themes, and whether I would call this brilliant or moronically on the nose, I don’t know. Hell, call it a combination of the two.
We begin in the first traumatic Christmas, on December 24, 1971, when Billy goes with his baby brother and parents (his mother of whom is Tara Buckman, the blonde in the Lamborghini from The Cannonball Run) to visit his catatonic grandfather (Will Hare, who later saw better days as Otis Peabody in Back to the Future) at the state mental ward. Christmas Eve is a time for family, sure, but to drive out to the isolated loony bin in the middle of nowhere? Whew. Even worse, Grandpa doesn’t talk until he’s left alone with Billy, and he relays his foreboding warning about how terrible Christmas Eve is if you’re naughty.
Exactly why do they leave him alone with Grandpa? Why does he choose that one moment to speak, and why that? It’s those kind of painfully frustrating questions this film mind-fucks with you trying to answer.
Meanwhile, on their way home, a psycho Santa has been ripped off in a brutal convenience store robbery (“Thirty-one dollars? Merry FUCKING Christmas!”). Unfortunately, Billy’s parents don’t heed to his newly acquired Santa Claus fears in time for the loco Santa to kill Billy’s parents. Once afraid of Santa Claus… always afraid of Santa Claus.
That all comes to fruition three years later, in 1974, where Billy—now eight and christened with My First Mullet—lives under the scrutiny of an abusive Mother Superior. Mother Superior is arguably the villain of the film, her psychotic abuse of the psychologically scarred Billy further pushing him towards the brink of insanity. It’s the caring Sister Margaret, second in command of the nuns, who is convinced that Billy’s past is responsible for him being a troublemaker. This dispute of understanding is put to the test when his Darian Hallenbeck-like rendition of a brutally murdered Santa and reindeer get him sent to his room.
Like any kid, Billy doesn’t take shit from time-outs, so he goes wandering down the hall and gets an eyeful of mid-coitus teens. I’m assuming they were sidelined at the orphanage by community service, but this lustful encounter recalls the way the psycho Santa straddled his mom and tore her blouse open. Mother Superior catches him, then punishes him for spying on them (and smacks the dude’s ass with her belt). As if that wasn’t enough masochistic infliction on the kid, he has a bad dream that results in him being tied to the bedpost. On Christmas morning, a screaming and crying Billy is forced to confront his big fear. Against Mother Superior’s wishes that he stay prim and respectful for this rare example (to Billy) of a kindly Santa Claus, what does Billy do? He punches him in the face, like any kid with bottled-up rage would. Kid was like the Freddie Quell of his time, man.
After this grueling ordeal of his childhood, we finally reach where the bulk of the film happens—the present day Christmas, 1984. Billy has bulked up into looking like William Zabka’s strapping young brother, and his strength pays off in the form of getting a stock boy job at the local toy store. Of the entire film, the toy store segment is my favorite part of the film. Perhaps it’s the forced saccharine montage of Billy’s joyous redemption through helping kids get the toys they want, featuring a cameo appearance by a stack of Kenner Return of the Jedi Jabba the Hutt playsets and accompanied by the hilarious “Warm Side of the Door” song. Perhaps it’s the fact that Billy’s boss in the stock room is an asshole who looks like a taller, more handsome Joe Pesci and freely pours Styrofoam cups of J&B on the job.
Billy’s stint at Ira’s Toys is the turning point of the film, where a problem with an absent employee and an all-female temp agency results in Billy having to play Santa at the store on Christmas Eve. He obliges, and the parents think he’s great with kids—even though he threateningly tells kids they’ll be punished as they fidget on his lap. Seriously, the parents kept a blind eye to the fact that he talked like the Night Slasher from Cobra towards that poor girl he talks to? He makes Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa look like a nice guy. The real fun, however, starts up once the customers are out of the store:
That’s Ira, Billy’s boss, who gets so hammered that he doesn’t realize that his stock manager is about to rape one of his employees, and his stock boy/replacement Santa is about to start on his ultimate killing spree! It’s here that the novelty deaths start piling on—Christmas light strangulation, box cutter gutting, hammerclaw to the head—before the last survivor gets taken out with a bow and arrow. A bow and arrow. In a toy store. It’s not like they could have had Nerf toys there, right? It’s less a deus ex machina for a cool kill than it is they just wanted to turn a cheat code on in a video game and be able to use the bow and arrow.
Once he breaks free from the store, all hell breaks loose as Billy goes cruising around down decapitating sled-stealing bullies, impaling a young, hot and topless Linnea Quigley (okay, that wasn’t necessary) on a deer head, and giving a girl a box cutter for Christmas. Meanwhile, he’s on the tail of the evil nun and the cops have poor judgment of what Santa Claus to get to.
I am not ashamed of loving this movie to pieces. It only helps that watching the sequel enables me to experience a “greatest hits” compilation of the original with the bonus of more insanity from Billy’s equally demented brother, Ricky.
Garbage day, everybody!
Is It Worth a Look? Is water wet?
Random Anecdotes: Mickey Rooney was among the more famous protesters of the film—only to appear in the franchise’s fifth installment!
Tri-Star Pictures originally distributed the film but dropped it once all the backlash got back to them.
Back in 1984, Siskel & Ebert unleashed their contempt on the film by uttering “shame, shame, shame” after every name involved with the production was read off by the critics:
Back in 2005, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, respectively, played Grandpa and Billy in a reenactment of the infamous scene at the 6th Annual Quentin Tarantino Film Festival.
Cinematic Soulmates: Silent Night, Deadly Night: Part 2, Silent Night (2012), Bad Santa, Christmas Evil, the Halloween and Friday the 13th series