SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984)
Director: Charles E. Sellier Jr.
Every type of mass media has stirred some form of controversy. Books, television, music, video games, radio broadcasts... all of them have caused people to just lose their minds and indignantly go on the warpath. And motion pictures are no exception. Even something most people wouldn't give a second thought to can raise an incredibly huge uproar, as evidenced by the amount of people who complained about Tropic Thunder's use of the word "retarded." There've been so many movies that have stirred the pot like that, but no discussion of controversial movies would be complete without mentioning the 1984 cult classic Silent Night, Deadly Night. Though the movie has fallen into relative obscurity nowadays, screenings of it were regularly picketed by PTA members upon its release twenty-five years ago. It was publicly condemned by such notable critics as Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, and Leonard Maltin. Why such vitriol for the movie? Read on.
Our tale of yuletide horror begins appropriately enough on Christmas Eve, circa 1971. Five-year-old Billy Chapman (Jonathan Best) and his family are on the road, heading for a visit with Billy's grandfather (Will Hare). The catch? Grandpa Chapman is currently a resident of the Utah state mental hospital. Thusly, the old coot isn't exactly the best of company. He just kinda sits there staring off into space, not even acknowledging that anybody is even in the room with him. Eventually, Billy's parents step out of the room to discuss business with the hospital's proprietor, leaving Billy all alone with Grandpa. And wouldn't you know it, that's when he decides to snap out of his catatonia. And he doesn't just have a friendly conversation with Billy, no. Instead, he proceeds to frighten the everloving crap out of the poor child with tales of Santa Claus. According to Grandpa, ol' Saint Nick doesn't just reward the good kids with presents. No, he also punishes the naughty kids. He punishes them with lumps of coal in their stockings, not violence and death, right? But just as soon as Grandpa manages to warn Billy of Santa's punishing ways, Billy's parents return and Grandpa falls back into catatonia.
That night, the Chapman family starts making their way back home. But who do they cross paths with on their journey? Why, Santa Claus, of course! Turns out this particular Santa (Charles Dierkop) is having car trouble. And little do the Chapmans know that that Santa's also really, really crazy. When Billy's father (Jeff Hansen) pulls over to help, Santa shoots him dead, then drags his mother (Tara Buckman) out of the car and rapes her before slitting her throat. Though Billy watches the entire thing, he and his infant brother manage to survive. But don't worry, it's not like this will be anything to scar little Billy for life, right?
Billy and his brother are sent to Saint Mary's Orphanage, where three years pass. And in those three years, the eight-year-old Billy (Danny Wagner) has become a little bit of a freak. When asked to draw a Christmas picture, Billy cranks out an illustration of a decapitated reindeer and a Santa stuck full of knives. While the sympathetic Sister Margaret (Gilmer McCormick) rightly assumes that Billy could use psychological treatment to deal with the trauma of watching his parents die, the headmistress, Mother Superior (Lilyan Chapman), just thinks he's being weird for weird's sake. Billy is sent to his room as punishment, but when Sister Margaret allows Billy to leave to go play, he stumbles upon a couple having sex. Mother Superior stumbles across the whole thing and whips the couple with a belt, then whips Billy for having left his room, permission or not. She even ties Billy to his bed when he starts having nightmares about the murders.
One morning shortly thereafter, Billy awakens to find all the kids opening their Christmas presents. All goes well for a while, but then Mother Superior announces that Santa Claus will be visiting the orphanage. And come Hell or high water, she's going to make Billy cut through all the bullcrap and sit on Santa's lap. That Mother Superior is a progressive thinker, believing that if a child is haunted by the murder of his parents, then the only natural way to relieve him of those problems is to force the child into a confrontation with a man dressed exactly like the killer. That would totally make sense if it weren't for the fact that it's an incredibly bad idea. But it's that sort of logic that leads to one of the most glorious moments in the history of the horror genre. When Mother Superior forcefully deposits Billy onto Santa's lap, he struggles for a moment before popping Santa right in the face with the wildest haymaker I've ever seen. I thought seeing a character hide in a refrigerator in Madman was the craziest thing I'd ever seen in a slasher movie, but this comes close to topping it. But seriously, Mother Superior might have been onto something. Being beaten and forced to relive horrifying memories isn't anything that will scar Billy for life, right?
Let's fast forward another ten years, where the 18-year-old Billy (Robert Brian Wilson) has with a little help from Sister Margaret acquired a job at a local toy store. And for a few months, things go swimmingly. Billy enjoys his job, and he even finds a love interest in a coworker named Pamela (Toni Nero). But then the Christmas season rolls around and causes things to get weird. And as you've probably figured by now, Billy isn't exactly comfortable during the holidays. Just the thought of Santa Claus is enough to cause him to have nightmares and panic attacks. These are just the least of his worries, though. Why? His boss has drafted him to play the store's Santa. Uh-oh. If you watch Billy's face during the scene where he tries on the costume, you can actually pinpoint the exact moment that he starts down that slippery slope to Crazy Town.
But it's during the store's Christmas Eve festivities that things really start going nuts. Towards the end of the party, Billy ends up in the stockroom, where he discovers a coworker trying to rape Pamela. Reminded of that terrible night all those years ago, Billy goes completely off the deep end and strangles the would-be rapist with a string of Christmas lights. But instead of being grateful, Pamela just calls Billy crazy and smacks him. And that sort of naughtiness just won't do. He guts Pamela with a box cutter, and then makes short work of the rest of the store's employees after they discover what he's done. Armed with a fire axe and a renewed sense of purpose, Billy prowls the town's streets to punish all those he deems naughty.
As I said in the introduction, Silent Night, Deadly Night has been pretty much forgotten by mainstream audiences over the years. But for horror fans such as me, its notoriety remains. Even when I was an 11-year-old kid living in a world yet to witness the full-blown proliferation of the Internet, I had managed to hear about Silent Night, Deadly Night, and was both intrigued and frightened by the idea of it. I would see the old, beaten-up VHS box on my almost weekly visits to the local mom-and-pop video store, and I just knew that something horrifying was lying within it. Simply the picture of an axe-wielding Santa Claus climbing down a chimney was enough to send my mind racing with thoughts of what the movie could possibly be like. But I could never bring myself to rent it. For years it remained a movie I would hear about, yet never actually see. But now, two-and-a-half decades since its controversial and short-lived theatrical run, I finally saw the holiday horror movie that I first encountered offhandedly so many years ago. And it turns out that the movie wasn't as bad as I expected it to be.
In the director's chair is Charles E. Sellier, Jr., whose has spent the majority of his career producing documentaries and made-for-TV movies. After looking at his IMDB profile, he doesn't exactly have a very prolific résumé when it comes to being a director. But in watching Silent Night, Deadly Night, it's a bummer. Sellier could have made a few more slasher movies if he'd wanted to, and I wouldn't have complained. His work makes the movie a little bit sleazier, a little dirtier, and a little more provocative. Teaming with cinematographer Henning Schellerup, Sellier allows things to linger. It's all about drawing things out. Either scenes are drawn out before the payoff to amplify the tension, or we stay with the payoff, allowing it to sink in and really get a reaction out of the viewer. And with Schellerup's camerawork, it's successful. The only bad thing about the whole production is the music. Perry Botkin's score is inconsistent, alternating between moments of efficiency and moments where it sounds really generic. Really, it's like Botkins cribbed the music from every other independently-made slasher movie made between 1982 and 1986. And seriously, what's with the horrible Christmas songs composed specifically for the movie? Was there no money in the budget to license real Christmas music? Go watch the "Billy's getting his life together" montage, set to some cheesy song called "The Warm Side of the Door." It's like the theme song to some awful sitcom from the 70s. I would rather get stuck under the mistletoe with the wood chipper from Fargo than hear that song again.
Next is the screenplay, penned my Michael Hickey. Critiquing a slasher movie's writing often proves futile, because most of the time, the script isn't really all that important. They're basically, "Blah blah blah, a character dies. Blah blah blah, another character dies. Blah blah blah, sex scene, one more character dies. Repeat ad nauseam for eighty minutes. The killer is defeated, the end." And that works for pretty much every slasher movie. Even the bad ones can at least get the formula at least a little bit right. But Hickey does something different with Silent Night, Deadly Night. He actually takes the time to make us understand just why Billy is homicidal. Roughly half of the movie is dedicated to this, as we're privy to all of the torture and abuse both physical and psychological that Billy is forced to endure. He's almost the complete antithesis of Batman; both watched the murder of their parents, but while Bruce Wayne used that pain to become a hero, Billy's childhood trauma inadvertently molded into the thing he had feared the most. This sort of look into the killer's psychology really sets Silent Night, Deadly Night apart from other slasher movies, creating a murderer that is (dare I say it?) sympathetic. He isn't the typical "I didn't get invited to the school dance, so you've all gotta die" type of killer, because it's actually somewhat realistic.
Last on my list is the movie's cast. I know you're probably thinking that a critique of the acting in a slasher movie could be a blanket statement like, "All the actors sucked. It's no wonder they're still nobodies." But doing that would be a great disservice to the good performances that some of Silent Night, Deadly Night's actors put forth. Granted, the most of the cast is disposable, as is the case with most movies within this genre. But the major players, the actors who really count, are worth watching. Perhaps the best performance comes from Lilyan Chauvin. She has over 120 credits on her IMDB profile, but I'm willing to bet that none of them are quite like Silent Night, Deadly Night. Chauvin's performance is a believable one. She is so mean, so scary, so domineering, that it's almost enough to make me afraid of nuns as a whole. Chauvin plays the role as such an evil bitch that you can't refrain from absolutely hating her guts. You almost want Billy to skip all of the other victims dictated by the script and go straight for her. Her performance is that effective.
Another effective performance comes from Will Hare. Sure, his total screen time is limited to one three-minute scene at the beginning of the movie. But his character is an important one, and his work here as the crazy old codger that serves as the first catalyst for Billy's fear of Santa Claus is entertaining. It's a wacky three minutes, no doubt about it. I also liked Gilmer McCormick as Sister Margaret, the one nun from the orphanage who sees all the warning signs ahead of time. Any 80s slasher movie worth their salt featured some variation of a prophet of doom, and in that role, McCormick shines. She is quite likeable in the role, and you almost feel bad that nobody listens to her until it's too late. Then again, if anyone had listened to her, we wouldn't have had much of a movie.
The final actors I will mention here are the three who play the movie's main character in the various stages of his life. Jonathan Best is okay as the five-year-old Billy, but not a whole lot is asked of him, other than to stand around and look precocious. Next is Danny Wagner, the eight-year-old Billy. The kid looks absolutely nothing like Best, instead looking more like the kid that played Oliver in the Problem Child movies. But once you get over it, it's not that much of a problem. Besides, Wagner is sporting a rockin' mullet, which is endearing all on its own. He is convincing, I'll give him that. Lastly is the version of Billy we're all here to see, Robert Brian Wilson. Wilson does a very good job in the role, making you sympathetic for him at first. He maintains that sympathy to a lesser degree once he turns homicidal, because after a while, you're too busy being afraid of him to feel sorry for him. Seriously, that scene where he's stalking a victim and starts reciting "The Night Before Christmas" in this totally-detached-from-reality kind of voice? That was some creepy stuff, man.
Most keyed-in horror fans know that Silent Night, Deadly Night is not the first horror movie to use Christmas as its backdrop. It wasn't even the first one to feature a villain dressed like Santa Claus, thanks to movies like Tales from the Crypt in 1972 and Christmas Evil in 1980. But with the notable exception of Bob Clark's Black Christmas, it's probably the most famous Christmas-themed horror movie. It's also probably the most tasteless and mean-spirited horror movie this side of Eli Roth's Hostel movies. There's guys in Santa costumes killing people, two attempted rapes that end in murder, and a kid being beaten by a nun for no other reason than because the nun's a stone cold bitch. Yeah, I can kinda understand why the PTA might have been a wee bit upset. But as a horror movie, Silent Night, Deadly Night works. I'm not going to sit here and say that the movie is actually good. But I will tell you that if you're not easily offended, it just might be right up your alley. So in my honest opinion, I'm going to give it three stars and tell the horror fans reading this to go check it out. Leonard Maltin wrote in his review of Silent Night, Deadly Night: "What next, the Easter Bunny as a child molester?" He says that like it would be a bad thing.
Final Rating: ***