To preface this review, I aim to relate it’s history to the casual viewer and put in context the climate to which this film was received. After the success of John Carpenter’s “Halloween” followed by Sean S. Cunningham’s “Friday the 13th”, there was a huge increase in holiday based slasher films based on their profitability. In the 1980’s, this trend in horror gave rise to one of the most infamous horror films of all time: “Silent Night, Deadly Night”.
The controversy wasn’t the gore, the profanity, it was that the killer was dressed as Santa! Arriving just in time for the holiday season in 1984, the film sent mothers across America into a fury after their children were traumatized by the preview of the film showing “Santa Claus” murdering people.
Their outrage can be understandable to an extent as I’m sure families across the U.S. that sat down to watch “The Cosby Show” were genuinely shocked and appalled at having their children terrified by a commercial of Santa Claus using an ax to murder people.
The film centers on the troubled young Billy Chapman. On Christmas Eve of 1971, Billy and his infant brother Ricky are taken by their parents to see their comatose grandfather in the mental hospital. The parents leave Billy alone in the room with Grandpa (Will Hare from “Back to the Future”) while they go to discuss an issue with the doctor. While they are out of the room, the film gives us it’s first (of many) “HOLY SHIT! What the fuck were they thinking?” moments as Granpa comes to life to warn Billy that Santa comes not to bring presents, but to punish naughty children. He warns Billy “If you see Santa, you better RUN for your LIFE!”. After scarring Billy for life, the sneaky son of a bitch goes back into his comatose state just as the adults return to the room.
Needless to say, Billy wants nothing to do with Santa at all. Screw the presents, Billy wants to live! As they leave granpa, the film cuts to a man dressed as Santa entering a convent store to get a pack of smokes. He seems affable enough, cracking a joke with the register jockey. Unfortunately, THIS SANTA’S CRAZY, and shoots the attendant to death! Santa just KILLED a man for $31! It doesn’t seem like Santa needs the money as he is driving a very nice red muscle car, though it is probable it is also stolen. Needless to say, these two plot points are about to crash hard like cars do in front of my house at the intersection. Billy, the recently terrified, informs his family that they are all going to be punished for being “naughty” by Santa Clause. He asks his MILF mom if she had ever done anything naughty. With a mischievous smile she says “Once or twice”, making Billy want to see Santa even less. While his parents try to calm him down, they come across a man whose car is broken down on the side of the road. Unfortunately for the Chapmans’, this is the killer from earlier. Despite Billy’s protests, Mr. Chapman stops to help Old Saint Dickhead out, and ends up getting shot in the head for his troubles.
Billy runs out of the car and hides in the underbrush by the road while his mother has her blouse ripped open, exposing her bra less chest (I guess she really was naughty!!). She is murdered by having her throat silt in front of Billy’s eyes by Santa while baby brother Ricky lays in the back of the car crying.
Flash forward to three years to Billy and Ricky’s new home, Sister Mary’s Home for Orphaned Children. Under the guidance of Mother Superior (played by the amazing Lilyan Chauvin) the children are getting ready for the Christmas festivities. During his time at the orphanage Billy is given a very ineffective guardian angel in the guise of the young Sister Margaret. It is rumored that Billy has repressed and forgotten his parents murder, but Margaret realizes that the memories are all still there. Unfortunately, Mother Superior overrules these objections though it is quite obvious that Margaret is dead on the money.
One look at his Christmas drawing which shows a murdered reindeer and Santa in front of a Christmas tree shows this boy has got some issues. Mother Superior is one mean ass old bitch and treats Billy’s psychological trauma as something that can be cured by beating it out of him. Her motto “Punishment is good. Punishment is absolute” is another mental scar Billy will be left with. This part of the film is perhaps the most cruel as it has the poor kid being psychologically tortured and let down by what is supposed to be his caretakers. This act of the film ends with Billy cowering in the corner of his room after an encounter in which Mother Superior trying to force Billy to sit on Santa’s lap which he responds to by decking the Clause with his right hand of folly. There is no Christmas cheer to be had as Mother Superiors shadow looms over a distraught Billy. Flash forward to present day 1984. Sister Margaret helps Billy get a job at Ira’s Toy Store. Billy has grown up in to a strong and able bodied young man, seemingly ok, if a bit dopey. We are treated to a musical montage of a song called “Warm Side of the Door” as we see Billy being a hard working, honest, and diligent young man. When offered an alcoholic beverage by his supervisor while on break, Billy smiles and raises up his milk carton. Drinking that milk will give Billy the strength he needs later when he kills the supervisor by hanging him with Christmas lights in the air with one hand. But as for now all is well. All is well until….Christmas time! The Santa they have in the store happens to be in a skiing accident and thus Billy is forced to don the red suit. You can tell he is going to snap at any second. As a little girl cries on his lap he whispers to her “Stop. Be good. If you are naughty you will be PUNISHED”. The girl complies and the parents are impressed at this Santa’s ability to calm the fear of their young ones. Ok, so you’ve already seen this movie, or if you haven’t, you can see where this is going. Billy’s trauma and psychological hang ups toward Kris Kringle dealing out bad karma to the naughty mixed in with Mother Superiors mantra on punishment causes Billy to finally snap. He kills all of his co-workers in the store after witnessing their naughty behavior. I watched this movie in sixth grade by suckering my dad into renting in for me. my mother walked in on the movie during this time and was not amused. She yelled at my father “Jimmy this movie is sick! He is killing all these people in different ways!”. Billy from here on out goes on a yuletide rampage making the bodies hit the floor in death sequences that push the limits of bad taste. Even 80’s scream queen Linnea (Trash from “Return of the Living Dead”) Quigley is not to be spared, though then again, when is she ever? All of Billy’s carnage leads up to him coming back to St. Mary’s orphanage on Christmas Day, ready to deal out some very overdue punishment to Mother Superior. Sadly, our anti-hero is stopped by a policeman just as he is about to slice that old mean bitches head off. He falls down to the ground, his ax laying in front of his younger brother Ricky. Ricky realizes what his destiny is and we end the film with him looking at the policeman and saying “NAUGHTY!”.
Needless to say the film more than earns it’s reputation as one of the most vile slasher films ever. Yes, there are more gory films made during this time (i.e.: Maniac, The Prowler) that focus more on trying to shock the audience by subjecting them to gratuitous violence. Most people do not give credit to “Silent Night, Deadly Night” for actually taking the time to tell a story. The disturbing nature of the film comes from Billy watching his family get murdered. It’s a very gritty and dark scene that we all know too well can actually happen. “Silent Night, Deadly Night” takes the time to develop the pathos of it’s anti-hero so while we don’t condone all of his actions we still sympathize with him throughout. The true villain of the film is Mother Superior, the one who could have truly helped Billy if she weren’t so hung up on the necessity and purity of punishment. Acting wise, the film really isn’t that bad especially for the genre and time period in which it was made. These merits of the film have been largely overshadowed by it’s more sensationalistic elements. The film trailer itself choose to focus on showing a killer Santa rather than providing the viewer with a synopsis of the actual plot.
Watching this film some twenty years later I have to say the movie still packs quite a nasty punch and is more than deserving of it’s infamy. “Silent Night, Deadly Night” was not the first Christmas themed horror movie nor would it be the last. Previous to it were the slashers “Silent Night, Bloody Night” and also Bob (A Christmas Story) Clark’s masterpiece “Black Christmas”. Though they are both well worth watching as well taking place during the holiday season, neither of these films had the bad taste to put their killer in a Santa outfit. “Christmas Evil”, made in 1980, was the first film to feature a killer in a Santa outfit but it was not widely released and faded into public domain obscurity where as “Silent Night, Deadly Night” was released nationwide. It’s ad campaign arrived during the holiday season and was as welcomed as a KKK member at a summit for racial equality. The image of Santa’s hand holding an ax was so effective at eliciting the shocked response the filmmakers were aiming for, but, this turned out to be a double edged sword as the outcry of angry mothers would cause Tri-Star Pictures to pull the film from theaters shortly after it’s release. Mickey Rooney even weighed in his opinion against the film in a letter to Tri Star Pictures which can be found as an extra on it’s DVD release. Director Charles E. Sellier Jr. would later apologize for having made the film. Siskel and Ebert lambasted the film in their televised review and went so far as to read each name of the cast and say “Shame. Shame. Shame”.
Though it doomed the film financially, it’s infamy would cause it to become an instant cult classic among hardcore horror fans and a yule-tide favorite for this reviewer. . “Silent Night, Deadly Night” was followed by four sequels. The second film’s run time is comprised of close to only 30 minutes of new footage, the rest being a flashback to the first. It does let Ricky kill Mother Superior, and has the classic “Garbage Day!” line which has become an internet meme sensation. Part three stars Bill (The Devil’s Rejects, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) Moseley as Ricky terrorizing a young Laura (Mulholland Dr.) Harring and is probably the most mainstream of the series. Part four is a bizarre film focused on a cult and was directed by Bran (Bride of Re-Animator) Yuzna that is completely unrelated to the previous entries. Part five is also completely unrelated to the first three series entries. It’s plot concerns an evil toymaker whose creations kill people. In a ironic turn, outspoken protester of the first film Mickey Rooney would star in this entry.
In 2007 there was news that a remake of “Silent Night, Deadly Night” was underway but no news has since surfaced. Authors Edit 12/20/2016: The remake has since come out.
So, this holiday season when you look into the black, soulless eyes of a department store Santa, remember to tell your children or young loved ones in the family the true meaning of Christmas is not peace on Earth or good will to men. The true meaning of Christmas is PUNISHMENT!
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