The 1980’s were an interesting time for the horror genre. It was the decade where the slasher film was king and a new one was cranked out on a pretty regular basis. Most of them were made on relatively cheap budgets, but they did big business at the box office, which meant big profits. However, not everyone relished in the success of the slasher film. In fact, most critics at the time hated and despised these films. Not only critics, but in some cases, parents became outraged.
After the success of films like Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980), the sub-genre of the ‘Holiday Slasher Film’ was born (although there were a few prior, these two films cemented the trend). Producers immediately searched their calendars for any holiday they could find to exploit at the box office. The end result were films like New Year’s Evil (1980), My Bloody Valentine (1981), April Fool’s Day (1986), Happy Birthday to Me (1981) and Graduation Day (1981) to name a few. While most of these were hit and miss in terms of quality, they were mostly ignored and brushed away by critics. Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), however would not be so lucky.
Wanting to get into the low budget, holiday, slasher business, Tri-Star Pictures decided to make a movie based on a story called Slayride, written by a friend of producer Ira R. Barmak. In fact, Slayride was the working title of the film until Tri-Star would change it to Silent Night, Deadly Night at the last minute. While this movie’s reputation would suggest its horror comes from the idea of a killer dressed as Santa Claus, it can be argued that there is something much deeper to be found if one bothers to look.
The film begins on Christmas Eve, 1971, where a five-year old Billy and his family, mom, dad and baby Ricky (more on him at a different time) are visiting catatonic grandpa at the Utah Mental Facility. While there, Billy is immediately traumatized by grandpa, who tells him that “Christmas Eve is the scariest damn night of the year,” and proceeds to explain how Santa Claus punishes all the naughty boys and girls. As scared as Billy is by this, things only become worse on the drive home when his family stops to help a stranded motorist dressed as Santa Claus. As luck would have it, this Santa happens to be an armed robber who proceeds to kill Billy’s father and rape and kill his mother as well, all in front of his young eyes.
Fast forward to 1974 and eight-year old Billy and his brother are living in an orphanage run by a strict and terrifying Mother Superior. We discover that Billy is totally an emotional wreck around Christmas time (big shocker), but Mother Superior feels her methods of enforcing heavy discipline and strict punishment for being naughty will set him straight. Clearly, she didn’t read the case file on this kid when he was dropped off at the orphanage.
Fast forward again, this time to 1984 and now we have a six-foot tall, muscular, eighteen-year old (who looks about twenty-five) Billy who, with the help of the kindly Sister Margaret, gets a job at a small toy store and attempts to lead a normal life. Everything is hunky dory with Billy until the yuletide season rears its ugly head. He develops a crush on one of his co-workers and begins having lustful thoughts that trigger his Santa Claus trauma as he fights the urge to be ‘naughty.’ To make matters worse, the store manager decides it would be a great idea to have Billy dress up as Santa Claus for the kids. Now, here’s the part where I have trouble. As nice and caring as Sister Margaret was towards Billy as he was growing up in the orphanage, why did it not occur to her to inform the manager at the toy store about Billy’s Christmas trauma? That seems like one hell of an oversight if you ask me. Anyway, the combination of wearing the Santa suit and the attempted rape of his crush by another co-worker causes Billy’s mind to snap. From this point forward, he goes on a rampage, punishing anyone who is naughty.
It’s from this point on that the film gets its bad reputation as we witness Billy, dressed as Santa Claus, murdering people in brutal ways. This film was protested by angry parents upon release and withdrawn from theaters within a week. Siskel & Ebert even made a point to bash the film on their show, listing the names of the crew and shaming them. Gene Siskel even called the films profits ‘blood money.’
So the question remains; does this film really deserve that reputation? A killer Santa Claus was nothing new to movie goers in 1984. In fact, just 4 years prior, in 1980, Christmas Evil was released and it had a very similar plot involving a child traumatized by, and then dressing as Santa Claus while killing those he felt were naughty. Even before that, in 1972, the British horror anthology film Tales from the Crypt included a segment called “…And All Through the House” featuring a homicidal maniac stalking Joan Collins, while dressed as Santa Claus. So what makes this film so different? Why was this film singled out while these other Christmas horror films seemed to get a pass?
A lot of the blame can probably be placed on the marketing campaign that focused heavily on a killer Santa. While it did create a buzz around the film, it wasn’t the kind of attention Tri-Star had intended. In the documentary, Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film (2006), Lilyan Chauvin, who played Mother Superior (by far the scariest thing in the movie) admits as much. She felt the focus should have been on the trauma that Billy went through rather than him as a killer Santa.
She makes a very valid point as throughout the film we’re witness to Billy going through one traumatic experience after another and usually in immediate succession. Nowhere in the film do we ever see anyone truly try to help Billy deal with his trauma. There is the aforementioned Sister Margaret, who does try to show Billy some kindness, but she is shot down at every turn by the strict Mother Superior. So instead, we see an unsympathetic Mother Superior try to beat and torture rehabilitation into Billy. She enforces the mindset in Billy that the naughty must be punished and in doing so, lays the groundwork for what will eventually lead to his mental break. So it can be argued that Mother Superior is as much the villain of the film and Billy is her helpless victim.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re putting way too much thought into a cheap, ‘80s slasher film. You’re probably right. In the end, that’s all it really is, right? It’s simply just another low budget, slasher film with gratuitous nudity and violence. Or is it possible, if you peel back the layers enough, that there’s something a little bit deeper at work here? Possibly a harsh lesson on how fragile the mind of a child can be, and how easily broken and distorted it can become under various degrees of physical and psychological abuse? Of course, it’s also quite possible the makers of this film were just trying to make a buck.
In the end, I don’t think Silent Night, Deadly Night deserved the harsh criticism it received in 1984. It’s actually not a bad movie and one of the better of the lower tiered slasher films of the decade. The acting is suspect and there is a good layer of cheese sprinkled throughout, but that’s part of its charm. It even began an unlikely franchise that lasted until 1991, consisting of four sequels, the second of which I’ll discuss at a later date. It was even the inspiration for an in-name-only, loose remake in 2012 called simply Silent Night.
So, do I recommend this film? Absolutely. If you’re looking for something different this holiday season, and you like a good slasher flick, give this one a look. You won’t be disappointed.