You'd Better Watch Out
Although little-remembered today except by horror aficionados, it’s difficult to overstate the uproar that the 1984 holiday slasher Silent Night, Deadly Night caused upon its initial release. Although it may sound quaint to us in 2012, the idea of a splatter film released around Christmas where a Santa-suited killer dispatches victims with axes, guns and yes, even reindeer antlers, was considered simply beyond the pale by the public and media at the time. Parents picketed, theaters were bombarded with hate mail, and film critics fell into conniptions attempting to describe their disgust. “Silent Night, Deadly Night is a sleazy, miserable, insulting piece of garbage,” bemoaned one critic in Cleveland, while the L.A. Weekly asked: “What quality of diseased mind does it take to perpetrate this hideous concept on the public?”
Many of the complaints centered around the film’s TV ads, which showed a homicidal Santa axing his way into homes and blasting victims with a .45 while an ominous voice warned, “Remember, he only looks like Santa.” Parents complained that their children were seeing the ads and then running in fear from Santas in malls and department stores. The outrage culminated in a notorious review by Siskel & Ebert where Gene Siskel made a point to single out the producers and production companies by name and scold, “Shame on you.”
Indeed, the anger over the film was so intense that it ended up getting pulled from theaters after only two weeks. Still, in those two weeks it managed to gross $2.5 million, and even pulled a higher opening-weekend total than A Nightmare On Elm Street, which opened the same day. By 1985, Variety was reporting that it had been “banned permanently from domestic exhibition during the Christmas season,” and the UK banned it altogether.
Coming as it did during the slasher film glut of the mid-‘80s, there were people voicing concerns that the holidays might never be the same, that Silent Night, Deadly Night was in danger of irrevocably tainting the season for everyone, that the Christmas spirit itself might never be the same as a result. (Of course, most of the people complaining had apparently missed the release of 1980’s similarly-themed Christmas Evil, which came and went without causing any irreparable harm to Christmas as we know it.)
So what was all the fuss about? What film could possibly be so shocking? This holiday season, audiences will finally have another chance to find out. After years of languishing in out-of-print obscurity, Silent Night, Deadly Night and its much-maligned sequel are being rereleased in an extras-packed double disc DVD set. The original film even contains some newly-discovered, never-before-seen deleted footage.
Filmed on a shoestring budget in Utah by a director best known for The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, the plot concerns little Billy Chapman, who hears his senile grandfather deliver a demented lecture on Christmas Eve about the evils of Santa Claus and his lust to punish bad children in addition to rewarding good children. Then, in an amazing only-in-a-horror-movie coincidence, on the drive back from the nursing home Billy’s mother and father just happen to be brutally murdered in front of his eyes by a man in a Santa suit. Billy escapes and winds up in an orphanage run by cruel nuns, saddled with an understandable queasy feeling when it comes to anything resembling holiday cheer or jolly old elves.
Flash forward a decade or so, and when it’s time for Billy to leave the orphanage and start his life in the outside world the only job he can find is—wouldn’t you know it?—in a toy store around Christmas. When the store’s Santa impersonator calls in sick one day and Billy is drafted to take over for him, the mental strain of dressing up like his greatest fear is enough to set him off, and by the end of the night he’s embarked on a red-suited killing spree that finds him strangling victims with strands of Christmas lights and impaling them on the aforementioned reindeer antlers, among other seasonally-appropriate methods.
In case it’s not obvious, this is not a masterwork of cinematic technique—a lot closer to Tommy Wiseau than Wes Craven. Many of the line readings seem like they’d be more at home in a school play than a major motion picture, and there are multiple unintentionally-hilarious scenes where a murder victim’s bloodcurdling screams are unheard or ignored by characters standing only 10-15 feet away. But for genre fans, there’s a certain appeal to the homespun “let’s put on a show!” aspect of low-budget affairs like this.
So was it worth all the controversy? Of course not. While it’s packed with its fair share of beheadings and bloody dismemberments, viewers who take the controversy at face value and go in expecting a tinsel-draped version of Cannibal Holocaust won’t find it here. It’s no more gory than any other typical 80s slasher fare, but whether or not that’s a plus or a minus is up to the viewer. If you’re a Fulci-worshipping extremophile looking to cross off another entry on your checklist of Cinema’s Greatest Shocks, then you’re likely to be disappointed. But if you’re a connoisseur of low-budget 80s drive-in fare with lots of red corn syrup and quotable one-liners, Silent Night, Deadly Night holds up great as a piece of classic genre schlock. It’s a perfect movie to enjoy as a means of blowing off some holiday stress, ideally along with some spiked nog and a few friends with a sick sense of humor.
Also included in the set is the infamous 1987 sequel Silent Night, Deadly Night 2, which was criticized for far different reasons than its predecessor. At the time of its release it was lambasted by critics and audiences not for any controversial content, but for the fact that half of its 88-minute running time simply consists of footage from the original Silent Night, Deadly Night, cheaply presented as the “flashbacks” of the original killer’s baby brother, now grown and soon to embark on his own low-budget killing spree. It doesn’t hold a candle to the original film and at times approaches Troll 2 levels of ineptitude, but has lived on in the memories of horror fans largely due to its ridiculously campy “garbage day” scene, which has found fame as a minor internet meme . Beyond that, even fans of the original will find little reward in sitting through it.
In a pleasant surprise, Anchor Bay has loaded down this two-film set with a healthy compliment of extras that are all well-worth investigating. There’s a half-hour long interview with the original film’s director Charles E. Sellier Jr that does an interesting job of putting the film and the controversy into context, as well as a surprisingly amusing commentary on the sequel by filmmakers Lee Harry and Joseph H Earl and actor James Newman. The three take just the right tone of bemused nostalgia and actually illuminate some interesting behind-the-scenes tidbits. (Apparently they were assigned by the producers to simply re-edit the original film and pass it off as a sequel, but insisted on using the editing budget to shoot their own new footage, making what at first seems like a cheap scam into a charming semi-success story of aspiring filmmakers looking to make movies by any means necessary.)
But maybe the most amusing special feature is the inclusion of a scrapbook of scathing reviews and letters from concerned parents entitled “Santa’s Stocking of Outrage”. Like the review excerpts quoted above, the purple prose and hysterical tone of these make for some amusing post-film reading. Probably the funniest, though, is the inclusion of a letter from actor Mickey Rooney, who righteously complains that “the scum who made this movie should be run out of town!” The humor comes from the irony of knowing that eight years later, Mickey would find himself changing his opinion somewhat in order to star in 1991’s execrable Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker, which just goes to prove that sometimes the holiday spirit can melt even the hardest of hearts.