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Reviews

Christmas Is When People Go Nuts: 'Silent Night Deadly Night / Silent Night Deadly Night: Part 2'

Santa Claus slices, stabs, and slays in one of the most controversial films of the '80s, which finally gets a long-overdue deluxe re-release just in time for the holidays.


Silent Night Deadly Night: Part 2

Rated: R
Director: Charles E. Sellier Jr, Lee Harry
Cast: Robert Brian Wilson, Lilyan Chauvin, Gilmer McCormick, Britt Leach, Linnea Quigley, Eric Freeman, James L. Newman
Studio: Tri-Star
Year: 1984
Distributor: Anchor
Release date: 2012-12-04

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.

6

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Woodstock each did their stint as a lonely Mexican cowboy, it seems. These and other things you didn't know about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

How Would You Like to Be the Director of Our Christmas Play?

It's really a beautiful little movie and has affected my life in numerous ways. For years, especially when we were poor, we always tried to find the littlest saddest Christmas tree possible. In fact, my son Eli has a Christmas tree set up right now that is just one single branch propped up in a juice bottle. And just a couple weeks ago we were at a wedding, everyone was dancing, and me and my wife Amy and my friend Garth started dancing like the Peanuts characters do in the Christmas special.

-- Comic artist James Kochalka.

Bill Melendez answers questions with the sort of vigor that men a third his age invest thousands in herbal supplements to achieve. He punctuates his speech with belly chuckles and comic strip taglines like "Oh, boy!" and "I tell 'ya!" With the reckless abandon that Melendez tosses out words like pleasure, it's clear that 41 years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of his favorite topics of conversation. "It changed my life," he states simply, "being involved with this silly little project."

Melendez celebrated his 90th birthday in November. "When I think of my last 40 or 50 years, I can't believe it," he says, capping off his comment with that inevitable one-man laugh track. The curly-mustachioed animator was born José Cuauhtemoc Melendez in Hermosillo, Mexico, in 1916. "I was literally a cowboy," he says. "From there, I crossed the border and started growing up. Just recently I went back, and when I got there I realized where my home was: across the border. When I was a little kid, I would have killed myself had I known such a thing was going to happen. I'm one of you. Whether you like it or not, I'm one of you."

Melendez recalls his blind leap into the world of animation as though the story's end still managed to catch him by surprise. "I was working in a lumberyard, and one of my mates said, 'Hey, I read in the paper that some guy up on Hyperion Avenue is hiring young guys like you who can draw.' So I went to this stranger and said, 'Hey, I understand someone here is hiring young artists.' The man asked me for my samples and I said I'd show them to him tomorrow. I went home that night and made the samples. I brought them in the next day, and he asked me what art school I went to. I'd never been to an art school. He said, 'Well, you have talent,' and he hired me to work in a place called Walt Disney."

Four years later, after lending his hand to Disney canon fodder like Bambi and Fantasia, and after fighting for his new country in World War II, he spent the next decade or so hunched over the drawing board, producing animated commercials and industrials by the thousands, including a number of spots featuring syndicated comic strip characters. Among them were the Peanuts characters.

Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, You're the Charlie Browniest.

I was around 10 when it first premiered, and seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time was enough to prove even to a young child that a well-written thing is superior to most of what is out there. I'll probably be watching it again tonight or tomorrow, because I have a copy of it and a six-year-old daughter. She loves it.

-- Comic artist Gilbert Hernandez.

By 1959 Charles "Sparky" Schulz's Peanuts kids found themselves at the center of their first print advertising campaign, pushing Ford's new Falcon make of cars. As the story goes, the idea of using Schulz's characters came from a daughter of one of Ford's advertising people.

"I think Sparky was flattered when they wanted to use his characters, says Schulz's widow, Jean, who now is one of the driving forces behind the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. "It was a new way of extending his creativity. From the get-go Sparky always said a comic strip is a commercial venture. Newspapers put the comic strip in to sell newspapers. He would then bitterly say, 'No one considered comic strips art in the first place, so why would you get on your high horse about that?'"

When the time came for the characters to make their animated debut in a Ford commercial, Melendez was brought into the fold, and he brought along a cast of unknown child actors to voice the parts. The team reunited five years later, when Lee Mendelson, a filmmaker from San Francisco, requested two minutes worth of animation for a film he was shooting based on a Peanuts story line.

"I had done a Willie Mays documentary in 1963, A Man Named Mays, which had done really well," Mendelson says. "Then I was reading a Charlie Brown baseball strip, and the idea came to me: I've just done the world's greatest baseball player; now I'll do the world's worst." It's an old joke -- the same he used to open his 2000 coffee-table retrospective, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition -- but it's one for the ages. "Two years later Coca-Cola called, and I thought they were calling to do the documentary," Mendelson explains, "but they said, 'Have you guys ever thought about doing A Charlie Brown Christmas?' I said absolutely. And that's how I got in the animation business." His executive producer role on that film was the birth of a career now well into its fourth decade.

"So Lee called Sparky and said, 'Well, I just sold our Christmas show," explains Jean. "Sparky asked, 'What Christmas show?' and Lee said, 'The one we're going to write tomorrow." Sparky said, 'If we're going to do it, we need to have Bill.'"

Melendez was brought into direct, and as with the Ford commercial, he gave the parts of the Peanuts kids entirely to children, many of whom had never acted. Getting them to learn their roles was a trying task, given that Schulz's script had his characters regularly waxing philosophical and tossing off words like ailurophobia (a fear of felines, for the record). Melendez had to teach the young actors long portions of the script phonetically. "Sometimes they didn't understand a word," he remembers. "They'd say, 'Just tell me how you want it said.' Then they'd say it, and I'd turn to the engineer and ask if he recorded it. The kids were all startled when they got screen credit and happily startled when they started getting royalty checks."

Melendez's also tried to coach a voice actor for the part of Snoopy, whose lines were limited to a handful of non-words. "I recited Snoopy's lines for the actor, and the actor turned to the engineer and said, 'Did you record that? Just use what Bill has done. I don't want to repeat your words.' " This happy accident left Melendez playing the role of Snoopy and, later, his yellow bird companion Woodstock for the next 40 years.

For the film's soundtrack, Mendelson and Melendez embraced Schulz's love of jazz. "Driving back from Sparky's over the Golden Gate Bridge I heard a song called 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind,'" Mendelson writes in The Making of a Tradition. The song was written by Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist from the beatnik-dense San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach. It had won the musician a Grammy Award for best original jazz composition in 1962. Guaraldi enjoyed Schulz's script and happily accepted his invitation into the Charlie Brown Christmas fold.

This Doesn't Seem to Fit the Modern Spirit.

The one thing that has always bothered me about the Charlie Brown Christmas special is that the other kids never admit to Charlie Brown that he was right about the little tree. They ultimately accept the tree, but no one ever says, 'Well, Charlie Brown, I guess you were right all along. We were idiots.' However, it's still cool to see a mainstream children's program show that is so stridently nonsecular, which could never be done in this day and age. Linus gets some good face time with all that shepherd talk.

-- Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman.

Beyond the inclusion of Schulz's cast of wildly popular characters, 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas seemed a production earmarked for failure. The special's small crew was given a mere six months between the film's conception and its maiden broadcast. At his own insistence, Schulz signed up to pen the script, his first attempt at a screenplay. "He said that if he was going to get screen credit for something, he wanted to be doing something," says Melendez. "He was very proud and curious and didn't want credit where he didn't deserve it."

Despite the Ford commercials that gave birth to the collaboration, and Coca-Cola's strong sponsorship presence in the special, Schulz's script centered around a pensive Charlie Brown attempting to find the true meaning of Christmas. "The 1960s were when Christmas first began to start the day after Thanksgiving," says Mendelson. "There was an irony to this, given the commercialization of the comics. That wasn't really his doing. He said, 'If people want to buy stuff, that's up to them. I'm not in the business of making stuff and selling it. I'm in the business of making a comic strip, and if people want products, then so be it.' "

"We're all a little schizophrenic in that way," adds Jean Schulz. "You live in this world, and you despair. If you think at all, you're always wrestling with this. I think that's exactly what Sparky was expressing." The special opens with a characteristically distraught Charlie Brown, speaking to the perpetually blanket-wielding Linus on a snow-covered version of the brick wall, the bald third-grader's preferred location for vocalizing his ever-present inner despair. "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus," he begins. "Christmas is coming, but I don't feel happy."

In case that wasn't enough to threatren the film's commercial potential, the producers added one final nail to the prime time coffin: Schulz's script called for Linus to deliver a subdued monologue at the film's climax, a word-for-word recitation of Jesus's birth, taken from the Gospel of Luke. "Bill said, 'You can't have the Bible on television!' Sparky said, 'If we don't do it, who will?' By the time that Coca-Cola and CBS saw it, they had no choice but to play it. They had nothing else to put in there."

What the roomful of executives saw upon the first screening was a shock -- a slow and quiet semireligious, jazz-filled 25 minutes, voiced by a cast of inexperienced children, and, perhaps most unforgivably, without a laugh track. "They said, 'We'll play it once and that will be all. Good try,' " remembers Mendelson. "Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown forever when it was done. We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room -- he had had a couple of drinks -- and he said, 'It's going to run for a hundred years,' and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy, but he was more right than we were."

I Never Thought It Was Such a Bad Little Tree

That show is probably the closest I've ever come to having any interest in religion. That part where Linus quotes from the bible is extremely touching and very deftly handled. I was raised in a nonreligious household, and that was a moment that actually had some religious significance to it just because Schulz expressed it so well.

-- Comic artist Seth.

Upon its airing, the special received a 50 share. The network immediately ordered four more films from the team. "We watch it every year to make sure that it actually happened. We thought it would be on one time and be gone," Mendelson says. "The message is simple. Schulz wanted to do a show on the true meaning of Christmas. Any good writer like Schulz deals in truisms and things that are timeless. There are themes about unrequited love and bullies. They work as well now as they did in the 1960s, and they'll probably work for another 50 or 100 years as well."

"I think it touches something in the viewer. We didn't do it on purpose, but there's something ethnic about it," Melendez adds. Schulz expressed his own surprise that the film found its way into the canon of holiday classics. "He would say things like, 'I never thought it would be around 25 years later,'" Jean remembers. "One of the reasons that Christmas is so great is that back in 1965 there were no VCRs or DVDs, so you saw that show once, and you had to wait a whole year to see it again. And when it came on, it still held up. It was still charming."

Forty-one years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a towering if unassuming presence in holiday TV. It's an oasis of sincerity, managing never to be drowned out by its overzealous neighbors' rush to cross-promote themselves. It's a quiet testament to what children's programming could be: introspective, unpretentious and, above all, respectful of the intelligence of its target audience. "Children's programs were held in low regard by everybody -- including me," says Melendez. "But I realized that it wasn't just for kids. I was dealing with adults. They were giving me suggestions and criticism."

For a film with an anticommercial message, A Charlie Brown Christmas produced its own market bonanza. But it still suggests the spirit of its writer, who sensed the real magic of Christmas was not in the spectacle of lights, commerce and big aluminum Christmas trees, but in those fleeting moments of silence, which seem to become rarer with each passing day. "They weren't afraid to have quiet," Jean says. "Most of the time when the kids are walking, it's very quiet. We came out of a new animated movie one day, and Sparky said, 'I missed the quiet places.'"

Over the years, the Schulz-Mendelson-Melendez team created more than 75 half-hour television specials and four feature films, and five Peanuts films have been made since Schulz's death, in 2000, at the age of 77. Outside of the films, Peanuts continues to be an incredibly lucrative license for its owners, United Features Syndicate. "If Sparky had the volume of stuff crossing through the office that we have today, it would have driven him nuts," laughs Jean. "He probably would have walked through the office and said, 'We're cutting all of the licensing off. I don't want to do it anymore.'"

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