Admittedly there had been killer Santas on screen before – most notably in 1972 anthology movie Tales From The Crypt and 1980’s deliciously titled Christmas Evil and To All A Goodnight – but none caused as much of a stir as Charles Sellier’s ’84 seasonal slasher Silent Night, Deadly Night.
To be fair, despite being enthusiastically salacious, it wasn’t the movie that caused the fuss as it was it’s advertising campaign as ’80’s Karen’s in their hundreds protested the posters and TV ads that featured a man dressed as Santa Claus laying the fatal smackdown on some nubile teens. Incensed that the advertising for this “dirty” movie would pervert and traumatise the youth of America bred on Santa being a benevolent guy, protests where held and the movie was pulled from theaters after only one week…
And yet, the legend of Silent Night, Deadly Night endured in a way only a grotty 80’s slasher can.
It’s Christmas Eve, and little Billy and his baby brother are being driven to visit their grandfather at the mental institution where he’s being treated for what appears to be an extremely advanced case of alzheimers. However, after leaving Billy on his own with Gramps while they do some other shit (Because leaving a five year old child alone in the company of a catatonic old man in the middle of a mental hospital is just something parents did in the 80’s, apparently), it turns out that the crusty old bastard isn’t as far gone as he’s made out and tells the horrified child about how Santa is actually a dangerously vengeful man who punishes anyone who’s been even a little bit naughty. Obviously traumatised by this on the journey home, Billy then has the unfortunate luck of having his father shot to death and his mother having her throat slashed after being sexually assaulted by a criminal wearing – you guessed it – a Santa Claus suit.
Flash forward a couple of years and poor old Billy and his brother are residents of an orphanage run by a tyrannically pious Mother Superior who seems to have made it her life’s work to cure the boy’s Santa related trauma by beating the shit out of him daily for every tiny indiscretion he may cause.
Another time jump of about a decade reveals that little Billy ain’t quite so little anymore and the strapping seventeen year old (!) has gotten a job through the orphanage at the local toy store – however, before anyone can challenge the questionable common sense behind putting a weirdly muscular kid with extreme Santa related PTSD and a skewed sense of morals in a toy shop during the yule tide period, Billy’s gossamer thin sanity starts to fray like a Christmas jumper with a lose thread.
You wouldn’t be blamed if you thought Silent Night, Deadly Night’s notoriety came chiefly from the controversy caused by angry parents who hadn’t even seen it, but that’s selling the movie short on how impressively sleazy the film really is. Featuring fantastically exaggerated versions of mental issues that end up being inadvertently funny (when grown Billy first spies a mechanical Santa in the toy shop he looks like he’s trying to hold in a particularly robust dump) and a worrying habit of saving it’s most brutal violence for topless young women, the movie has an unrepentantly nasty tone that you can taste in the back of your throat. However, while infantile takes on mental health issues and a deeply misogynistic views against women may be ill advised for your average movie, it’s manna from fucking heaven for an 80’s slasher film.
Piling the trauma onto it’s young lead to an almost cartoonish degree, Silent Night, Deadly Night may be as subtle as a lit fart, but you certainly get your money’s worth. During his night of thrill-killing after popping his sanity cap, Billy (who unnervingly resembles a pink-faced Chris Pratt) first stalks his fellow toy shop employees and then heads out into into the night to punish more naughty people by caving in skulls with hammers, proving to be a dead shot with a crossbow and even smartly decapitating some guy when he’s out sledging – but every now and then the film just gets nasty for nasty’s sake. While never going into the truly upsetting realms like movies such as Lucio Fulci’s New York Ripper, a scene where a young woman suffers a drunken rape attempt from a co-worker only to be horrified at his death when Billy strangles him with christmas lights really doesn’t play to well today and the fact her demise involves having a clear view of her bare breasts as he opens her up with a box cutter doesn’t improve matters much. Similarly, the murder of legendary Scream Queen Linnea Quigley by nude impalment on a set of antlers seems to be more obsessed with getting a great shot of her knockers as she dies than focusing on making things particularly scary.
However, one thing that the movie does exceptionally well is that thanks to it’s casual, sleazy attitude to murder in general and vaguely amateurish style – not to mention it’s portrayal of revered figures as purveyors of brutal punishment (killer Santa, abusive Mother Superior) – the film has a magnificent nihilistic streak that modern slashers seldom have. Even the ending just sets up a massively depressing cycle of madness and trauma as younger brother Ricky witnesses Billy get shot down by cops mid-axe swing and instantly seems to go bonkers in the time it takes to say “garbage day”.
Ugly, lurid and more than a little stupid, Silent Night, Deadly Night holds its cult following precisely because of these attributes, creating a sordid little adventure that may lack the polish of a Halloween, a Friday The 13th or even fellow chrimbo kill-fest Black Christmas; but it’s grimy mission statement to be as relentlessly cruel as possible make it a memorable anti-xmas movie that takes any good cheer you might have and rams an axe into into it’s face…