"Silent Night, Deadly Night" was one of those rare films which, until this DVD release unexpectedly came around a few weeks ago, I had always somehow managed to overlook. I'd been aware of it, certainly -- or the title at least -- but, for some reason, it has always gone completely under my radar, and I couldn't recall it ever even having been shown on British TV, either. But it seems that there's a very good reason for my blind spot, and for why I had previously been denied this grisly seasonal treasure: it turns out the film has never before been submitted for BBFC certification, and so had never been legally available in the UK until now!
Having since read up on the film's colourful history, it appears that this relatively benign and supremely silly little holiday themed slasher pic about a maniac on the loose on Christmas Eve has been surrounded by controversy ever since its initial U.S. release in November 1984, taking both its bemused Christian director (yeah, that's right -- look him up on IMDb: he now produces documentaries with titles like 'The Evidence for Heaven' and 'End Times: How Close Are We?') and its unsuspecting financial backers at Tristar Pictures, completely by surprise.
It seems that, back in the early-eighties, a lethal alliance of Parents-Teachers Associations, outraged families and ... Siskel and Ebert, marshaled all its protesting might to get the film withdrawn from U.S. theatres after three weeks (although it still managed to make a profit even on just this initial limited run). What was the film's shameful crime? judged to be so heinous that it drove America's most revered film reviewing and woolly jumper-wearing TV duo to read out each name from the production credits on air, affixing the word "shame" at the end of each one (you can still see Siskel and Ebert's utterly bizarre review on YouTube)? Apparently, the fact that the killer was dressed as Santa Claus -- some people appeared to be under the mistaken impression that the film actually did depict the jolly, mince pie-munching fat man as an axe-wielding killer! -- is what drove everyone to such heights of giddy disgust, and to pile upon the film quite stratospheric levels of righteous, shriekingly-voiced opprobrium.
Watching it now, "Silent Night, Deadly Night" only provides yet more evidence for how utterly preposterous these periodic moral panics and media spawned bouts of hysteria can actually be. This is an honest-to-goodness, straightforward as they come and reliably daft, eighties slasher -- entertaining more for its corny, low budget period naiveté than for any truly 'shocking' content, and least of all for any envelope pushing pretensions: it's hardly "Last House on the Left", for pity's sake! I'd love to take everyone who was originally offended by this bonkers film in 1984, transport them forwards in time to 2009 and treat them to a double bill of "Inside" and "Martyrs". Their little minds would explode!
Then again, it's interesting to keep in mind while you're watching this, the fact that director Charles E. Sellier Jr -- previously the creator of the short-lived family-drama TV series, "Grizzly Adams" -- was a practising Christian even at the time the film was shot. Nothing wrong in principle with Christians making slasher movies (if anything, I encourage it!), but, I have to ask, what on earth was he on? While exceedingly tame by today's standards, there's definitely something a bit 'off' about the film's endless succession of gleefully executed rape sequences, and the way sex is so resolutely depicted as something that deserves to be punished with (preferably, an extremely bloody) death. It's a slasher cliché of course, but in attempting simply to emulate the conventions of a genre in which he had no real interest, and presumably no empathy for either, Sellier actually managed to produce an example of its type that far exceeded most of its contemporaries in terms of on-screen levels of blood-flecked sleaze and violence. There's a weirdly straight-faced tone to the completely ridiculous story that adds an unintended edge of surrealism to the increasingly deranged proceedings. By the time we've reached the film's climactic denouement -- a jolly Santa with an axe, about to smash the skull of a wheelchair-bound Catholic nun in front of a roomful of orphaned kiddies -- we've already been regaled with such barmy sights as a rapist in a toy store being throttled with some flashing Christmas lights, a topless baby-sitter (Linnea Quigley) impaled on antlers from the head of an antelope hanging on her living room wall, a sledge rider decapitated with an axe, and a toy store worker shot through the chest with a bow and arrow.
The film starts off with a rather involved prologue that begins in 1971, jumps forward to 1974 and then begins the story proper another decade later, in 1984. A happy family, who demonstrate their good cheer by perpetually grinning at each-other in a slightly unnerving way, are driving through the bland, mountainous landscape of Utah while Christmas carols play on the car radio; a baby is propped up in the back-seat. The Chapman family are really happy, it seems, because they're on the way to visit Grandpa Chapman (Will Hare) at the Utah Mental Institute. He's been in a catatonic state for months and, as young Billy Chapman is told by his mother, cannot hear or see anyone or anything about him. Billy Chapman's smiling parents go off with one of the doctors to talk about his case, leaving young Billy alone with his Grandpa.
Then we get what I find to be one of the best scene of the entire film, mainly because it's so bizarre and is left to go completely unexplained: the glazed, spaced-out expression on Grandpa's face suddenly vanishes the minute he's alone with Billy, and the old man starts telling the bemused boy that Santa Claus is not the jolly, pleasant and benign dispenser of gifts and toys he's made out to be; actually he will punish boys and girls who have been naughty when he comes to visit them on Christmas night! As soon as Billy's parents come back into the room, Grandpa switches back into his vegetative non-communicative state as though nothing has happened!
This is the start of that deranged atmosphere the film inadvertently possesses: at once, apparently comical, but always played so weirdly straight.
On the way home, the family are waved down by the driver of a roadside vehicle, and Billy is delighted to see that it appears to be Santa Claus himself who requires aid! Actually, it's a small-time crook whose just robbed a convenience store (killing the store clerk with multiple gunshot wounds) and then stole a car he’d found parked outside. He shoots Billy's dad dead, and while Billy runs and hides in some scrub on the roadside, and while his baby brother Ricky wails in the back-seat, Billy's mother is dragged out of the car and raped. Billy watches in mute terror while the bogus Santa then murders her, slashing her throat with a flick-knife.
A few years later and Billy and Ricky are now living at Saint Mary's Home for Orphaned Children. It's Christmas time once again, and Billy demonstrates that he has still not recovered from the events of 1971 by drawing a picture in art class of a decapitated reindeer and a Santa Clause covered in bloody wounds! After being banished to his room by the Mother Superior as punishment while the rest of the kids go off to play outside in the snow, Billy hears the sounds of lovemaking coming from a nearby room. Peering through a keyhole he sees two naked bodies heaving away.
Here's where the film again demonstrates its slightly weird, clammy approach to the subject matter. It was pretty standard to have scenes of naked women in many similar eighties slasher fare, but the manner in which this film takes every opportunity to zoom in on the young, nubile breasts of every minor female cast member becomes a repetitive, almost ritualistic motif after a while, adding up to the amusingly unhealthy equation: Insanity x Sex + Death = Bloody Retribution.
After being caught peeping by Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin), Billy is forced to watch while she whips the naked couple with a belt, after which, he receives exactly the same punishment. "Punishment is necessary, punishment is good" she tells him. Despite the objections of the kindly Sister Margaret (Gilmer McCormick), Billy is then forced to take part when 'Santa' visits the orphanage, sitting each orphaned kiddie on his knee. Probably not the best idea as it turns out: little Billy punches out 'Santa' in the second best scene of the film.
Boy, that kid packs a punch. The tiny lad sends the rather burly adult flying across the room!
Ten years later now, and Billy (Robert Brian Wilson) is now a glossy youth with rippling biceps and the same creepy, beatific grin on his face which his parents once displayed all the time ... until they were brutally murdered, that is. Sister Margeret persuades old Mr. Simms the store manager (Britt Leach) to give Billy a job at Ira's Toy Store. She's obviously not thought about the inevitable association between toys and Christmas, and how this is going to lead to trouble come December; but for the moment everything seems to be going great, and to indicate this fact to the viewer, we're given a sugary montage of scenes depicting Billy being a good, solid, reliable employee: hardworking and ever-dutiful, he's seen lifting the smiling kiddies to the top shelf, assembling a Mr Potato Head toy in seconds flat, carrying boxes to the store room, and getting on swell with his co-workers, etc., etc., etc. All the while, a cheesy song with soppy lyrics such as: "there's always people who'll love you, that'll kiss you and hug you", warbles away on the soundtrack.
Wet dreams of naked smooching with his co-worker Pamela (Toni Nero) turn into bloody nightmares of murder and a flashbacks to his parents' murder, proving that the childhood association between sexual pleasure and punishment and with the killing of his parents by 'Santa', is set to turn Billy slightly odd come the festive season. But things are not helped when Mr Simms forces Billy to become the in-store Santa Claus that year, after the employee who was to have taken the job breaks his arm. Sweating and shaking profusely, Billy at first appears to be a hit in handling troublesome tots, who soon quiets down after he gruffly threatens them with violence if they don't stop being naughty!
But on Christmas Eve, having taken a drink of alcohol, Billy's mind snaps completely; he witness Pamela canoodling with his abusive and thoroughly unpleasant co-worker Andy (Randy Stumpf) and when Andy takes Pam back to the store room to give her his 'present', but instead he starts to have rough sex with her, Billy follows them, still in his Santa outfit and now believing himself to be the punishment-dealing version of Santa that his old, unhinged Grandpa told him of. First, he strangles Andy to death; when Pamela starts screaming abuse at him, he 'punishes' her as well by repeatedly stabbing her with a box cutter.
About halfway through then, the film finally gets to the Santa-based slasher portion of the action that was to cause it so much controversy in the first place. As well as a lot of product placement for 'The Muppets' toy range, the store seems to be littered with lethal weaponry: a real axe on the wall and a toy bow and arrow set that fires real arrows! Billy dispatches everyone else in the store, killing kindly Mr. Simms by burying a hammer in his skull. From then on the film is a catalogue of mad murder scenes with rubbishy special effects, as Billy spends the rest of Christmas Eve killing anyone he comes across. It's a weird brew: half shot for laughs (bumbling police officers on Billy's trail, burst in on a dad dressed as Santa just as he's about to place his little daughter's presents at the foot of her bed!), part outrageous '80s period gore, but also still occasionally displaying hints of real strangeness. The best sequence from this part of the film comes when a child encounters Billy in his Santa costume, creeping across the landing outside her bedroom door. Unaware that he has just murdered her older sister and her sister's boyfriend downstairs, the youngster asks 'Santa' for her present. After checking to see if she's been 'naughty' or 'good', a maniacally grinning Billy draws from his pocket the still-bloody box cutter he had earlier used to slay Pam, and tenderly presents it to the child as though it were the most precious object in the world! The film reaches its conclusion when, acting on a hunch from Sister Margaret that Billy will go back to the orphanage on Christmas day, the police stakeout the building while the children are locked up inside. In the process they manage to accidentally shoot to death Father O' Brian who, dressed as Santa Claus for the annual presentation of presents on Christmas morning, doesn't hear their shouts of warning because he's chronically deaf!! The real Billy soon shows up though for a final confrontation with the Mother Superior.
It's amusing to hear director Charles Sellier, on the audio interview that comes as an extra on this UK disc from Arrow Video, harping on about the negative effects of screen violence, and how film makers should be more responsible! The nerve! The whole story of the film's origination, and of the controversy that enveloped it, and of Sellier's rather ambivalent attitude to it today, is told in this thirty-five minute interview which plays out over all of the film's most bloody scenes of carnage. The original unrated trailer is the only other disc extra, but purchasers of the retail disc will also receive with their copies a poster and a booklet which includes an interview with Charles Sellier by Calum Waddell and an additional article: "Silent Night, Sex Night: The Slice and Times of Linnea Quigley" -- both of which were unavailable fo me to comment upon.
"Silent Night, Deadly Night" is not really a very good movie; technically, its quite well made with respectable cinematography by Henning Schellerup and solid second unit work by Michael Spence (who Sellier is quite happy to admit amounts to being the film's co-director, since he shot all the action sequences) but it's really at about the same level of sophistication as many of the low budget indie films that nowadays dominate the horror market. It has a thin plot that is executed in a slightly stilted, slightly apologetically humorous fashion; but nevertheless it is still not without that occasional flash of crazy, genius silliness that ensures the disc is going to get a spin at least once a year at Christmas time, when everyone is too pickled with alcohol to cope with anything more demanding, or too stuffed with food to escape its exploitative madness.