T’is the season to be jolly, fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la. Or Santa’s gonna cut your head off, fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la.
Are you naughty or nice?
When he was five years old, young Billy saw a man dressed as Santa murder his parents. He was raised by nuns in an orphanage where the Mother Superior had rather, shall we say medieval, views on punishment for transgressions. An already mentally scarred Billy became truly unbalanced, coming to see Santa Claus as someone who brought presents to the nice children but punishing the naughty ones. And the punishment is death…
Silent Night Deadly Night was released in 1984 and managed to beat the first Nightmare on Elm Street to the top of that week’s box office. The story of a murderous 18-year-old in a Santa suit caught the public’s imagination in a way few others of the time did. Conservative US audiences were becoming a bit jaded to the idea of the slasher movie by this time, but a poster of Santa coming down the chimney with a big axe in his hand stirred up a nice old controversy, with the PTA campaigning for it to be withdrawn from cinemas, and critics such as Leonard Maltin and Siskel and Ebert condemning it as worthless splatter. Of course all this brouhaha only resulted in people wanting to see the movie even more, with the producers and distributors no doubt relishing that old chestnut about bad publicity. Here in the UK, the flick wasn’t even submitted to the BBFC for a certificate until 2009, where it was passed uncut as an 18. Twenty-five years earlier I guarantee you it would have been near the top of the Video Nasties list.
But is it any good? Actually, it kind of is. Instead of going for the semi-supernatural masked killer angle, writer Michael Hickey takes the novel approach of explaining who his killer is and why he got that way. After the opening sequence of a wonderfully nihilistic Santa shooting a convenience store clerk for $31 before wiping out Billy’s folks, Hickey really slows everything down. It’s another forty minutes or so before the killing starts back up again. That’s forty minutes of Billy growing up in the orphanage, being tormented and punished by the Mother Superior, until the nice Sister Margaret gets him a job in the stock room of a toy shop when he’s 18. ‘Cos if there’s one place a potential psycho with a murderous phobia of Santa Claus should be working, it’s in a toy shop. This slow-burn build up gives a decent look inside Billy’s head, the result of which is that we actually begin to identify with this kid. That was probably the most subversive aspect of this film. There is no final girl here; like it or not, we’re on Billy’s side.
Silent Night Deadly Night was a bit of a stylistic departure for director Charles Sellier. The man who created the Grizzly Adams series was best known for religious-themed films and documentaries. He handles himself well here though, clearly comfortable with nudity and gore. One thing of note is that the deaths of Billy’s female victims often seem to be more deliberate and drawn out than the male victims. Compare being slowly impaled on the antlers of a mounted deer’s head (ladies and gentlemen, please give it up for Linnea Quigley!) against a sudden claw hammer to the noggin. Billy doesn’t exhibit any other particularly misogynistic behaviour—punishing both men and women with equal abandon—so it is likely these moments were just Hickey and Sellier bowing to the mores of the time. This is a slasher flick after all, so the equation still holds true: sex = death. Besides an undeclared crush on a co-worker at the toy shop, Billy doesn’t exhibit any interest in sex other than as something people are to be punished for. And punished they are.
This was not the first killer Santa flick (I believe that honour belongs to 1980’s Christmas Evil, starring Jeffrey DeMunn) but it is arguably the most famous thanks to the controversy it stirred up. It is now the figurehead of its own sub-genre, and then there are the four sequels and a recent remake as well. My personal exposure to this corner of B-movie heaven is somewhat limited, but I will be watching as many of them as I can get my grubby little hands on in the run-up to the big day. Care to join me?