Who doesn’t love an advent calendar? Around the Daily Grindhouse virtual offices, we decided the only way to make the advent calendar better is to replace what you might traditionally find behind the door with Christmas horror movies! So everyday from December 1st through to Christmas, we will be highlighting a different movie for our horror-loving readers to celebrate the season. Our film(s) for day Twenty-four is the entire SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT franchise!
Not everyone enjoys Christmas. For all the jolly good cheer the holiday elicits, there are those for whom the connotation of spirit is entirely negative, from simple ‘bah humbug” Scrooge’s to those beset by seasonal depression, loneliness, and familial trauma. For all the saccharine talk of family values and peace to mankind Christmas brings, it’s also a time beset by stress, frustration, capitalist excess, and forced joviality. There’s a reason it’s the time of the year with the most suicides. But no one hates Christmas as much Billy and his younger brother Ricky in the SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT franchise.
Billy liked Christmas once upon a time, when he was a young boy. But one fateful night, not long after his baby brother is born, that all changed. It started with a trip to his seemingly mute, senile grandfather, wasting away in an old folks home. When his parents turn away to speak to the doctor, dear old pap pap springs to life, hissing anti-holiday invective at the frightened young boy. But that’s nothing to what happens on the way home. Spying a stranded motorist on the side of the road dressed as Santa, his father pulls over, not realizing the man is a vicious criminal. Saint Nick proceeds to rape and slaughter his parents right in front of Billy’s eyes.
Thus begins one of the most controversial and trashiest slasher franchises to ever grace the screen. SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT wasn’t the first horror film to be set on Christmas, nor was it even the first to feature a killer Santa Claus. A killer Kris Kringle first popped up in a segment of the 1972 EC anthology TALES FROM THE CRYPT, terrorizing stay-at-home housewife Joan Collins, and one showed up to enforce his own Christmas spirit in the 1980 pic CHRISTMAS EVIL, John Waters’ favorite holiday film. But SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT was the first to cause an uproar; to stir the enmity of parents and teachers groups over its use of Jesus’s birthday as a playground for skewered flesh.
Tristar released the film on November 9th, 1984, the same weekend as none other than A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET–a film it actually opened ahead of at the box office. But concerned adults were aghast at a film that dared to take the sacred image of Santa and pervert it into a monster. Film critic Gene Siskel famously shamed the cast and crew on his TV program, and protestors drove the film off screen, as Tristar pulled it from theaters after the end of its second week. However, that censure did nothing to slow the film’s ascent to cult status amongst horror fans, eventually spawning a series of (sometimes unrelated) horror films that became the ugly Christmas sweaters of slasher franchises.
In some ways, it’s easy to see why folks objected to this particular slaying Santa. SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT’s marketing materials played up the murderous Father Christmas angle in ways other films didn’t. The movie’s iconic poster art shows a snow-tipped chimney with a familiar red-decked arm coming out, wielding an axe. It was the kind of image to give impressionable children nightmares. And the fact the film is a particularly mean-spirited slice of body count horror, gleefully dispatching children and priests in addition to the usual nubile teenagers, all the while heaping the trauma onto its beleaguered anti-hero, no doubt helped contribute to its air of grotesquerie for its detractors.
To be fair, SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT is, in some ways, not necessarily a “good” film. Its obvious low budget and the pedestrian direction of Charles E. Sellier Jr. (the creator of the Grizzly Adams TV show of all things!) give it a cheap, ragged, churned-out feel. But what it lacks in visual panache, it makes up for in prankish, over-the-top ugliness, all the while giving us something a lot its ‘80s brethren lacked–a sympathetic killer.
SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT breaks from formula, by spending much of its first half following Billy as he grows up, showing the traumas that make him the monster he’s doomed to become. After his parents are murdered, he and Ricky are sent to a Catholic orphanage, where they are raised by a duality: the sweet Sister Margaret (Gilmer McCormick) cares for them, but even she can’t overrule the authoritarian command of the cruel, abusive, and puritanical Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin), whose attempts to force Christmas celebrations on the distressed Billy only further his newfound hatred of the holiday.
Billy, seemingly miraculously, given his background, grows up to be a strapping, sweet-natured and well-adjusted young man (played, as an adult by Robert Brian Wilson.) When he turns 18, he gets a job at a toy store, and the respectful, well-mannered boy seems to be on his way to overcoming his holiday trauma and living a normal life. That is, until Christmas Eve night, when his callous boss forces him to don a Santa costume to greet the kiddos, triggering something deep within his disturbed psyche. When he spies a jerk co-worker trying to force himself on a woman during an after hours party, his mind snaps, and it’s off to the races as he slaughters this store full of hedonistic imbeciles before venturing out into the winter night, slashing his way through anyone he deems “naughty” on the way to wreak vengeance on the Mother Superior.
SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT is trashy, but it works because it lets us get to know Billy before he succumbs to his murderous instinct. That grounds the more exploitive elements in something resembling human psychology. It’s all superficial, simplistic pop-psych pap, drawing the typical slasher movie straight line from childhood abuse to adult homicidal impulse, but it also sort of establishes Billy as the Frankenstein’s Monster of costumed ‘80s horror baddies. We root for him, not because he’s a cackling ghoul like Freddie Krueger, but because we understand he’s a decent lad forced by circumstance into giving up his mental autonomy by long-simmering resentment and unprocessed trauma.
And, in some ways, he’s representative of all of us who just wish to take an axe to everything Christmas related. Billy has good reason to hate the holidays, and he can only take so much of its tinseled-out posturing before something in him comes loose, looking to decimate all those who force their cheer upon us. SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT endures because not only is it an impishly naughty slasher film in its own right, but because Billy represents our cretinous, anti-holiday id.
Of course, that’s probably reading more into the movie than the movie itself does–this was clearly a mercenary exploitation project–but there’s also a reason it stands up as a seasonal classic when other Jingle Bell-ed creepers like TO ALL A GOODNIGHT have fallen into obscurity. There’s a certain something there. The same can’t be said of its sequels. Those PTA cranks may have run the movie off the big screens, but they couldn’t keep it from flourishing on the small ones, and because of that we got a series of five increasingly cheap films proliferating on the video market.
With Billy (SPOILER ALERT) gunned down at the end of part one, SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 2 picks up years later, with little baby Ricky now all grown up into a strapping and handsome young man (Eric Freeman). Much of SILENT NIGHT 2–somewhere between a quarter and a third of it–consists of footage cobbled together from the first movie, used as flashbacks as Ricky talks to a shrink about his own troubled childhood raised as an orphan with a killer for an older brother. It’s a cheap scam of a technique designed to hose audiences willing to spend money on a sequel, saving its producers some moola in the process. It does cut out the boring bits, but it also means that any of the new parts of part 2 remained rushed and underdeveloped. The plot of SILENT NIGHT 2 mostly just consists of Ricky relating his history to his therapist, going on a datem and then mentally breaking, in the grand tradition of his brother, enacting a parade of murder down a suburban street. It’s mostly empty and dull, but it did give us “Garbage Day!” and Freeman’s insane performance.
SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 2 actually got itself a small, limited theatrical release, but the rest of the franchise went the direct-to-video route starting with the series low-point, SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 3: BETTER WATCH OUT. Despite being helmed by existentialist ‘70s auteur Monte Hellman–director of films like TWO LANE BLACKTOP and COCKFIGHTER—BETTER WATCH OUT is a film replete with all the hallmarks of a chintzy video title of its era, all low-budget surrealism with canted angles and hospital hallways lit with blown out whites, it’s soundtrack an over-familiar stock library score of hollow strings and synth organs. It feels like crappy knock-off Lynch, a feeling only exacerbated by the presence of Richard Beymer and Eric DaRe a year or two before they appeared in Twin Peaks and Laura Harring years before MULHOLLAND DRIVE.
The film wraps up the Billy/Ricky storyline, as Ricky, now played by an underutilized Bill Moseley, shuffling around zombie-eyed and silent and wearing a glass bowl over his exposed brain, escapes from the mental institution where he was lying comatose, the subject of experiments from Beymer’s mad scientist. For some convoluted reason, Beymer was trying to establish a psychic link between Ricky and blind teen girl Laura (Samantha Scully). Ricky wakes up and breaks out, drawn to Laura, who’s visiting her grandpa’s house with her brother (DaRe) and his girlfriend (Harring). The dollar store weirdness segues into standard issue slasher generics, and the film ultimately becomes notable only for Moseley’s bizarre look, and the weird, icky, almost flirtatious dynamic between brother and sis, which is compounded by Harring and Scully’s visual resemblance.
SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 4: INITIATION and SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 5: THE TOYMAKER have zero relation to the first three films, but are given the flimsiest of connections to each other. INITIATION is an early, post-SOCIETY project for Brian Yuzna, and it feels like an independent project hastily retitled to fit in with an existing name-brand franchise. It’s a grody occult thriller that allows Yuzna to continue to indulge his love for rubbery, surreal Screaming Mad George effects, as journalist Neith Hunter’s investigation into a spontaneously combusting body plummeting from a building puts her in the path of a coven of New Age witches plotting to use her as a vessel…for something. There’s an admirably greasy, gross atmosphere to INITIATION as Hunter vomits up giant bugs, watches as her fingers turn flaccid and rope around each other and has sex with a dirty, sweaty Clint Howard (playing a character named Ricky) but all that weirdness is in service of a plodding, dull, and clunkily paced ‘80s thriller.
THE TOYMAKER is the most Christmas-y of the SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT films since the original, as it involves killer Christmas toys going rogue and slaughtering the poor saps gifted them. This is essential the Charles Band version of the story, and it gets mileage out the way these various playthings spring to life and butcher various unlucky members of the supporting cast, as roller skates turn into rockets and cutesy plasticine worms burrow into mouths.
Mickey Rooney (!!!) is on hand to add some class as a kindly toy store owner named Joe Petto, with a blank-eyed teen son named, yes, really, Pino (Brian Bremer, the hick kid from PUMPKINHEAD). The movie makes the barest connection to its predecessor by having Hunter reprise her INITIATION role, though now she’s the sister of the lead protagonist and only references her previous ordeals with a monstrous bug cult in a tossed off comedic line that smacks of “inserted on day of” continuity building. It’s all very corny, and director Martin Kitrosser doesn’t have any better understanding of how to pace one of these things then Hellman or Yuzna did; like the two before it, this thing drags but there’s enough fun to be had in the killer toy concept that THE TOYMAKER sparks to life more often than the former two. But, by this point, we’re still a long way from the relative highs of SILENT NIGHT prime.
In 2012, the franchise, naturally, found its way into reboot territory with Steven C. Miller’s fun, cheerfully misanthropic gore-com SILENT NIGHT, which saw small town police officers Jaime King and Malcolm McDowell tracking a mysterious Santa-clad psycho who’s going around electrocuting couples and flamethrowing teenage bullies, a force of destructive holiday moralism teaching people to be good, for goodness sake. Alas, this remake is so far off from the original–right up to and including cleaving that memorable title in half, that it pretty much qualifies as almost completely independent of this franchise.
As the SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT series gave one lump of coal after another, it’s hard to remember the enduring present the first film was. Yes, it was jolly mean-spirited schlock, but that’s what made it great. And its demented anti-Christmas message speaks to any of us who’s had it up to here with the crowded malls, insane traffic, cheesy holiday tunes, and depleted paychecks of the holiday season. Only now we don’t have to merely scowl and mutter “bah humbug”–we can pick up our axes and scream “NAUGHTY” instead.
–Johnny Donaldson (@johnnydonaldson)
Tags: Bill Moseley, Brian Bremer, Brian Yuzna, Charles Sellier Jr., Christmas horror, Clint Howard, Eric Da Re, Eric Freeman, Gilmer McCormick, Horror Advent Calendar, Horror Advent Calendar 2018, Laura Harring, Lee Harry, Lilyan Chauvin, Martin Kitrosser, Mickey Rooney, Monte Hellman, Neith Hunter, Richard Beymer, Robert Brian Wilson, Samantha Scully, Silent Night Deadly Night, Silent Night Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out!, Silent Night Deadly Night 4: Initiation, Silent Night Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker, Silent Night Deadly Night Part 2