Christmas Movies: Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

Merry Christmas everyone!


It’s really difficult to talk about this film without talking about the controversy when it first came out. Siskel and Ebert’s review of it is amazing, where they list the companies involved in producing and the main crew members, in case you want to make a complaint about it. The problem seems to stem from pre-release publicity showing Santa wielding an axe, which apparently upset a few kids somewhere, or more likely upset some mothers, and from this we got an almost unending torrent of abuse heaped on it, all of which no doubt delighted the production company, as there’ve been four sequels and a 2011 remake.

The central message of the film seems to be, treat kids better, otherwise there’s a fairly good chance they’ll turn into spree killers. A family goes to visit their extremely sick Grandpa, and during the thirty seconds they manage to stay, Grandpa, from deep in the pits of dementia, tells five-year-old Billy the truth about Santa Claus, about how he punishes the naughty as well as his present delivery activities. Billy is understandably freaked out when a guy dressed as Santa, on his way from murdering a convenience store employee, murders both his parents too while they’re driving home.

Three years later, and Billy and his younger brother are at a Catholic orphanage. The Mother Superior really doesn’t seem to like children very much – do they not get to pick their jobs when they become Nuns? Anyway, she ignores the gigantic amount of Santa related trauma Billy’s gone through, and forces him to sit on Santa’s lap, makes sure he thinks sex is dirty and sinful, and so on.

Ten years later than that three years later, and Billy at age 18 is helped into a job at a local toy store by the one nice Nun at the orphanage. One day, the store Santa doesn’t turn up, and guess which employee has to don the suit, helping him have a psychotic break and think he’s the “real” Santa, as described by his Grandpa? Better watch out, people doing literally anything at all!

This film is a real old dirty un-self-aware slasher film, and the first clue of that is how Billy doesn’t start on his spree until the halfway point of the film – but when he does, he really gets into it. Everyone at his store, a couple of horny teenagers, two guys who’ve stolen sledges from teenagers…Billy is everywhere, and he’s inventive when it comes to killing too. Nothing is left to the imagination, and luckily every non-Nun female cast member was instructed they’d have to take their tops off before they were brutally slaughtered. This film is a real window into the casual sexism of the time, when it was just ingrained into every aspect of the process.

If you think about it for more than a few seconds, this film is really bleak as well. It’s about how a series of horrible events and bad decisions lead to the creation of a murderer, but because of the way it’s structured, we spend most of our time with that murderer, on some level sympathising with him. But there’s no redemption, no moral to be learned, and the last scene with Billy’s younger brother Ricky indicates that the whole sorry cycle is going to repeat itself. That the trauma which happened to Billy is inflicted (by Billy) on an orphanage full of kids is an irony the producers probably didn’t give a damn about.

I certainly don’t feel as strongly negative towards it as Siskel and Ebert, but there’s a darkness at the centre of this film that puts it above and beyond your average entry in a horror franchise. Those films are about implacable forces of evil, but this is about a poor kid who never had a chance. In the hands of people who didn’t just want to make a quick buck from showing boobs and violent murder, this could have been a decent film, as it is…go and give people a hug and be there for them if they have problems. Be friendly to people this Christmas, because your smile might stop a Billy. Okay, it won’t. But do it anyway.