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December 24, 2010

Midnight Movie of the Week #51 - Silent Night, Deadly Night

Santa's watching, Santa's waiting, oh my God, he's salivating....

Well, something like that.  Enter Silent Night, Deadly Night, the controversial splatter flick that nowadays boasts that "Hordes of Angry Mothers Couldn't Keep It Away!"  Apparently, the good folks of the real 1984 had a bit of an aversion to having the image of Santa popping up on TV ads killing people in front of their children.  What a bunch of sticks in the mud.
That said, there might be a slight basis to their concern.  Unlike many '80s slashers, this one seems to focus a large bit of energy on establishing trauma in small children.  This begins in the opening scene, set on Christmas Eve of 1971, in which five year-old Billy is first made to fear.  This starts at the hands of his deranged grandpa, played by Chessmaster Will Hare, who warns him about the evil of Santa.  Grandpa may have just been senile, but his timing was a bit off.  On the drive home, Billy's parents are be brutally murdered by a criminal disguised as St. Nicholas.  Grandpa may have seen that move coming.....
The film flashes forward three years, so we can meet eight year old Billy in another traumatizing Christmas situation - a Catholic Orphanage.  Handicapped by his past trauma and his ridiculous mullet, Billy quickly becomes a target of punishment at the hands of the domineering Mother Superior.  He witnesses naughty acts that involve nudity - which remind him of the unnecessary de-shirting of his mother during her murder - and it becomes pretty clear that Billy has some Christmas skeletons in his closet.  After learning all about punishment, he grows up to be a big, strong, kind-of-awkward 18 year old...which takes us to our real story after about 45 minutes of the 80 minute film.  I'm not complaining, because the set up is like a juicy pulp talk show, but by this point the viewer might just be itching for a bit of slaying.  For Christmas' sake movie, you've got genre stereotypes to live up to!
Billy now works in a department store (remember those?) and is trying to be normal.  But then he sees Santa again, and then he sees boobs again and...well, that switch just flips.  Yup, Billy's lost his cool and now he - while conveniently suited up as Santa - is on a killing spree.  If you've been naughty, beware his Claus.
Once Billy's rampage begins, the film takes a more conventional horror tone.  If the people who protested the movie upon its initial release had actually seen the film, I have a feeling they'd be more offended by the traumas placed on children in the set up than the killings that occur in modern day.  There's a lot of brutality from Billy, but any child worth their weight in candy canes could probably recognize that the Santa on screen isn't the one they adore.  Then again, children shouldn't be watching this, as the film offers up plenty of memorable and inventive kills.  The most memorable of these is probably the demise of a young Linnea Quigley, who ends up with a bit of a "deer in the headlights" look on her face, to say the least.  A lot of the scenes of terror are surrounded by children as well, and the film's message of Christmas fear can't be underestimated.  If you're a good parent, you can probably figure out that this isn't for the kiddies.
There's not much to Silent Night, Deadly Night as a piece of cinema - I wouldn't defend it in the court of public opinion, that's for sure - but it's funny to me as I look back at the reactions to this piece of trash entertainment.  (For example, the video below features the great Siskel & Ebert's reactions to the film, which include condemnation of those behind its creation.)  Aside from critics that have an image to uphold, most of the outrage about the film comes from people who didn't see it; reminding us that - when it comes to pop culture - the tree doesn't even have to fall in the woods for someone to hear it. 
Silent Night, Deadly Night is a sleazy film that fits an exploitation label more easily than most slashers.  But there are plenty of exploitation films out there, and I don't think one that capitalizes on a certain fictional character should be worthy of deeper hate than any other film that preaches trauma to women and children.  There are plenty of reasons to dislike the film from a critical standpoint, but I have to give it credit for taking its sleazy idea and running with it.  While it might not spread Christmas cheer, Silent Night, Deadly Night is a wicked bit of counterprogramming that reminds us what horror filmmakers can do when they want to be vicious.


Liam Underwood said...

You pretty much hit the nail on the head there regarding the controversey surrounding this film. A whole lot of whinging over something kids shouldn't even be watching!

It's not a terrible film, and definitely has its moments... but I look forward to hearing your opinions on the sequel!

: said...

Good ole' 80s sleaze. I've seen this one 2 or 3 times, and it always makes me want to take a steaming-hot shower afterwards.

I love it. heh