Originally published on Dork Shelf!
On November 16th, 1984, two films in release on the same day that would almost literally carve out their own places in cinematic history. Two horror movies – both late for the Halloween movie going season, but neither related to the old pagan holiday – would become cultural icons for different reasons on this very day. Those two films were Wes Craven’s landmark success A Nightmare on Elm Street and the Christmas themed slasher Silent Night, Deadly Night.
Neither film hit number one at the box office, and technically Nightmare was in its second week following a well received, but extremely limited release the previous week. But no matter how slowly and steadily Craven’s film cleaned up en route to becoming one of the most successful franchises in the history of any genre, it pales in comparison to the shit storm that Charles E. Sellier Jr.’s film was about to find itself in the middle of. Silent Night, Deadly Night out grossed Nightmare on Elm Street in its opening weekend, but only several days later the film would find itself amid a fury of outrage and controversy.
Eager to get in on some of that early 80s horror cash that was flowing so abundantly, Columbia Pictures boutique imprint TriStar began actively looking for something that could have a great hook and franchise potential. Optioning a book from writer Paul Caimi titled Slayride, TriStar assigned then novice producer Ira Barmark to bring the material to the big screen despite only having television experience. Barmark turned to fellow television producer Sellier to direct despite the fact that he really didn’t like directing all that much.
It was to be the story of a young man who had a fear of Santa Claus after he watched a robber impersonating jolly old St. Nick murder his family, leaving him and his brother orphans. After not adjusting to life in a Catholic home for children, the now older, wiser, stronger, and extremely moral Billy lands a job at a toy store where he’s forced to play Santa on Christmas Eve. He almost makes it through the night despite gritting his teeth the entire time, until his punishment for naughtiness at the hands of the evil Mother Superior and his childhood trauma come back to haunt him and he becomes an axe wielding punisher of the immoral.
So, in short, he was EXACTLY the kind of figure that family values loving Reganites could gravitate towards. Surely, nothing bad could come from a film as slight and subversive as this, right?
The public and the pundits had spoken. It was absolutely unconscionable to release a film that close to the holidays with Santa being depicted in the film’s advertising as a killer. Angry protests raged outside of theatres showing the film. TriStar pulled all advertising for the film six days after it opened and the film was gone three weeks into its run as the studio bowed to the pressure and hatred being driven in its direction no matter how much money it was making for them. Then, they promptly dropped the picture and washed their bloody hands of it entirely. There was no copycats depicting what they saw in the film, but they were terrified that someone would.
Smelling there was money still to be made, independent releaser Aquarius Releasing (who also handled duties for Cannibal Ferox, Fear City , Gross Out, and a slew of other trash classics) picked up the rights to the film and decided to re-release it in 1985… in the month of May.
To be very certain and up front, it’s very clear by the time the credits roll on Silent Night, Deadly Night that the entire production was seen by TriStar as a license to print money. There’s really no reason for the final 20 minutes to exist other than as an excuse for teenagers and gore hounds to get their rocks off on a very small handful of creative kills that have almost no bearing on the plot of the movie. I’m not really here to defend Sellier and Barmak’s film as a whole. In fact, there’s a re-make out right now that does the killer Santa gag even better than this entry. But what I do want to defend and remind people of was just how interesting, intriguing, and downright unsettling the first hour of the film really is.
If Batman were a villain and Alfred was a deranged nun, then you would essentially have the plot to this film easily covered, but whereas a Batman story would flesh out the plot in great detail and gloss over the dirtier details of Bruce Wayne’s life, the extended opening of Sellier’s movie feels acutely and brutally tragic in a shockingly effective way.
Beginning in 1971 and following a family visit to see his grandfather in a mental hospital that would be traumatic on anyone listening to a crazy guy telling them that Santa was going to punish them, there’s actually some character moments between Billy and his family that makes their murder at the hands of a robed, gun and switchblade toting thug all the more frightening. From there, we’re forced to watch the abuse of Billy at the hands of an overzealous nun that makes us feel for him even more.
Billy never deserved the life he ended up getting, and maybe the problem was that a great deal of the punishment that never gave him time to heal and grieve like a child should came from the same moral majority line-toers that ended up protesting the film in the first place. Let’s take Santa out of the equation and let’s forget for a second that Barmak in that news clip talks about hypocrisy when he’s still a part of the same machine, and focus on how insidious that all sounds when looked at objectively.
Billy was always forced into situations he never wanted to be in. The one person at the orphanage who was actually nice to him gets kicked out for illicit sex that Billy gets punished for witnessing. You can look, but you pay for looking in more ways than one. There’s no way to win with these people. Even when he gets the job at the toy store about an hour in, Billy really doesn’t seem like that bad of a guy. He’s trying to do what’s right based on what he has been told.
At that very point that changes his life, however, he becomes the crusader he’s become conditioned to be. It’s an interesting transformation, and while the actual killings of his co-workers feel like they would be a more interesting cap to the movie than what follows, the film goes off the rails a bit by going on longer than it should for no good reason.
Billy becomes a catchphrase spewing baddie (“PUNNISH!”) that kills people he’s never before had any interaction simply because they are doing naughty things like being jerks to sledding kids or having sex on pool tables. It feels like a completely different movie where the creativity has just run out. There are some downright Lynchian moments involving deputies who only make matters worse through snap judgments and Billy giving a good little girl a bloody box cutter, but there’s still something intriguing about the kills in this otherwise unsuccessful segment of the film.
Billy never really actually SEES the bad behaviour taking place before he punishes them. Or, at least, we have no idea that he’s really watching. The audience can see it, and in a way it’s the expectations of the audience that are punishing the avarice, greed, and bawdiness of the victims. It’s an interesting narrative fuck up that’s an intriguing comment on the time in which the film was made, and something that this year’s pseudo-remake director Steven C. Miller rectifies, by just making his version a killer Santa movie right off the bat making his villain see it as we see it at the same time.
The controversy and success on home video of Silent Night Deadly Night ensured the film’s status as a potential franchise and there was definitely a sequel in the works. Kind of. Sort of. Not really…
Producer Lawrence Applebaum secured the rights to make an independently produced re-cutting of the original film. He never intended to make a sequel, but to squeeze every last bloody dime out of the original film. Editor Lee Harry was brought in to simply complete the assignment of taking an already existing movie and cutting it in a way that no one would ever know they were going to just get the first film all over again. By his own calculations in the film’s DVD audio commentary (available now as a two-pack with the original film through Anchor Bay, incidentally) he was paid so miserably for such a miserable assignment that he was making $75 a week with all the craft service on the production provided by McDonald’s from their own pockets.
I’m not here to defend Silent Night Deadly Night Part 2 in any major way, but to show people that there’s still something interesting to be said about something that started off so crass, has become so notoriously campy, and still has a couple of good moments that really speaks to the sheer will of everyone involved with the production into making something vaguely ambitious out of the worst possible assignment.
Instead of the now deceased Billy, SNDNP2 follows the exploits of his younger brother and fellow survivor Ricky, played by Eric Freeman who we will definitely get back to in a second. Ricky isn’t doing so well, finding himself in a mental hospital being interrogated by a doctor (James Newman) trying to figure out why Ricky has ended up in the care of the state following a rampage similar to the one his brother went on. Only instead of focusing immediately on Ricky’s life, the film instead has the younger brother recap everything that happened in the first film as if he had actually been there the whole time when anyone who saw the first film knew he wasn’t anywhere near these events until the climactic scene.
There’s no less than 48 minutes of footage from the original film in this sequel before getting to any sort of original plot involving Ricky quite suddenly falling in love with a woman and developing a relationship with her. Even after a section that amounts to a little over half the movie, there’s still clips of the original interspersed here and there, but not to the alarming degree at the start of the film.
From the tone of the film’s audio commentary, Harry and co-writer/collaborator Joseph Earle knew they made a piece of complete shit. (Sample dialogue: Earle: “How long was this in theatres?” Harry: “Um… four hours.”) To their credit, however, they went off and created something they weren’t supposed to make in the first place. Throwing caution to the wind and cutting as many corners as possible, they crafted a story that wasn’t supposed to have been made. In this section that isn’t Christmas-y in the slightest, the found money for dolly shots, gore effects (in one case to conceal that there was a different actress playing Mother Superior from the first film), and even a car crash and an explosion. Is it any good? Fuck no! But there’s some fun and sly commentary to be had.
There’s an exact turning point where SNDNP2 jumps the shark and blows up everything that came behind it. Ricky and his new girlfriend are in a dingy grindhouse theatre waiting for a movie to start. On screen is a trailer the audience never sees for a film known simply as “Chaos” and it sounds like a promo spot for every over the top action thriller ever made. When his girlfriend notices Ricky is in awe of what he’s seeing, she asks indignantly why he likes them. He shrugs them off and says he just does. Then the real magic happens.
There are a couple of dickheads in the auditorium causing a ruckus, including his girlfriend’s former suitor that Ricky will eventually have to regulate on, but at one point he leaves the theatre leaving only a bunch of jerks and dead eyed gawkers in the audience. The movie they are watching is Silent Night Deadly Night, which halfway insinuates that if you are still in the theatre watching the sequel at this point, you’re pretty much an idiot. It’s provocation in the best possible way a movie of this calibre can get. When Ricky returns and his girlfriend wants to leave he says he’s “just starting to enjoy this picture.” His words prove prophetic for what is about to follow.
As a reward for sticking with the film for so long, Harry turns the gleefully unhinged, over the top, and admittedly terribly Eric Freeman loose on the whole film for one of the most widely adored and culturally climaxes for lovers of shit cinema. It includes the famed GARBAGE DAY rampage, but what makes it all the more special is knowing that none of this footage should have ever been made. It was essentially an enormous “fuck you” from filmmakers that were poorly treated for having some sort of a vision aside from wanting to take money directly from the people who would want to watch it without giving them anything in return. “We’re going to give these poor people a movie, even if it sucks and our lead actor is going to disappear and go into hiding a few years later!” Even if I can’t get behind the movie AT FUCKING ALL, that kind of sentiment deserves some major respect and acknowledgement.
The Silent Night series would go on for three more proper entries, each of which had its own bizarre claim to fame, but none of which ever really got the same recognition. The third film would re-cast Ricky as a nearly mute Bill Mosely stalking a blind girl who can barely act in a film directed by no less than Two Lane Blacktop helmer Monte Hellman. The fourth drops the continuity of the series entirely for a story about witchcraft directed and co-written by splatter horror luminary Brian Yuzna (Bride of Re-animator, Return of the Living Dead 3). The fifth film involves a creator of killer toys played by Hollywood legend Mickey Rooney, who actually joined in on the protesting of the first film in the series condemning it as irredeemable filth. I guess, that is, until he needs a paycheque of course. When that happens the high horse runs off on its own for a while, I guess.
Film and Performing Arts Editor of Dork Shelf - Andrew Parker writes for numerous blogs and publications, including Notes From the Toronto Underground, the Onion A/V Club, NOW Magazine, and his more personal pop-culture blog, I Can't Get Laid in This Town. He is also the curator of the Defending the Indefensible series. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org