Some movies want to be liked and respected. Others want to be loved and treasured for all times.
Silent Night, Deadly Night dares you to hate it with every fibre of your being. When it was released in late 1984, many took the bait. Critics crucified it. Parents torched it. Politicians were outraged. Even Mickey Rooney condemned it. It lasted a week in theatres.
It was exactly the kind of reaction the filmmakers were hoping for. (It more than doubled its budget in box office receipts.) In fact, it’s right there on the poster:
“You’ve made it through Halloween, now try and survive Christmas.”
The filmmakers were so shameless in their sales pitch they deliberately tied their decidedly mediocre offering to John Carpenter’s more skillfully made thriller. They had to do something to reel in the gullible.
So, what was it about this movie that enflamed the delicate sensibilities of so many Reagan-era Americans? A guy in a Santa costume killing people.
About a half hour into Silent Night, Deadly Night, a character we’ve gotten to know at three different stages of his tortured, young life completely snaps. At age 18, he gets a job working as a stock boy in a toy store during the Christmas holidays. As the big day draws near, the store needs someone to be Santa for the visiting customers and their kids. They’re kinda desperate. There’s not much time left to fill the position.
Unfortunately, young Billy doesn’t see Santa like everybody else does. That’s because of one terrible day he had when he was five years old.
During a visit with his grandfather in a mental institution (the overly obvious zoom on the outside sign made me laugh out loud), he’s informed that Santa punishes naughty children. The grandpa’s supposed to be in a catatonic state like De Niro in Awakenings but when Billy’s parents are busy talking with the doctor in his office, this crazy, cackling old man suddenly comes to life to ruin Christmas for his naïve grandson.
On the drive back home, Billy’s dad temporarily stops the car to assist a guy in a Santa outfit who’s having car trouble. Billy freaks out at the mere sight of him purely because of what his duplicitous grandpa told him. His now paranoid instincts unintentionally turn out to be correct however because we just saw the guy kill a cynical clerk for 31 bucks in an earlier scene. In a flash, the dad is shot through the windshield and Billy’s mom is assaulted before her throat is slashed. As his infant brother cries throughout this cringeworthy ordeal (which thankfully is somewhat restrained), Billy flees and hides, leaving him behind.
The next thing we know it’s three years later and Billy & his brother are living in a Catholic orphanage overseen by a sadistic Mother Superior. Poor Billy can’t do anything without evoking her anger. Completely oblivious to his traumatic state that recurs every Christmas, she ruthlessly punishes him not understanding how much further damage she’s inflicting on his already fragile psyche. Her stupidity is terrifying. God knows nothing else in this movie is.
He’s sent to his room for drawing a picture of Santa with knives stabbed into his body next to a decapitated reindeer. He gets a literal ass whooping for leaving without her permission. When he has a nightmare, his wrists are tied to the bed. It’s only after amusingly slugging a visiting guy in a Santa suit after being stupidly forced to sit on his lap that we are thankfully spared from seeing him receive yet another cruel punishment.
When a kindly nun allows him out of room detention for that dark drawing to go play with the other orphans outside, mysterious moaning leads him to look in the keyhole of a room where a couple is having sex. Seeing the young woman’s breasts triggers his memory of his mom having her top ripped open by the bad Santa which spooks him. Right on cue, Mother Superior throws him out of the way and proceeds to whip the couple for enjoying each other’s company. She’s not down with coitis.
That leads to a pivotal moment that changes Billy’s life for good. Mother Superior explains to him that people who do naughty things must be punished. Ten years later, after witnessing a fellow employee assault a co-worker he has a mad crush on during his toy store’s after hours Christmas party, he makes his inevitable heel turn while wearing that Santa suit as he strangles the combative son of a bitch with Christmas lights in the stock room. Instead of showing appreciation for ending the assault, the cute brunette calls him “crazy”. He offs her, as well.
And that’s about the time the purposefully offensive Silent Night, Deadly Night, an awkward mix of cheese & tasteless provocation, becomes just another unimaginative slasher flick only with lousy original Christmas songs. (To be fair, I did like the outdoor scenery.) After exiting the toy store, Billy seeks out more naughty victims like the amorous teen couple who should be studying and a bully who steals a kid’s sled. Meanwhile, the kind nun who tried to protect him seeks out the assistance of law enforcement which turns out to be a really terrible idea. They’re as unaccountable and reckless as real-life cops.
One of the biggest misconceptions about John Carpenter’s Halloween was this false notion that he was making some kind of conservative statement against teen sex. Michael Myers didn’t kill those babysitters because they were fucking. He killed them because they reminded him of his sister, his first victim. They were distracted and wouldn’t fight back.
On the other hand, Silent Night, Deadly Night, like The Toolbox Murders, I Spit On Your Grave, Maniac and Friday The 13th among many other appalling examples, is very much about punishing the sexual. Poor Billy is so screwed up about carnal pleasure that when he has a dream about fooling around with that cute co-worker from the toy store it turns violent. Even his own “naughtiness” isn’t immune from the influence of Mother Superior’s pervasive sex-negative attitudes.
Inevitably, Billy’s trail of bloody carnage leads him back to the place where he felt most alienated. But the movie, which only views him as sympathetic up to a point, doesn’t even allow him the pleasure of killing his biggest tormenter. All it does is set up a sequel no one asked for.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, August 21, 2016