'Silent Night, Deadly Night,' the best-worst holiday movie of all time
A confession: I’m not wild about Christmas. As somebody who gets unnecessarily neurotic about whether or not everybody else is having a good time, the onset of shopping crowds, traveling woes, gift-buying difficulties, and food-related malaise often overwhelms my delicate constitution. (Also, the constant claptrap about the War on Christmas doesn’t make the season any more fun.)
But there are a handful of Christmas traditions I have adopted over the years that have made the last six weeks of the year something close to bearable. The cornerstone of those rituals is the annual viewing of Silent Night, Deadly Night, a nasty little bit of holiday-themed slasher nonsense that essentially casts Santa Claus as a serial killer. But like a lot of the also-ran cut-’em-ups of the ’80s, there’s so much more going on in Silent Night, Deadly Night than meets the eye, and I have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about it (and its sequels), more than perhaps any other film I have seen. (And thanks to the yearly screenings, it’s undoubtedly the movie I’ve seen the most, which is a troubling revelation to type out).
Of course, a movie about a murderous Father Christmas isn’t for everybody, but here are 20 thoughts about Silent Night, Deadly Night that will hopefully help you get a feel for why it’s the best-worst holiday film ever constructed.
1. Silent Night, Deadly Night came out in November 1984 but was quickly yanked from movie theaters thanks to protests from parents groups who were disturbed by the ad campaign. Since there’s no such thing as bad publicity, the controversy surrounding the film gave it something of a second life — it re-appeared in theaters in early 1985 with an ad campaign that was based around the negative press it got the first time around. (One of the posters during the film’s resurrection was centered around Gene Siskel calling it “sick, sleazy, and mean-spirited”). They essentially leaned into bad press years before that was a thing.
2. It didn’t do much business — according to BoxOfficeMojo, Silent Night, Deadly Night only brought in about $2.5 million during its initial release. Still, that’s a decent return for a movie that reportedly was made for only $750,000.
3. And man, it sure looks like it. Silent Night, Deadly Night is a painfully low budget-looking affair, and there aren’t any actors who were grinding out a living here who later made a bigger splash (like, say, Jennifer Aniston in Leprechaun or Paul Rudd in Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers). It’s a real batch of people who were probably relatives of the dudes making it.
4. Those gentlemen, by the way, are a fascinating bunch. Director Charles Sellier, Jr., who passed away in 2011, was best known for creating the long-running book and television series The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams and spent the bulk of his career overseeing evangelical films. (He took the job as a personal favor to a friend who ran TriStar, the film’s original distributor). Screenwriter Michael Hickey only has one other writing credit to his name, and that’s for character creation on Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (which we’ll get into a little later). Producer Ira Barmak is also something of a non-entity outside of this film. That’s a testament to the power of the slasher movie at the time — with the Friday the 13th and Halloween franchises raking in big bucks and pretenders soaking up the overflow, studios were itching to get in on the formula themselves. That’s how a bunch of relatively unknowns managed to convince a major studio (a supergroup recently co-founded by Columbia, CBS, and HBO) to bankroll their holiday-themed horror flick.
5. The plot of Silent Night, Deadly Night should be simple, but it’s painfully complicated. We begin with a kid named Billy, a sub-Culkin-cute moppet who witnesses the murder of his parents on Christmas Eve. The killer is a drunk dude dressed as Santa Claus, which naturally makes Billy associate Santa (and Christmas time in general) with murder and mayhem. So then there’s a smash cut to a few years later at an orphanage where Billy is at the mercy of an abusive nun. He draws a picture of some reindeer being slaughtered and then snoops on two way-too-old orphans having sex, which earns him a lashing. Following an unfortunate incident with another visiting Santa Claus, we smash cut to grown-up Billy working at a toy store and dressing up as Santa for Christmas. (You can see where this is going.) He witnesses one of his fellow employees trying to rape another, snaps, and goes on a killing spree that ultimately ends with him going after the nun in the orphanage.
6. Here are all the reasonable questions you probably have that do not get answered: Why did the movie need to build in some weird psycho-sexual triggers for the killer when the trauma of seeing his parents murdered is plenty of justification for him flipping out later? If you’re well aware of Billy’s background, as the nun is, why would you force him to constantly confront the icon that turned him into an orphan in the first place? And if you’re Billy, why would you work at a toy store, where Christmas tends to be a big deal and you know you tend to freak out around then? It’s utterly confounding.
7. One element of the plot that I was saving for its own moment: Right in the beginning of the film, this whole nightmare is set off by a visit to a building designated as “UTAH MENTAL FACILITY,” where Billy meets with his comatose grandfather. But when Billy’s parents duck out to talk to a doctor about medication or whatever, Grandpa wakes up to explain to Billy that Santa Claus will punish you if you’re not good, and that “Christmas Eve is the scariest damn night of the year!” This performance justifies the entire existence of this movie, and it never, ever gets old.
8. Let’s break that scene down a bit. The actor playing Grandpa is a gentleman named Will Hare, who had a pretty healthy career as an actor in television and on Broadway. To ’80s video gamers, he’s best known as The Chessmaster. His performance in this scene is delightfully unhinged, especially at the end when he is seemingly falling out of his chair and the way he hits the word “punishes.” Also, it helps that he’s given the best bit of writing in this entire film. The line, “You better run…for your life!” is fantastically weird, as is the line, “Hehehehe, your daddy told you that, didn’t he?” I wasn’t on set, but I guarantee you Hare was the only actor who created a back story for his character, and I would have loved to hear exactly why he thought he had a vendetta against Billy’s father (unless he was the one who had Grandpa committed to the UTAH MENTAL FACILITY). Also, though Grandpa is meant to sound like a coot, his Santa-related paranoia is validated only a few hours later when Santa Claus actually does show up to murder Billy’s parents. Grandpa was right!
9. That whole sequence in the orphanage is obviously super weird, and seems to exist only to give Billy a character he can seek out once he flips his murder switch. That role falls to Lilyan Chauvin as Mother Superior, another veteran actress whose career stretched across film, TV, and stage. She does a reasonable job as Mother Superior, though she’s so unsympathetic that it makes the third act of the movie sort of anti-climatic. She’s set up to be a villain, but obviously Billy the Santa Suit Wearing Killer is more of a villain, so Mother Superior has to survive this round (SPOILER ALERT). But it’s deeply unsatisfying, especially considering the film suggests her abuse of Billy helped turn him into a raving madman. I guess she sort of ends up like the Loomis character from Halloween? It really drives home the fundamental problem with this movie: There’s nobody to root for (except Grandpa, of course).
10. Because this is a slasher film from the ’80s, the creators had to cram some nudity in there. But how do you do that in a film about a killer Santa Claus around a holiday as decidedly un-sexy as Christmas? That leads us to the film’s centerpiece kill, which takes place at a random house where two 40-year-olds playing teenagers are about to get it on. They are hanging out at a Random ’80s House that features a pool table, a velvet painting of a tiger, a mounted deer head, and an indeterminate number of staircases and fireplaces (spatial awareness is not this film’s strong suit). While making out on said billiards table, the girl pauses because she thinks she heard something outside and assumes it’s the cat who needs to be let in. So she goes to open her front door completely topless and gets tackled by Billy Claus, who picks her up and impales her on the antlers of the mounted deer.
11. There’s a great sequence once the cops realize that there is a murderous Santa Claus in town wherein they start responding to calls about every Santa spotting. They raid one house where they see Santa climbing into a window via a ladder, only to find out that it was a father trying to surprise his daughter as Santa Claus. Is that a thing that ever actually happened to anybody? (The parents posing as Santa on Christmas, I mean; not the inappropriate holiday raid by police.) Or is that something that only exists in sitcoms?
12. In the end, Billy is killed by a cop after breaking into the orphanage, but not before another officer accidentally guns down a priest posing as Santa Claus. The film ends, as all these movies tend to, on a cliffhanger that suggests that Billy’s younger brother (who was an infant when his parents were murdered) may carry the mantle of Santa-related murder.
13. And he does! Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 arrived in 1987, and it is glorious. Most of the first part of the film is footage from the first movie, which is followed by Billy’s younger brother Ricky (now all grown up and himself a resident of the UTAH MENTAL FACILITY) going on a rampage of his own. The first half features Ricky telling stories about his past to a psychiatrist, and those stories are illustrated by scenes from the first movie. What’s awesome is that there are things he mentions that he in no way could have known. Sure, Billy could have explained his parents’ murder to him (he was, at the time, unable to make memories thanks to his baby brain), but there are other parts of Billy’s grown-up murders that Ricky was never aware of at the time.
14. The guy who plays Ricky is a dude named Eric Freeman. He does all his acting with his eyebrows, and it is glorious.
15. After a series of really, really weird interactions with his shrink, Ricky dispatches him and decides to start killing. His spree is amazing. He kills some kind of Utah mobster with an umbrella, like he’s the Penguin. He also runs over a dude with a Jeep Wrangler. Later, in a major violation of slasher protocol, he picks up a gun and just starts randomly shooting strangers.
16. That sequence does, however, lead to the greatest moment in the history of cinema. You need not know the context — just let this wash over you.
17. If you think I’ve never had a fantasy baseball team called Garbage Day, then we are obviously not friends.
18. Seriously, let’s watch this again.
19. There are three more sequels: Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out!; Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation, and Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker. They are all terrible, and not in a fun way.
20. In 2012, there was a sorta-remake simply called Silent Night. It was also not good, completely missing the camp that made the original a home-video success. If you really want to dive head first into this universe, there’s a DVD out there that contains the first two movies. And really, you need only watch the Grandpa scene in the first movie before jumping into the second — everything else of note is embedded in the sequel.
So now you can consider yourself educated. Merry Christmas, everyone!