Ho Ho Hold the phone while I get my axe. Anchor Bay Entertainment has released Silent Night, Deadly Night: Christmas Survival Double Feature, featuring 1984's notorious Silent Night, Deadly Night from TriStar and director Charles E. Sellier, Jr. (yes...that same Charles E. Sellier, Jr. from family-friendly Schick-Sunn Classic Films), and the now notorious ("Garbage day!") sequel, Silent Night, Deadly Night: Part 2, from 1987. Parents and teachers and politicians really got ticked off back in 1984 at the notion of a serial killer dressing up as Santa...but within three short years when the sequel came out, nobody cared anymore. Plenty of extras and nice transfers (all holdovers from Anchor's previous 2003 release of this double-header) make this a buy for newcomers who like their mayhem with a dash of Yuletide cheer. Let's look briefly at each movie.
SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHTLittle Billy Chapman (Jonathon Best) is not having a good Christmas. Left alone momentarily with his institutionalized, catatonic grandfather (Will Hare), Grandpa suddenly becomes lucid and tells a frightened Danny that Santa Claus punishes little children who have been naughty. On the ride back home, when Mom (Tara Buckman) and Dad (Jeff Hansen) try and reassure Billy about Santa, they don't count on a savage killer (Charles Dierkop), dressed as Santa, waylaid on the side of the road. Foolishly stopping despite Billy's dire warnings, "Killer" Santa zaps Dad, and almost rapes Mom before slitting her throat―all while baby brother Ricky screams and Billy watches from a ditch. Cut to Saint Mary's Home for Orphaned Children, where 8-year-old Billy (Danny Wagner) likes to draw pictures of Santa being stabbed, with Rudolph's head chopped off. Kindly Sister Margaret (Gilmer McCormick) tries to help, but hardass Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin) knows the Devil when she sees it, and soon takes over
I didn't see Silent Night, Deadly Night during its brief first run in '84; having been a big fan of Deadly Blessing, I picked Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street on opening night, instead. However, I did see it at a drive-in a few years later (where it worked perfectly), but anybody who was into movies remembers full-well the controversy that came with the movie's initial bow. Partly a combination of the widespread rumor that Santa Claus himself was doing the murdering in the movie (I wonder who started that?), and parents, teachers, and politicians horrified at the exploitation of the iconic holiday figure in service of a cheapjack slasher movie, Silent Night, Deadly Night's media frenzy was the talk of late '84's movie scene, with TriStar eventually yanking it from theaters prior to Christmas (director Sellier, Jr., in his 2003 audio interview included on this disc, claims TriStar shut the release down due to possible negative impact on a forthcoming stock offering―not the audience protests).
What's amusing today (or sad, if you're in that kind of mood) is how tame Silent Night, Deadly Night seems, compared to the outright pornographic mayhem that is available on a daily basis in movies, television, and on the internet. As slasher films from that period go, it's no more egregious in its violence and nudity than others that were out in theaters at the time; only the inclusion of the "big fat man with the long white beard" motif sets it apart for its critics. As to Silent Night, Deadly Night's controversy, one can always count on someone getting worked up about a particular movie that has wound up in the scandal-creating press (who feeds whom first?). What has proved to be hypocritical about those writing today about Silent Night, Deadly Night's protestors is the predictable negative slant usually assigned to them, portraying them as morally out-of-touch, conservative limiters of artistic expression, whereas the feminist and pro-gay groups that felt equally outraged at media scandals like Cruising, Dressed to Kill, and Basic Instinct, were and are lauded for exercising their free-speech rights to protest. Despite their calculated squeals of indignation and outrage, nobody likes these kinds of trumped-up controversies more than the studios and moviemakers (see the recent phony blather to jack-up ticket sales for arrested adolescent Tarantino's latest "homage" to something a grown-up made much better years ago). So I believe Sellier, Jr. when he stated TriStar was already happy with the money Silent Night, Deadly Night took in (more than three times its tiny budget), pulling it before it had the chance to impact much more serious money involved with the upcoming TriStar stock offering―movie studios just can't buy the kind of publicity Silent Night, Deadly Night generated during its brief East Coast run...and they would have taken every dime they could.
Seen out of this controversial context almost 30 years later, Silent Night, Deadly Night holds up fairly well, no doubt thanks to director Sellier, Jr.'s straight-ahead approach to the material. For a genre that spawned countless low-budget entries more concerned with outrageous "kills" than the most basic continuity, it's not surprising Silent Night, Deadly Night plays as well as it does if you consider Sellier, Jr.'s producing, directing, and writing pedigrees, where in those various capacities, he contributed memorable (and highly profitable) exploitation efforts such as In Search of Noah's Ark, The Mysterious Monster, The Adventures of Frontier Freemont, The Lincoln Conspiracy, In Search of Historic Jesus, Beyond and Back, The Bermuda Triangle, Hangar 18, and television's The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams (Anchor Bay...I'm waiting for that Schick-Sunn Classic boxed set...). In his audio interview included on this disc, Sellier, Jr. seems a bit embarrassed by his association with this notorious title, but I would imagine at the time he came to it quite openly, considering how profitable the genre was in the early-to-mid '80s (perhaps he was till counting his nickels from his successful production of The Boogens just three years before).
You might find fault in Michael Hickey's script (from Paul Caimi's Slayride story) with the ham-fisted 1940s Freudian underpinnings that cause little Billy to eventually crack, but there's no getting around the fact that Sellier, Jr. puts the movie over with simple-yet-effective storytelling, even achieving an increasingly giddy tone for the sick-joke-loving viewer (like myself) who can't quite believe how outrageously far Billy is pushed before he snaps (by the time Sellier, Jr. shows Billy being forced to put on the Santa suit and scaring the begeesus out of the little kids sitting on his lap, you could have added a laugh track and created the Saturday Night Live skit to end all SNL holiday skits). There's a poker-faced grimness to the pre-massacre scenes depicting Billy's horrific childhood, that reminded me less of Schick-Sunn and more of Charles B. Pierce's The Town That Dreaded Sundown-kind of drive-in exploitation (I'm surprised Catholics didn't protest the movie, too), while the kills, necessary to the genre, are executed with the required brio (the deer antlers is a dubious highlight). Nudity is of course on display, as genre convention also demands (how fine is scream queen Linnea Quigley?), while the performances get the job done (old pros Chauvin and particularly Hare―an original member of the Actors Studio―really sell their turns here). Sure it's sick to see someone dressed as Santa Claus commit mayhem (little girls Siskel and Ebert famously shouted about "blood money" when they reviewed it―talk about hilarious overreaction), but since it's not the real Santa...I think grownups can handle Silent Night, Deadly Night if they so choose (you want something truly offensive? Try that phone commercial this Christmas that showed Mrs. Claus sending Santa a dirty home video―now that's sick).
SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT: PART 2
Ricky Caldwell (Eric Freeman), the now-grown baby brother of Silent Night, Deadly Night's Billy, is an inmate in a psychiatric institution: seeing his brother gunned down by the cops obviously affected him greatly. Interviewed by his umpteenth shrink, Dr. Henry Bloom (James Newman), Ricky, for forty minutes of screen time, recounts what happened in the first movie, before telling how he grew up. Adopted by the Rosenbergs, Ricky grows up and prefers going for long walks...especially if while out, he can punish a would-be rapist boyfriend (Randy Baughman) but grinding him into the dirt with a Jeep, or kill a loan shark with an umbrella (Frank Novak). Salvation in the form of hot blonde Jennifer (Elizabeth Cayton) doesn't last long when Ricky decides her ex, Chip (Kenneth Brian James), is "naughty," and needs to die...along with anyone else he sees.
Tiresome. According to the commentary track included on this disc, due to the video success of the first Silent Night, Deadly Night, the producers of Silent Night, Deadly Night: Part 2 wanted screenwriter Joseph H. Earle and co-scripter and director Lee Harry to recut the first film as an ersatz sequel. However, they both insisted on doing something new, so a compromise (driven by the extremely low budget) was reached: cut the original down by half and work it into new material focused on the youngest brother. Silent Night, Deadly Night: Part 2 was finished in 1987, but it received only a minimal release, going on to make much more money as a VHS perennial in the horror section of local rental shops.
Granted, Silent Night, Deadly Night: Part 2 does have some amusing moments (I love Cayton warily saying, "Uh, oh..." when Freeman says, "Naughty!" to her), and one or two of the kills are fairly funny, including the now infamous "Garbage day!" kill that has gone on to some kind of cult fame (from what I've read) with bad horror movie addicts. However, those scenes are few and far between in the movie's final 40 minutes or so (considering the first half is almost all footage from Part I). As with any kind of low-budget exploitation programmer like this, you can either salvage the cheap production and iffy performances with some spirited direction and good special effects, or have a strong central performance to at least divert us from the weak storyline. Kudos to director Harry for at least attempting a light touch, but it's difficult to get into Silent Night, Deadly Night: Part 2 largely because of Freeman's truly hilarious turn here. Delivering his lines with an elephant's subtlety, with either a painful faux-slyness or a blank, clenched approximation of rage, when Freeman throws out this ridiculous laugh every other minute in the movie's final moments (as much the director's fault as Freeman's), it's difficult to take Silent Night, Deadly Night: Part 2 as anything other than an inept, funny-for-all-the-wrong-reasons joke.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.