REVIEW: Silent Night, Deadly Night [1984]

“Santa Claus will punish you!”

Move over It’s a Wonderful Life, there is a new kid on the Christmas holiday block and his name is Silent Night, Deadly Night. Billy Chapman witnessed the atrocious murder of his parents on the side of the road at the hand of Santa himself and has never been the same. Raised in an orphanage run by nuns, he has learned very strict meanings for the words ‘naughty’ and ‘punishment’. You see Mother Superior believes punishment is absolute—punishment is good. Mix that hard-lined version of retribution with the fear-inducing memories of Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick and you’ve got one messed up kid primed and ready to snap. If I were basing this review purely on enjoyment—and boy did my friends and I have a riot watching and making fun at every turn—it would get a solid 8/10. Alas, when looking at it as a film, one cannot be that generous. Most people back in 1984 did go a little too far in their hatred though, (the Anchor Bay release has a plethora of quotes from concerned parents and critics), even if it is pretty horribly written and acted.

How does a film called Silent Night, Deadly Night not have the song “Silent Night” playing at any time? Budget constraints must have been the issue, even though I would have thought it in the realm of royalty free, because the only music we get is badly generic stuff with what sounds like a barbershop quartet in the background. Then there is the random construction of some scenes, the gratuitous nude and soft-core porn moments, two sets of expository time leaps, and multiple points that appear to be the ending until you realize the film is less than an hour old. It may be one of the most controversial slashers due to the usurping of all things sacred about Christmas and the joy Santa brings, but I’m more appalled by the lack of any real redeemable qualities. It was mentioned afterwards that at least they appeared to be trying to make something good, and I won’t disagree. With not much money, the only recognizable face being the guy who got struck by lightning 88 times in the head in The Great Outdoors, (Britt Leach), and muddy film stock needing to be spliced back in after being excised before its release to remove the gore that would ruin the holiday for young children that shouldn’t be watching anyway, the only thing the film has going for it is the appeal in laughing at the absurdity of it all.

It all begins strong enough with a Christmas Eve visit to grandpa at the insane asylum. Mom, Dad, and the baby leave the room of catatonic gramps, leaving young Billy to be the only witness to his reanimation and slyly crazed grin. The old man tells the boy to fear Santa Claus because any instance of naughtiness means he will be coming to punish. Billy only needs to nod his head frightfully when asked if he had been bad to hear the cautionary words spill forth, “You see Santa Claus tonight you better run boy, you better run for ya life!” And then the adults return, grandpa goes back to staring silently, and you wonder whether Billy imagined it all or if Will Hare’s creepy delivery, tear-streaked eyes and all, actually occurred. However, a malicious Santa on the side of the road, (Who falls for the broken down car con anymore? Honestly), makes us forget about the (in)validity of that scene because soon we see what that punishment grandpa spoke of is—a raped mother with throat slit and a gunned down father, both bloodily lying in the street. It actually is a pretty effective start to what will soon delve into tired clichés and random homicide where a psychological study of evil being avenged might have been possible to save some merit.

Instead of finding a way to overcome his fear of Santa and his murdering ways, life with the nuns at Saint Mary’s orphanage only serves to exacerbate things, causing even more pain and suffering to be associated with the holiday of goodwill. By the time Billy has grown old enough to get a job and be out in the world, we start to sympathize with his plight, having seen what he had experienced in just eighteen years of life. Don’t worry, though, that feeling of sadness soon goes away when his grip on realty breaks for good, turning him into a sociopath version of the fictional legend, going around town killing all the bad girls and boys. All it took was putting him in a Santa suit—the kid has been physically afraid of this character for over a decade, so that was a great idea—and witnessing a rape like that of his mother to make sanity wave goodbye. Next comes a series of grisly murders of innocent people arbitrarily chosen because the runtime needed some padding. Basically, if you bully some kids and go sledding at night, drink alcohol, (which would make sense if someone in his past had been a drunk), or show a nipple or two, you better watch out, Santa’s a-coming for ya and he ain’t got no present.

So many moments are laughable and epitomize the greatness that was cheap 80s cinema. Everyone tries so hard to act scared, but it never really works. Gilmer McCormick, as the good nun Sister Margaret, does her best to feign concern, but then why does it take half a day between finding out Billy is in a Santa costume, (How great is his handling of the little girl on his lap?), and finally getting there without any police backup? As for Billy, Robert Brian Wilson is a blank slate of stoicism. The only sense of animation is in his sweat shakes when things happening in front of him bring up past horrors. Each murder is only leading up to his inevitable return to the orphanage full of naughty little children and abusive religious figures to see punished by his hand. All the usual horror tropes are included from the comical accidental apprehension of other Santas or the heavy-handed setup for a sequel—there have been five with a remake in the works. There is no commentary against the church or blatant hope of instilling the fear of God in children so that they are nice; it’s just a fun romp of blood, gore, and sex. And I discovered what it was I truly wanted this year for Christmas … a wondrous new utility knife because I’ve been a very good boy.

Silent Night, Deadly Night 4/10 | ★ ½

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