When it comes to generating controversy, you’re unlikely to see a Christmas-themed horror film that ever stirs up as much as Silent Night, Deadly Night did upon it’s 1984 release. Despite the fact that a very similar film, Christmas Evil, had come out just four years earlier with little fanfare, groups of self-imposed arbitrators of morality fought hard to get this Santa-themed slasher pulled from theaters as quickly as possible. Even though they were successful at this and the film was removed shortly after it’s release, that didn’t stop it from crushing the box office while it was there. Despite the controversy, or more likely because of it, the film saw profits that more than tripled the original budget, even outmatching the seminal slasher A Nightmare on Elm St which was released the same week. Ya know, the film where a disfigured man’s restless spirit murders teen in their sleep with his razor-fingers. Apparently that was far less shocking to some than a killer with a fake beard and a red suit.
The plot follows the sad, tragic life of Billy Chapman who is put into an orphanage after witnessing his parents’ murder on Christmas Eve by a criminal in a Santa suit when he was five. As he grows up with the memory of that horrifying event repressed deep inside him, his trauma is further exacerbated by the abuse he suffers in the orphanage at the hands of the stern Mother Superior. Although he is able to hold on to his sanity through his late teens, a series of events finally trigger his psychotic break causing him to go on a murderous rampage dressed as Saint Nick.
Even though the plot may sound a bit silly out of context, the film plays it surprisingly straight. One of the things I was most impressed with is how well it sets up and justifies events in the story. In situations where lesser movies would simply throw an event in to move the story along SNDN really goes the extra mile to make sure that actions are logically grounded and explained. For instance, the original Santa killer doesn’t just appear out of nowhere, he is established in a previous scene as are the series of events that lead to Billy’s mental snap.
The film also takes a very interesting and unusual perspective in the way it is presented, which undoubtedly added to the controversy. Rather than having the killer be the mysterious antagonist hiding in the shadows to strike at unsuspecting teens, he is front and center as the protagonist which is a perspective that makes audiences far more uncomfortable. In addition, he is also a very sympathetic victim of horrible circumstances and the scenes of his tragic childhood are truly sad and upsetting. However, rather than dwelling on long scenes of exposition SNDN provides just enough information to build the story to it’s inevitable outcome and doesn’t get bogged down in filler that slows the momentum.
The film also gives you a great sense of the characters who all feel like real, fleshed-out people rather than two-dimensional stereotypes, regardless of the size of their roles. This adds more dramatic weight to the kills when they occur and keeps the story far more interesting. Also, the kills themselves are brutal and pulled off incredibly well, especially the classic antler-impalement scene that is not only iconic, but chillingly beautiful in it’s execution.
All in all, an excellent addition to any horror fan’s Christmas list and well deserving of annual viewing to really get you in the mood for the season of mall Santas and commercial excess.