Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

Silent Night, Deadly Night

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When Billy Chapman is just a small boy, he witnesses his parents being brutally killed by a madman wearing a Santa Clause outfit. With no one left to take care of him, he and his infant brother are sent to a Catholic orphanage. But instead of getting the counseling he clearly so desperately needs, the Sister in charge of the orphanage resorts to verbal abuse and corporal punishment in an effort to keep him in line during the holidays, at a time when his trauma is most apparent. Sister Margaret takes pity on poor Billy, going so far as to help him secure a job once he turns 18. But it’s clear that Billy never got over his trauma involving Santa Clause, because not long after his store manager asks him to dress up as the jolly old elf, Billy suffers a severe mental break and proceeds to go on a killing spree around town, murdering anyone he perceives as being “naughty.”

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It’s always interesting to see which films get people all up in a tizzy. When it was released in theaters, Silent Night, Deadly Night garnered quite a bit of attention and controversy, thanks at least in part to the whole “Killer Santa” theme. Yet the films You Better Watch Out (AKA: Christmas Evil) and To All A Goodnight, which also featured mass-murdering Santa-dressed killers, didn’t garner nearly the same level of protests or picketed theaters (Or at least none that I could find). Maybe it was because those films were given a more limited theatrical release, or maybe (more likely) it was because the TV advertisements for Silent Night, Deadly Night were more noticeable, often playing during family friendly shows like Three’s Company and Little House on the Prairie that made people incensed enough to pull out their markers and white poster board.

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Either way it doesn’t matter, because only days after its release both the ads, and then ultimately the film were pulled from distribution (Just in time for A Nightmare on Elm Street to swoop in and take over), at least until some cuts could be made to the movie. But the cuts didn’t dampen the controversy, and the new version only ended up being played for a few small test audiences. And when Siskel and Ebert joined the fray to further condemn the film… Well, that pretty much doomed any hopes the distributors had for a re-release, and the movie pretty much ended up relegated to the home video market, where it naturally gained a cult following, as all good controversial movies do. Personally though, I don’t see what the big deal was. Because if you ignore the killer’s outfit, the festive setting and all the obnoxious Christmas songs, the film just feels like yet another early 80’s mediocre slasher.

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Silent Night, Deadly Night is similar to many other slashers from that particular era. You’ve got a killer wandering around at an inopportune time, killing a bunch of young people and anyone else that happens to get in their way. For the most part, it’s really your standard slasher fare. Most of the deaths are pretty mundane, largely being relegated to your expected stranglings, stabbings, and the occasional use of an ax or blunt instrument. Though there are a couple of standouts, including one poor shirtless schmuck who dies by giant glass shard after getting himself chucked out a window, and one particularly gruesome death that involves a mounted deer head. It’s still entertaining to be sure, but other than those two examples there’s nothing too outstanding going on in the plot or blood department.

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Hey, Linnea Quigley, how ya doing?

Really, the film’s one standout, other than its costuming and Christmas setting, is the killer himself, who is not, as many past protestors assumed, Ol’ Saint Nick himself, but rather a very troubled youth who just happens to be wearing a Santa suit. What’s different about this particular killer, is that the audience always knows who the murderer is. He’s not just some faceless, bloodthirsty, unknown quantity like most slasher villains are. We not only know who Billy is, but we also know how his trauma started, why it progressed and, ultimately, what finally triggers the break that causes him to go on a spree (A particularly poor choice of words from his boss). But it doesn’t go so far as to excuse away his behavior. It just gives you enough information to explain it, while also showing that he needs to be stopped. In a weird way, it’s almost an example of what could happen in a ‘worst case scenario’ if you choose to completely ignore childhood trauma, exacerbate it and let it fester for 13 years. If the freakin’ nuns had just let the poor boy go to professional counseling (and not gotten him a job at a toy store during the holidays, WTF Sister Margaret?!), then Billy would have likely been fine. Or maybe at the very least he might have been okay enough not to get all stabby-stabby at the mere thought of Santa Clause.

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Seriously, I’m 99.9% sure this was avoidable.

The only other thing of note is that there are two different cuts of the film available, a cut and an uncut version. The cut version is, of course, shorter and edited down for content, while the uncut edition contains more closeups of the grizzly, gooey parts. Both versions can be found floating around online, but the part to take note of regarding the uncut version, is that the added scenes and content are not of the same quality. When searching for the cut footage to use in the Uncut release, the missing six minutes were found in the Tristar vault. But the footage had been kept in such poor conditions that it had degraded too much for a full restoration. Meaning, when you watch the Uncut film, including the Bluray release, you won’t have to wonder which parts of the film were originally cut out, because the quality of the print will take such a nosedive that you’ll immediately be able to spot it. Which is a real shame. But hey, at least they found the footage intact. So maybe one day they’ll be able to pretty it up to match the 4k restoration. Until then, the gorehound completionists will just have to suffer through some crappy VHS quality death scenes.

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After knowing about the controversy and finally watching the film, I think the biggest take-away from Silent Night, Deadly Night is just how badly poorly thought out marketing can totally tank your movie. Seriously, the film is a perfectly entertaining, if predictable slasher that looks decent, sounds decent, and goes out of its way to create a humanizing backstory for the killer. There’s nothing all that shocking or outstanding about it at all. As far as slashers go, it’s perfectly fine, which just makes the controversy surrounding it all the more puzzling, especially since this isn’t the first time Santa’s been seen swinging an ax at someone. Maybe if the filmmakers had moved their TV ads to a different time slot the film would have WOOSHED! over everyone’s head, just like You Better Watch Out and To All A Goodnight did years before it. Or maybe actress Lilyan Chauvin, who played Mother Superior in the film, was right when she said it was a mistake to center the film’s advertising around Santa, as opposed to, say, Billy’s mental struggles. Who knows. But based on the positive response to the remake from 2012, I think it’s safe to say that no one gives a crap anymore. So onward to the next Santa slasher in the series!

Silent Night, Deadly Night is available on a variety of streaming services.

Silent Night, Deadly Night is also available on DVD and Bluray.

Here are some helpful links:

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Michi

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