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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Santa's Slay: Looking Back At Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)


Lilyan Chauvin (Mother Superior), Robert Brian Wilson (Billy), Gilmer McCormick (Sister Margaret), Britt Leach (Mr. Sims), Linnea Quigley (Denise), Will Hare (Grandpa), Charles Dierkop (Killer Santa)

Directed by Charles E. Sellier, Jr.

"Christmas Eve is the scariest damn night of the year! You see Santa Claus tonight you better run, boy! You better run FOR YOUR LIFE!"

The Short Version: Santa's got an ax to grind in one of the most notorious slashers of all time. Seldom spoken of with high praise, director Sellier--a filmmaker normally associated with wholesome, family entertainment--pushes buttons and envelopes in his yuletide tale of a psycho Saint Nick carving and chopping his way through the film's cast. Deserving of re-appraisal, it's just as sleazy now as it was then; if not more so considering the current trend towards safe-spaces and snowflakes. Its director disowned it, but horror fans embraced it. A seasonal favorite of Ho Ho Ho horror.

After his parents are brutally murdered by a psycho in a Santa Claus suit, young Billy and his baby brother Ricky are taken in at the St. Mary's Home For Orphaned Children. Stricken with fear over the image of Santa killing his parents, Billy finds it difficult adjusting to the strict behavioral tactics of the domineering Mother Superior. Years later the now 18 year old Billy is helped by the kindly Sister Margaret to get a job at a local toy store in the hopes he can fit into society. On Christmas Eve, Billy descends into madness when he's asked to don a Santa suit for kids coming into the store. After killing his co-workers, Billy goes on a killing spree, bringing death to random victims while making his way back to the orphanage for one final encounter with the Mother Superior.

The story goes that then major studio Tri-Star Pictures (before merging with Columbia Pictures and then Sony) wanted to jump into the slasher arena with a low budget winner akin to the likes of FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) and others of that ilk. What they didn't count on was a tidal wave of public backlash. Instead of embracing the attention--negative as it was--the studio decided to pull their $750,000 investment from theaters, despite it quickly making its money back and then some. Loosely based on a short story by Paul Caimi, the reputation of a little movie called SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT would only grow from there.

A great example of irony is that Charles E. Sellier, Jr., a producer of Bigfoot documentaries, nature films and family entertainment for Sunn Classics in the 1970s, would direct one of the most controversial movies of the 1980s. After Sunn was sold to Taft Broadcasting in the summer of 1980, an unhappy Sellier would eventually leave the company in 1982 before his contract was up. Tied up in lawsuits, he was later offered the job of directing SNDN, and allegedly took it on without pay--primarily to keep his crew working.

Shooting for 32 days and under the original title of 'Slayride', SILENT NIGHT was anything but quiet during its brief, two week run before public outrage forced its removal from theaters. Suffering embarrassment akin to Paramount's love-hate treatment of their FRIDAY THE 13TH franchise, Tri-Star lowered their heads in self-inflicted shame and reportedly claimed the film was pulled due to poor box-office. With the rights back in the hands of its producer, Ira Barmack, the film found a longer life on video and cable; and a re-release in the Spring of 1985 via exploitation kings at Aquarius Releasing.

Flash forward to 2016. In our current climate where virtually everything offends everybody, it's easy to look back at this 30+ year old movie and understand why it was so impactful, so offensive to some. SNDN took the image of Santa Claus, the bastion of childhood innocence, and desecrated it in the most spectacularly trashy way possible. It's logical and understandable that this movie would get people riled up. Kids should be allowed to be kids, enjoying those younger days before the hormones of the teen years and headaches of adulthood ruin it all.

Believing in Santa Claus was an aspect of adolescence that made being a kid so much fun... much like putting a tooth under your pillow to receive money from the Tooth Fairy; the Easter Bunny and his candy eggs; and Santa who brings toys to children. Back then, my mom's work would have a Christmas party; employees would bring their families to receive gifts from the company and, in the coup de grace, the seating atop Santa's lap by small fry both frightened and elated. Now, to young minds of the time, we never questioned why there were so many Santa's around--we just assumed the jolly old fat man could be anywhere at any given time.

A lot like Billy in the movie, us kids were always fearful if we didn't get home to bed in time; Santa might not come, and we'd miss out on a bounty of toys under the tree bearing our names. I remember one Christmas Eve, the local news was in on the gag--the weatherman reporting Santa sightings in my area. I remember throwing a fit for us to go home so I could get to sleep; my parents and grandparents just laughing as they knew better. In 1982, my mom told me there was no such thing as Santa Claus. I remember her breaking it to me rather gently, although I wasn't devastated by this news; so when SNDN came out, I was attracted to the movie because of the notoriety it garnered. It was a horror picture that was essentially forbidden fruit.

Nowadays, in stark contrast, there wouldn't be a fuss over a Santa Claus who kills people; only irate objection to seasonal iconography and, of all things, the utterance of "Merry Christmas". The image of an axe-wielding Santa killing people no longer offends; it is now the religious connotations the holiday represents that sends some reeling in horror as if a cross had just been raised to Dracula. Times have certainly changed.

In the 1980s, it was guys like Siskel and Ebert, Phil Donahue, and feminist groups who unwittingly brought a great deal of attention to films like SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984); successfully allowing such movies to become lucrative endeavors or enduring cult phenomenons. In these times, it all boils down to politics with an effete society conditioned to feel entitled; and dependency on something other than themselves. In today's "safe-space" environs, this psychopathic St. Nick would hardly raise an eyebrow... while the bulk of the offending celluloid would be the depiction of misogyny and that the strongest woman in the film is an ironclad abbess.

A killer Kris Kringle wasn't the only abrasive imagery seen in SSDN. Scenes of sinful, sex-having nuns and a deaf man dressed as Santa shot to death in the presence of children are two other examples. Elsewhere, some viewers won't be able to watch the movie without becoming alarmed over the fact that all the women are killed while their breasts are bared. By comparison, violence has dulled the senses these days, with little left to the imagination; some of the brutality in SNDN is still shocking mainly because women widely shown as helpless isn't as predominant as it once was. 

The main point of contention back then was primarily aimed at violence perpetrated by, and towards, the image of Santa Claus. Meanwhile, the filmmakers seemed more interested in detailing abuse in Catholic schools, using Billy's psycho Santa as a partial consequence of the strict discipline of the Mother Superior--villain-izing her character while attempting to create sympathy for the film's killer. The filmmakers partially succeed, if going well over the top in the process, shoveling as much sleaze onscreen as possible. In some ways, Sellier made the slasher equivalent of Ruggero Deodato's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980).

"You will learn what it is to be sorry."

Lilyan Chauvin is absolutely fantastic as the Mother Superior. She easily overshadows Robert Brian Wilson's disturbed Billy character. At times, her strict regimen of "punishment is good" borders on sadomasochism; otherwise, her methods are little more than rough disciplinary actions not too far removed from what a kid would receive from their parents or a paddling by the principal at school. The late veteran actress (she died in 2008) had great presence, and is one of the film's best assets.

Robert Brian Wilson was a good looking actor suited for the role, sadly, he isn't all that convincing. There are a few moments where his years of torment are visible in his acting, but much of the time his expression seldom changes. If he'd been behind a mask he'd of had a bit more menace. The murder of his parents remains the primary catalyst of what triggers his rage; the harshness of the Mother Superior's "Tough Love" merely an extension of it--taking her frequent diatribes on naughtiness to heart while on his Christmas Eve killing spree.

With SNDN being an R rated horror movie, there wasn't much danger of warping the minds of young children who couldn't get in to see it in the first place. Still, one must wonder what was going through the minds of the youngsters featured in the movie itself!

One person involved with the production who was mortified by the finished product was director Sellier. According to him, he wasn't in his right mind when he made the picture. Granted, he knew he was making a slasher movie, but apparently wasn't cognizant of exactly the level of repugnance he was delivering. Instead of receiving his newfound infamy with open arms, Sellier retreated from it, echoing the studio's sentiments. Claiming to have been deeply disturbed by having directed the movie (his first feature directorial gig), his self-proclaimed embarrassment only reinforces the film's attractiveness to the horror masses; it was this notoriety that sparked my interest in the picture in the first place....

I was nine years old when the movie was released in late 1984. I remember seeing the commercial and the televised onslaught of boycotts and protestations against the film and its content; this only made me want to see it more; and that poster... how could any self-respecting horror fan not be mesmerized by the sight of Santa brandishing an ax while descending a chimney to pass along good fear to an unsuspecting family sleeping soundly in their beds? It wouldn't have done me any good to alert my mother to my interest considering her impassioned reaction to my request to partake in a local viewing of PIECES (1983) released in my town the year prior. The videocassette release of SNDN was a much more likely method of viewing, although it would be over a year before that happened in early 1986, first by IVE, then again in October of that year via USA Home Video when you could own your own copy for a cool $79.95!

SNDN has aged rather gracefully. For years it didn't seem to be held in high regard; which was puzzling considering there's some genuinely tense moments and memorable death scenes. It's undeniably rough in spots, but overall, Sellier certainly knows how to sell his slasher product for 85 minutes.


As the film begins, little Billy and his family are visiting his crazy grandpa at the Utah Mental Health Facility. When they're all in the room together, the old man simply stares off into nothingness, not uttering a word. As soon as Billy's by himself, grandpa turns on the demented charm, delivering the most terrifying speech ever heard by cherubic ears.

Shortly after leaving the sanitarium, a gun-toting criminal in a Santa suit kills Billy's parents (one of whom is Tara Buckman, the buxom beauty paired with the equally busty Adrienne Barbeau in 1980s THE CANNONBALL RUN). Billy watches from the bushes while the maniac shouts, "where are you, you little bastard?!"; the screams of his baby brother slowly drowned out by a Christmas song playing on the soundtrack. These first 15 minutes are superb; only the film fumbles a bit here and there, failing to consistently maintain the momentum it begins with.

Linnea Quigley's death scene--in its uncut version--is still a powerful sequence, and arguably one of the horror genres best-remembered onscreen deaths. Naturally she's half-naked (bless you) during the whole of this sequence; ending up impaled on deer antlers after our Santa killer lifts her into the air, penetrating her onto the horns, leaving her hanging. A later scene where a sledder has his head chopped off while traversing a hill is equally memorable.

With SNDN's reputation it was a natural assumption a sequel would be produced. Arriving three years later, SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 2 (1987) had not only Billy's brother Ricky taking up the sick St. Nick mantle, but did so with the accompaniment of around 30 minutes of the original film's footage. Ricky returned in the horrible third picture (Bill Moseley replacing Eric Freeman) in 1989 subtitled YOU BETTER WATCH OUT. Two other sequels followed that had nothing to do with killer Santa's. In another instance of bizarre irony, Mickey Rooney, who famously remarked that the "scum who made that movie should be run out of town", ended up starring in the Santa-less fifth movie, SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 5: THE TOY MAKER (1991). SILENT NIGHT, an unremarkable pseudo-remake, surfaced in 2012.

A much better movie than its reputation suggests, SNDN is an unusually well-made slasher picture from a period where the sub-genre was killing itself from market saturation. Fortunately, the filmmakers had a novel idea and brought it to the screen with a level of professionalism not normally afforded these movies. Still, the film is haunted by an insalubrious atmosphere that, depending on one's interpretation, both helps and hinders the seriousness of the work. The late director may have wished he'd never made it, but for genre fans, there's a lot of toys and goodies to be had in this controversial Santa slay-fest.

This review/article is representative of the Anchor Bay/Starz bluray. Specs and Extras: 1080p 1.85:1 widescreen; new audio commentary track; audio interview with director Selliers; poster and still gallery; Santa's Stocking of Outrage; running time: 01:24:54 

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