Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
Silent Night, Deadly Night is a movie that reeks of cynicism and ill-will toward men like an alcoholic reeks of cheap whiskey. Take anything that’s generally revered -- Santa Claus, nuns, orphans, your eccentric grandfather -- and SNDN will kick that reverence in the teeth, using only piss-poor character development, an unfocused narrative, and a dearth of originality. Despite this, the film remains a sick pleasure on some level to which even I am not fully ready to admit.
In 1971, little Billy Chapman is having the worst Christmas Eve ever. He’s stuck in a car for most of the day, on this way to visit his mentally unstable grandpa, who ends up raving at him about how Santa will punish him for being naughty. That night, Billy watches as Santa Claus (or, rather, a convenience store robber in a costume) shoots his father in the head before raping his mother and slitting her throat. Sent to an orphanage, the poor kid’s luck doesn’t improve, since Mother Superior thinks the best way to reach his Big Issues is with Deep Hurting. Billy eventually grows up into a muscular, fresh-faced young man (Robert Brian Wilson) who drinks his milk and is very friendly to others. Working in a toy store, though, may not have been his brightest idea ever. When the store Santa calls in sick on Christmas Eve, Billy has to take on the big red suit. All those childhood traumas dogpile on Billy’s fragile little psyche, finally breaking it. Billy decides that with the beard and hat comes the power to reward the good… and the responsibility to punish the naughty.
For the first half of the film, director Charles E. Sellier, Jr. and screenwriter Michael Hickey are intent – too intent, as it turns out – on mapping out the various influences on Billy the boy that would, over a decade later, turn him into Billy the maniacal Santa. It’s not a bad idea, especially since they seem to have a point – violence will beget violence and some murderers are made, not born. However, they just keep hammering the point with one trauma after the other. First it’s the scary grandpa, then the murder of his parents by the man in a Santa suit, then the nuns' pious punishments. By the time he’s getting tied to his bed for having a nightmare, it’s clear that young Billy was never a character to the filmmakers, but a receptacle for abuse, a placeholder for psychological triggers that would pay off with adult Billy later in the film.
When I say “pay off”, don’t get any crazy ideas that I mean “develop in a dramatically plausible and satisfying way.” That approach might have actually covered up some of the bad taste left from the film’s poor treatment of young Billy, so it’s obviously right out. I’m simply referring to the twig-like snapping of older Billy’s mind, which leads to the requisite killing spree. Put him in a Santa suit, get him a few drinks, and lead him to the nearest sex act (Mother Superior taught him that fornication is Wrong and Bad). Suddenly, he’s reduced to an axe-wielding automaton, running around screaming “PUNISH!” and “NAUGHTY!” over and over again. All that work building up Billy’s psychological damage goes to naught – his brain doesn’t just break, it pretty much liquefies. For those keeping track, that’s an hour of character development and no character left to show for it.
That’s okay, though, right? Now that he’s gone off the deep end, he’ll visit pain and suffering on all those who did him wrong, right? Well, maybe later. First he’s gotta off his co-workers, most of whom haven’t done anything naughtier than a couple shots of Jagermeister. Then, after he’s done with them, he moves on to random strangers! Don’t get me wrong, this part of the movie is carnage candy, with gory killings aplenty (scream queen Linnea Quigley gets impaled on the antlers of a mounted elk’s head), but it’s completely random. Billy is our dramatic throughline, but he’s not killing anybody he knows, which makes it hard to be satisfied on his behalf. Rather, we’re left to try to appreciate the craftsmanship behind a series of murders staged with no more skill than any other slasher movie.
SNDN eventually finds its way back to the plot during the climax set at the orphanage where Billy grew up, but it’s a case of too little, too late. Actually, it’s not even that, since that “little” is utterly negated when a police officer shoots a priest dressed as Santa in the back… while a dozen orphans watch in horror. There’s bad taste and then there’s orphans watching St. Nick bleed to death. Not on, filmmakers. Not on at all.
So where in all of this do I find enjoyment – even if it is enjoyment I only admit because I can’t bring myself to fully pan the film? It’s not really about the film itself, but more about what the film should have been. There are fleeting moments, such as Santa Billy giving a little girl a bloody box cutter for being good, where the film threatens to turn into a black comedy. Unfortunately, these moments pass, and the film returns to playing it more or less straight. But it’s that moment, and a few others like it, that gave me pause. A second viewing confirmed my suspicions – the script was okay, but Sellier directed it incorrectly. Killer Santas, abusively devout nuns, emotionally traumatized orphans – these were all elements meant to be approached with irony, a winking acknowledgement that yes, this is in terrible taste and sorry, we’re having too much fun to stop. Trying to frame these things as part of the psychological profile of a character negates the potential of the script, and ends up negating the character as well (see my earlier notes on Billy’s mental puree).
There are two ways to squeeze some mild enjoyment out of Silent Night, Deadly Night. First, you can simply lower your expectations. No, lower. Lower. Have you hit rock bottom yet? That’s when you know you’re low enough. The second is to try and turn your head sideways and view the movie as the black comedy it could have been, rather than the mess it actually is. However, this option is a lot of hard work and ultimately may not reap enough entertainment to be worthwhile.
Actually, you know, I just thought of a third solution that combines the best parts of the first two, while adding just the right holiday spirit: alcoholic egg nog – heavy on the rum, and drunken to excess. That might help. Maybe.
This look at Silent Night, Deadly Night is part of our Yuletide Terror event, a weekend of Christmas-themed reviews running December 21-25, 2007