Ah, Christmas. Although it has become increasingly commercialized and sometimes appears to be nothing more than a huge crash-grab for multi-million dollar corporations, Christmas have remained popular year after year. While the underlying message the holiday carries with it of caring for one another has been overshadowed by companies desperate attempts to launder more money out of consumers, the holiday-themed films often still carry these reaffirming messages. There’s a reason that “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” air on TV every year to solid ratings: in today’s dour times, where even our popular movies have deviated from escapism and taken on a depressing quality, it is refreshing to see a film that can make us feel good about ourselves and life in general.
This is also why Christmas-themed horror movies are often more disturbing than their regular themed counterparts. Christmas has become representative of joy, cheer and ignorant bliss, and even the most jaded of adults can remember with fondness the excitement they felt as children at the idea of Santa. When you give Santa an axe and have him hacking people to pieces, he might as well be hacking up all our good feelings for the holiday. Christmas is supposed to be happy and people can’t stand to see it represented as otherwise. This is why “Silent Night Deadly Night”, a slasher that is no more violent than your average Friday the 13th film, was targeted by a massive protest during its release in 1984 and subsequently pulled from theatres and home video. People couldn’t stand to see the feel-good time of year used in such a depressing manner and their childhood idol, Santa Claus, turned into some sort of psychopathic murderer. It wasn’t just ultra-conservative Christians that fought to have this movie banned: even Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel shamed the entire cast and crew on their show.
The movie starts out with a series of tragic events on Christmas Eve that instill a warped view of St. Nick into young Billy. First, Billy’s family pays visit to his clinically insane grandfather, who warns Billy that Santa will punish him for his naughty behavior. Then on the drive back from the institution, a criminal dressed as Santa murders his father and rapes his mother, slitting her throat afterwards and leaving Billy and his baby brother without parents. The two children are brought to an orphanage, where head-nun Mother Superior consistently punishes young Billy for the rest of his childhood, especially around Christmas time, which is usually when Billy begins acting out with memories of his parents murder still fresh in his head. By the time Billy has reached his eighteenth birthday, he lands a job at a local toy store. However, when he is required to don a Santa’s suit for Christmas Eve and the co-workers begin referring to him as Santa, Billy goes over the edge, setting out to punish those who have been naughty…with the help of an axe.
Silent Night Deadly Night is another entry in the long list of eighties slashers, and while some may see it as nothing more than Friday the 13th featuring Santa Claus instead of Jason, it differentiates from other slashers in several ways. The over-the-top gore, often a staple of the slasher film, is toned down here, with much more tonally realistic violence, excluding an instance of death-by-antlers. However the biggest difference is the subject matter, which is much more grim than usual, including such topics as rape, sexual abuse and child abuse. Juxtaposed against the cheery Christmas setting, these factors propel Silent Night Deadly Night to a disturbing level that most other slasher films don’t ever reach. Sure, some of the deaths are good old fun, but the murder and rape of Billy’s mother, as the young child watches, is fairly shocking, as are several of the other sequences throughout. The grainy camera quality smears another layer of sleaze and grunge over top the film. While Silent Night Deadly Night isn’t quite as vile and disturbing as the notorious Maniac, it is pretty darn close.
Slasher films have never been known to feature the most likable characters, and Silent Night Deadly Night is no different. In fact, here the films sole attention is on the murderer himself, Billy, with his victims usually getting nothing more than a minute or two of introduction before being snuffed. And while Billy isn’t likable (and I would be a little scared of anyone who said he was), he generates a certain amount of pity, stemming from the fact that he is not a bad guy. He is a good guy who has been driven insane by the constant abuse he suffered as a child. He is a product of his environment, and while he may not induce much compassion as he begins to pull a box cutter on a child, he is a sad case of the effects child abuse can have on a human, and generates empathy despite his heinous crimes. There is more depth to Billy than Jason or Freddy, and that is part of the reason the film is more disturbing than most other slashers.
The final aspect of Silent Night Deadly Night that really propels it above most other slashers is not a variation from other slasher genres (like the previous things I have mentioned), but an improvement on most others. This is to say that there are actually some very creepy and frightening sequences, particularly the ending which sent shivers up my arm. The infamous protests that greeted this films release may lead people to believe that Silent Night Deadly Night is nothing more than some sort of exploitation piece. This is not what it actually is though. It is a depressing, quite suspenseful and well-done entry in the sleazy slasher genre, and possibly one of the best Christmas-themed horror movies out there.