Silent Night, Deadly Night is a 1984 horror film produced by Ira R Barmak, written by Michael Hickey, directed by Charles E. Sellier, Jr. and starring Robert Brian Wilson, Lilyan Chauvin, Gilmer McCormick, Toni Nero, Linnea Quigley, Britt Leach, and Leo Geter.
The film focuses on a young boy who, after witnessing his parents’ brutal murder at the hands of a man clad in a Santa suit on Christmas, grows up tumultuously in a Catholic orphanage and slowly emerges into a spree killer himself. The film caused an uproar when released in 1984 during the holiday season, and has developed a cult following.
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Christmas Eve, 1971: Five-year-old Billy Chapman, his parents and his infant brother Ricky are on their way to visit Billy’s institutionalized grandfather. In the back seat, Billy reads “The Night Before Christmas.” The countryside is snowy, cheerful carols are playing on the car radio, and the weather report promises a clear sky for Santa Claus and his reindeer. At the psychiatric institution, Billy’s parents go to review the catatonic grandfather’s records with the doctor, leaving Billy and the old man alone. With the adults gone, Grandpa suddenly becomes lucid and giddily tells Billy the terrible, secret truth about Santa Claus: Santa not only gives presents to good boys and girls, he punishes naughty ones. Billy’s eyes widen in fear as his manic Grandpa explains that Santa is always watching, and he knows if you’ve been naughty. From the look on Billy’s face, it’s clear he has something to fear. Grandpa laughs at him. “You see Santa Clause tonight, boy, you better run! You better run for your life!”
Not far away, a thug disguised as Santa Claus robs a liquor store and shoots the clerk. Billy and his family, headed home, come upon the Santa robber, his car apparently broken down on the dark, deserted road. Dad says they’d better stop and help, and against Billy’s terrified objections, Dad pulls up beside the stranded Santa Claus. Santa pulls his gun, Dad tries to pull away but is shot. The robber drags Mom from the car, throws her on the road and begins his brutal assault on her. Billy runs into a field, hides and watches the terrible scene unfolding on the road as Ricky cries, his wails merging with his mother’s screams and echoing into the frozen night.
1974: Billy and Ricky live at St. Mary’s Orphanage. In eight-year-old Billy’s class, the kids draw Christmas pictures. The other kids are stunned when Billy hangs up his drawing: a bloody Santa Claus and a decapitated reindeer. In her office, Mother Superior icily inspects the drawing before explaining to Billy that he must be punished for making such a violent drawing, and that the punishment will make him good. She sends Billy to his room and forbids him to come out. Later, young Sister Margaret allows Billy to go outside to play. As Billy leaves his room, he hears a strange sound behind a closed door. Through the keyhole he sees an older boy and girl starting to have sex. He watches, fascinated, until the sight of the boy on top of the girl suddenly spurs a torrent of memories of that awful night on the dark road. His head pounding, Billy staggers backwards into the black robes of Mother Superior, who shoves him aside, barges in on the boy and girl and begins thrashing them with a heavy belt. Mother Superior finds Billy outside and explains that what the older kids were doing was very naughty, and they had to be punished for it. Severely. “When we do naughty things, we always get caught, and we are always punished. Punishment is absolute. Punishment is necessary. Punishment is good.” At night, traumatized by the day’s events, Billy has nightmares about Santa Claus.
Christmas morning: The orphanage kids line up to sit on Santa’s lap. Billy, terrified by the sight of the murderous old man, is forced to join in or face his punishment. Finding himself face-to-face with his worst nightmare, Billy hauls off and delivers a solid roundhouse punch right in Santa’s twinkling eye. As Santa goes flying off his chair, Billy races upstairs to safety. Safety from Santa… but not from Mother Superior, who soon appears in Billy’s doorway, belt in hand.
1984: Billy, now 18, and Sister Margaret try to get him a job at Ira’s Toy Store. Mr. Simms, the store owner, seeing that Billy is tall and strapping, hires him to work the stockroom for the Christmas rush. Things go well until the inevitable decorations begin to appear, including menacing images of Santa Claus everywhere. Billy’s supervisor, Andy, complains that Billy was an alright kid at first, but now he’s acting surly and staring into space all the time. Billy, in his undistracted moments, has a crush on co-worker Pamela, and dreams of making love to her, an act which in his dream is followed quickly by violent punishment, leaving him trembling in the corner of his dark room. At the store, an increasingly shaky Billy is prevailed upon by Mr. Simms to take on a new duty when the fellow hired for the job comes down sick. Billy agrees, eager to do good, until he stands before a full-length mirror to examine himself in the uniform he’ll wear in his new position: red suit, red hat, black boots, white beard. “Ho, ho, ho,” says Mr. Simms. Billy stares at the image of himself as the demon Santa Claus. Behind his eyes, his mind fries. As the day goes by, Billy proves himself adept at getting the children who visit Santa Claus to behave. “Don’t you know what you’re doing?” he growls at one wriggling little girl. “You’re being naughty! Right on Santa’s lap!” He puts his face inches from hers and snarls, “Do you know what Santa does to naughty little girls? He punishes them! Severely!” The little girl, mouth agape, frozen with fear, is not squirming anymore. A distance away, a group of mothers watch approvingly. “He’s great with kids, isn ‘t he?” says one.
After closing time on Christmas eve, the staff party at Ira’s Toys is in full swing, and the booze is flowing. As the party winds down, Billy, having had a few, gets his courage up and goes looking for Pamela. At the back of the stockroom he comes upon Andy and Pamela, very much together. Andy opens Pamela’s blouse. Billy, woozy and upset, becomes angry and flashes back to his mother and Santa Claus on the dark road. Andy gets rough with Pamela. Billy, lost, hears his mother’s screams and Ricky’s wails, witnesses again the brutal murders of his father and mother. He rears back from the violent images, his head pounding, unable to stop them, overwhelmed. And, as he slides past the fine line into madness, he becomes calm, the horror abates, and a new expression comes over his face. “Punish,” Billy says quietly. “Naughty.” He moves quickly, descending on Andy and Pamela like a skilled predator. He hangs Andy by a string of blinking Christmas lights. Pamela pounds him with her fists. He stabs her with a box-cutter, grunting, “Punishment is necessary Pamela! Punishment is good.” Mr. Simms hears a noise in stockroom and comes in, thinking he might be missing something good. He’s not. He never sees Billy’s claw hammer coming. The assistant manager, Mrs. Randall goes to look for Mr. Simms in the now-deserted, quiet store. She finds him on the stockroom floor, becomes hysterical, tries to call the police as the phone line is hacked in two by Billy’s axe. Running for her life, she is taken down by Billy’s bow-and-arrow, falling into a fake snow bank where mechanical elves dance merrily around her. Billy is alone now, grinning maniacally, awash in twinkling, colored light as he surveys the carnage and the merry figurines which seem to encourage him in his inevitable, deadly mission. Armed with his axe, Billy, now Santa, heads out into the snowy night. “Punish,” he whispers to no one.
Two teenagers have sex on a basement pool table. The girl hears something upstairs, and, thinking the cat wants to come in, no sooner opens the front door than Billy has her by the waist, holding her off the ground, backing her through the living room toward the mounted reindeer head over the fireplace. “Punish!” he roars as antlers pierce her back and emerge through her stomach. Billy stands back. The girl hangs there, impaled. The boy goes to look for her and fares no better. A little girl wanders down from her bedroom and sees Santa Claus. Billy asks her if she has been naughty or nice. When she says she’s been good, Billy pulls out his box-cutter. He looks at the little girl, at the box-cutter, and makes his judgement. He makes a present of the box-cutter to the little girl, who is not impressed but takes it from him politely. “That’s a good little girl,” growls Santa. No need to punish this one.
Two young boys are going sledding when they’re attacked by a couple of bullies who steal their sled. As one of the bullies comes sliding down a hill on the stolen sled, whooping it up, Santa steps out of the shadows and right into his path, swinging his axe. A few moments later, the sled reaches the bottom of the hill, where the second bully is waiting. The first bully is sitting on the sled. His head is not sitting on his body. The sled is shortly followed down the hill by the bully’s head, which rolls and bounces along until it stops at the bottom. The bully’s body topples over into the snow as if trying to reattach itself to its lost head. It doesn’t quite make it. As the remaining bully screams and screams, Santa Claus scurries away in the shadows.
On Christmas morning, Police Captain Richards tallies the night’s murders, attributed by witnesses to Santa Claus, for Sister Margaret, who is desperate to locate the missing Billy. She tells the Captain she suspects Billy of the killings because of his history. She deduces that his next attack will likely be at the orphanage.
At the orphanage, the excited children wait to see Santa Claus, who is due to visit. Mother Superior, now in a wheelchair, tries to control them. Unseen, Santa Claus trudges slowly through the snow toward the orphanage. A police cruiser races up, the officer spots Santa, yells at the man to stop. Santa doesn’t respond, just keeps going. The officer gets out, yells another unheeded warning, takes aim, fires: POW! Santa Claus is hit; he crumples in the snow. When the fake beard is pulled away, the officer realizes it isn’t Billy but old hard-of-hearing Father O’Brien, come to visit the orphanage as Santa Claus. Billy is still out there: the officer goes to search the grounds.
“Punish!” comes Billy’s insane growl as the officer turns a corner of the building and Billy’s axe slams into his stomach. His axe drips blood on the fresh snow as Billy heads for the front door of the orphanage. A kid sees him coming and lets him in. As the children inside point excitedly at Santa, Mother Superior wheels around in her chair and faces Billy. He approaches, cradling his axe, towering over her. “Naughty,” he says. “Punish!” He rears back, raises his axe high over his head, ready to finally let her have it once and for all–the punishment she deserves. She does not cower, but faces him, ready to take it. The axe blade starts to come down–then: POW!! Captain Richards is in the doorway, gun drawn. Billy falters, drops to one knee before Mother Superior as his axe falls harmlessly to the floor at her feet. He collapses, bleeding, looks at the horrified children and whispers with his last breath, “You’re safe now. Santa Claus… is gone.” Ricky, standing near his slain older brother, looks up from him with a furious stare directed at Mother Superior. She returns his glare, but seems to shudder just a bit from his intensity. Ricky stares her down, narrows his eyes and snarls, “Naughty.”
Robert Brian Wilson as Billy Chapman (age 18), the main character and primary antagonist. As a young boy, he was scarred for life when a criminal disguised as Santa Claus killed his parents, which is why Billy never liked Santa.
Danny Wagner as 8-year-old Billy
Jonathan Best as 5-year-old Billy
Lilyan Chauvin as Mother Superior, an old Catholic sister who abused Billy at the orphanage when he was young.
Gilmer McCormick as Sister Margaret, a nice Catholic sister who is Mother Superior’s assistant and unlike Mother Superior, she was nice to Billy.
Toni Nero as Pamela, Billy’s love interest.
Linnea Quigley as Denise
Britt Leach as Mr. Sims
Nancy Borgenicht as Mrs. Randall
H.E.D. Redford as Captain Richards
Leo Geter as Tommy
Randy Stumpf as Andy, Billy’s co-worker.
Will Hare as Grandpa Chapman, Billy’s paternal grandfather.
Tara Buckman as Ellie Chapman, Billy’s mother who later gets killed by the killer Santa by having her throat slit after he tried to rape her.
Jeff Hansen as Jim Chapman, Billy’s father who also gets killed by the killer Santa Claus by getting shot.
Charles Dierkop as Killer Santa, a drunk criminal dressed as Santa Claus.
Eric Hart as Mr. Levitt
A. Madeline Smith as Sister Ellen
Amy Stuyvesant as Cindy
Max Robinson as Officer Barnes
Silent Night, Deadly Night was one of the most controversial films of the 1980s because the ad campaign, particularly posters and TV spots, made significant emphasis on the killer being dressed as Santa Claus. The PTA fought to have this film removed from theaters due to its subject matter and the fact that it was shown around Christmas, although an earlier film with a similar premise had gone unnoticed.
Upon its original release in 1984, the film received a generally negative reception. Siskel and Ebert condemned the film and went so far as to read the film’s production credits on air, saying “shame, shame” after each one. Siskel also said that all the money the filmmakers were making off of this film was blood money. Leonard Maltin also denounced the film, calling it a “…worthless splatter film”, giving it zero stars and asking: “What’s next, the Easter Bunny as a child molester?” Large crowds (mostly angry families) formed at theaters and malls around the nation to protest the film. TriStar Pictures, its original distributor, pulled all ads for the film six days after its release (November 15). The film itself was also withdrawn shortly thereafter, due to the controversy.
The film was later re-released by an independent distributor, Aquarius Films, beginning in spring 1986, with an ad campaign replacing the original “Twas the night before Christmas”-theme with a new one that centered on the controversy surrounding the film and edited out all close-up shots of Billy, in the Santa suit, with weapons. The print ad material also replaced the original ‘Chimney’ picture with one that talked about the controversy.
In United Kingdom, the movie was never submitted for certification to the BBFC. As such, although it had never been actually classified as a “video nasty”, its distribution was prohibited in the UK. However, in 2009, Arrow Films submitted the film to the BBFC for classification, who passed the film uncut with an 18 certificate. The UK DVD was released on November 23, 2009.
Silent Night, Deadly Night currently has no approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but the Want-To-See score is, as of today, 30%.
Its sequel was denied a BBFC certificate in 1987 after the distributors refused to make the cuts required for an ’18’ certificate.