When the trailers for Silent Night, Deadly Night showing an axe wielding Santa Claus appeared on television ads in 1984, there was such an outcry that many theaters refused to show it. The film had a short run in theaters and went directly to video. Even now, it's much easier to find the lame sequels in your video store than it is the original. Not that this film is a great one. It isn't.
The camera work is amateurish, the acting resembles Christmas cheeseballs, and the script is laughably banal, but this 1980's style slasher is more entertaining than the Friday the 13th movies. At least Charles E. Sellier Jr.'s film throws some interesting holiday touches into the predictable plot. Where else can you see a psychotic Santa burying his axe into victims, using Christmas tree lights for strangulation, or wield elk (reindeer) antlers to impale a bare-breasted babe.
If those items appeal to you, read no farther, dear reader. Find a copy of the video, which may prove to be quite a feat. Regular video stores don't stock it anymore, many of them dumping their remaining copies through online auctions.
Because the plot relies so much on a standard formula, anything further I say about the film will give away far too much of the plot. So skip the rest of this review if you expect to be surprised when you actually see the movie.
Actually, you'd have to be a doofus not to discern the general plot forming within the first five minutes. From the video cover and opening credits we realize a killer Santa Claus will wreak havoc. As the family station wagon treks across northern Utah to visit a catatonic grandfather, the mother tells little Billy that Santa is going to surprise him that night. Uh oh!
Of course when Billy asks why they came to visit his grandfather when he doesn't seem to realize that they are there, bells should go off in your head. Sure enough, the grandfather has been making like Big Indian in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, so he slyly warns Billy about how Santa punishes all the kids who are “naughty.” That supplies Billy with the motivation to scream at his father to not stop for the broken down thief posing as Santa on the trip back home.
Naturally the father ignores Billy's pleas, and Santa proceeds to blow the father away and rape and slash the mother all in front of traumatized Billy and his baby brother. Switch to the Catholic run orphanage years later, where Billy draws pictures of a slain Santa and gets punished by Mother Superior for being “very, very naughty!” Mother Superior has her patented methods of therapy—required repression and prompt punishment!
When Billy witnesses a young naked couple being “naughty” through a keyhole, Mother Superior whips out her belt to deliver her brand of therapy and tells Billy, “They thought they could do it without being caught. But when we do something naughty, we are always caught. Then, we are punished. Punishment is absolute, punishment is good.”
Billy functions much better than the Halloween slashing Michael Meyers, but he does go a little wacko each Christmas, and Mother Superior’s tactics have kept the “naughty” boy in check over the years. Another nun takes on the Donald Pleasance role with less conviction, as she realizes the boy needs real therapy but does nothing to make it happen. Instead she gets him a job with a local toy store, which makes the mistake of casting Billy as Santa Claus with predictable results.
We see the formula stuff that follows all the slasher rules—the false takes, slashing the sinners who have sex, beheading the bully, an acceptable gore count for the teens, and ending the film predictably so that filmgoers can anticipate the sequel. Silent Night, Deadly Night represents a cheap rip off of the Halloween-inspired genre, but it's more enjoyable than many of the other 80's slasher flicks.
Part of the fun is watching where the point of view takes you in the film—it reminds me what would happen if some amateur film makers could do to the original script of Psycho. I assume that the film is supposed to be considered a horror film, but it works better as an extremely dark comedy. I wasn't scared or freaked by anything I saw (partly because the scenes are all telegraphed early), but I certainly had a few laughs.
It's not art, and will offend people who want the Christmas season to remain sacred for family and celebration. On the other hand, the film can serve as a brutal reminder that Christmas can have negative connotations for some people. Not everyone partakes in the family gatherings and gift giving that accompanies the season, and some people have difficulty handling the Christmas season due to tragedies in their life. After viewing this film, you may never think of Santa in quite the same way again yourself.
Silent Night, Deadly Night certainly isn't for everyone, and will not play well with mainstream audiences. But if you're into teen slasher cult cinema, you will get a few chuckles from Sellier's cheaply constructed film. There are other films that bash the Catholic Church, but where else will you see Santa go psycho?