On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me….
Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), directed by Charles Sellier Jr.
One cold and snow laden Christmas Eve night, young Billy (Jonathan Best) is told by his institutionalised grandpa that if he’s naughty, Santa will come and get him. It’s a threat that’s no different from what the classic Christmas jingle warns, telling its listeners to be good for goodness sake. Later that night, Billy bears witness to the brutal murder of his parents by a man dressed as Santa Claus, tearing apart his holiday spirit and destroying his psyche in a matter of minutes. Years later, we catch up with Billy (Danny Wagner) at an orphanage run by a cruel and swift Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin), who takes no heart to Billy’s continually decaying mental state, especially around the holidays. Sister Margaret (Gilmer McCormick) sees the fragility and necessity for nurture, looking over him until he’s older. Now 18, Billy (Robert Brian Wilson) gets a job at a local toy store, stocking shelves for the holidays. As Christmas approaches, Billy’s flashbacks intensify, and soon enough he’s heeding his grandpa’s words and taking out all those on the naughty list.
Recently released on Blu-Ray from Shout Factory in a stunning Collector’s Edition, Silent Night, Deadly Night is that gloriously pieced together slasher that rose up from the wildfire that Bob Clark’s Black Christmas set ablaze to the horror genre in 1974. It pinpoints a particular time of the year as a backdrop, tosses a mentally unstable killer at us, peppers it with enough promiscuity to warrant a night filled with mass murders, and finishes it off with some creative kills. While Black Christmas stands as a landmark and trend setter in the genre it established, Silent Night, Deadly Night acts like that ardent fan that grew up on the likes of Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, building a fond affection for the reigning godfathers of hack and slash.
What places Billy alongside Michael and Jason isn’t his penchant for sharp gifts, but his brooding and rugged good looks that make him just a bit more terrifying. Billy doesn’t need a mask, instead hiding behind the dead and deadly expression of a man gone berserk. He’s the guy next door, the new hire at the hardware store that just made a copy of your house key, or perhaps the guy right outside your favourite department store, swinging that Salvation Army bell. Sure, he’s built like a college linebacker, but it’s his anonymity that makes his unhinged Santa just that more terrifying; and did I mention he has the most penetratingly vacant stare since Jack Torrance watched his wife and son frolic in the snow?
From the very first scene, we witness the traumatic event that sheds layers to Billy, hacking away pieces of him that eventually gives us our slaying Santa. It’s the kind of character development that might otherwise deteriorate a slasher, giving a drawn out motif that could potentially avalanche what makes the killer so scary; the unknown.
Instead, Director Charles Sellier Jr. intentionally stuffs Silent Night, Deadly Night’s stockings with so much expository cheer – unwrapping three different stages of Billy through his upbringing – which it manages to build on comedic elements and moments of sympathy for what our mentally ill antagonist is experiencing. When our hohohorny teens and toy store co-workers finally begin dropping like needles from a pine tree, we feel torn between rooting for our misguided teenager and the cops on the hunt for him, which gives Silent Night, Deadly Night an added level of engagement. After all, most of the victims haven’t been good in some way or the other, so why not let Billy be bad for goodness sake?
While Billy takes us halfway through the second act before finally beginning his blood soaked sleigh ride, it winds up being a jolly good time that subverts expectations for what it really means to be on the naughty list. There’s a spectacular beheading involving a sled, a woman is skewered through a pair of antlers above a mantle, and Billy shoots another woman using a bow and arrow. They are all deaths that feel like frozen TV dinners of prior horror films (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th: Part 3), however those that did it beforehand haven’t necessarily done them better, just with a little bit more finesse.
But that’s what makes Silent Night, Deadly Night stand out amongst the rest of the inflated slashers of that time; its insatiable ability to take the tried and true and make it feel as if it’s been dragged by a one horse open sleigh. Its charm comes through its willingness to feel the dirt beneath its feet and relish in its grittiness. To feel its dark themes and grim layers and still make it to grandma’s in time for pie. Sure, it’s far from being the superior holiday horror film (that will always go to Black Christmas), Silent Night, Deadly Night is still an indulgent piece of well-intentioned pie with just the right amount of sleaze. Though it hinders itself with just a little too much character exposition, it never loses sight of its purpose; to spread Christmas fear for all to hear.