Monday, 6 February 2012

Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) - A Slasher Christmas Cracker

The first ever holiday slasher proper was a made for TV production in 1972 called ‘Home for the Holidays’ starring a young Sally Field. From Bob Clark’s influential template prototype for the sub-genre ‘Black Christmas’ (1974) up until the late 80s it was one of the prime signature stamps of this movement of exploitation cinema to milk every holiday and every day of significance there is. Although the unseen antagonist in Clark’s film lacked motivation public holidays and other marked calendar dates would later serve as a time of setting to fit in with the killer’s motive. Following ‘Black Christmas’ in the same year with another Xmas theme was ‘Silent Night, Bloody Night’ although it was actually filmed a couple of years previous. However, Crimbo would not play a part in this marketing niche again until the early 80s during the bloody reign of the slasher’s golden age heyday.

After the phenomenal success of John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ in 1978 there was a nonstop array of slashers with such memorable day related titles. These included ‘Friday The 13th’ (1980), ‘New Year’s Evil’ (1980), ‘Prom Night’ (1980), ‘Sweet Sixteen’ (1980), ‘My Bloody Valentine’(1981), ‘Happy Birthday to Me’ (1981), ‘Graduation Day’ (1981), ‘Trick or Treats’ (1982), ‘April Fool’s Day’ (1986), ‘Bloody Birthday’ (1986) etc. The Christmas slasher would return right bang smack at the birth of the gory times in 1980 with ‘Christmas Evil’, which was the first to feature a homicidal Santa Claus. This was followed by ‘To All a Goodnight’ (1980) again with another Father Christmas loon sod, ‘The Dorm that Dripped Blood' (1981) - no Psycho Saint Nick here, ‘Don’t Open ‘Till Christmas’ (1984) with Santas themselves actually getting cut up this time and of course the movie in review here ‘Silent Night, Deadly Night’. There was of course also the remake of ‘Black Christmas’ in 2006.

‘Silent Night, Deadly Night’ is more famous for the controversy it caused in 1984 more than anything else. It was made infamous due to the overacting of parents picketing outside cinemas in protest of a killer Santa Claus even though there were two slashers previous with a similar premise. Fuelling the fire was the typical pomposity of film critics Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel with their damning over the top televised review reading the production’s credits as naming and shaming. You can see this below. This all helped give an ordinary little slasher flick more of a reputation than it would have got if stuffy tight-collared conservative types had of just left it alone. As it turned out, they managed to get the movie pulled from theatres and made it more notorious that it really should have been. Define irony.

The novel entitled ‘Slayride’ written by Paul Caimi would serve as the basis for this entertaining jingle all the way slice ‘n’ dicer that is dark, disturbing, grim, sadistic, unpleasant and contradictive to all this is also laced with black humour, emotion and a huge whiff of hilarious unintentional cheese. Uninspired flat TV like direction with poor pacing, stare inducing plot holes and some terrible acting do not deter from the fact this is a hugely enjoyable slasher. It does actually have some good things going for it with the emotional aspect coming in the way of an interesting narrative forcing us to sympathize with the killer. Billy Chapman is not only the villain here but also the poor victim. He never had a chance from the beginning after a tragic childhood incident one Christmas has left him deeply disturbed and unable to try to have a normal life due to the film’s damning depiction of catholic narrow mindedness. The hindered recovery from his childhood trauma due to his psychological and psychical abuse in an orphanage inflicted upon him by a downright nasty Mother Superior Nun drives him over the edge into insanity with murderous consequences.

We first see a black screen as we hear the sound of a young boy creepily singing a traditional Christmas carol. While the child is still singing a wreath of holly appears in the background as it slowly moves towards the screen and as it gets closer, we can make out the words above on top of it - ‘Silent Night’. When it stops in full view towards the end of the carol as soon as the boy stops singing a splatter of bloody graphics drowns the screen and becomes the rest of the title card - ‘Deadly Night’ accompanied by a startling musical sting. As the credits appear, a strange atmospheric musical score follows incorporating surreal sounds. Fading in the non-diegetic soundtrack disappears and we hear the diegetic sound of a car radio as we are introduced to the Chapman family as they are driving along to visit the man of the family’s elderly father who resides in a mental institution. In these interior scenes of the car taking place on Christmas Eve, 1971 we meet little Billy aged 5 sitting in the back seat riding along with his parents and younger baby brother Ricky.

When they get to the mental institution we find that Billy’s grandfather is seemingly in a state of catatonia. As Billy’s parents go to the office of Grandpa’s doctor to see his records leaving Billy alone with him Grandpa suddenly comes out of his supposed catatonic shell. What follows is a creepy yet hilarious over the top massive ham of a performance as Grandpa tells Billy the terrifying truth of Santa Claus that is a guaranteed bellyache of laughs. After a scene of the family driving home with Billy voicing his frightened concerns about Santa visiting this year with the revelation that Grandpa spoke and told him a chilling tale we cross cut to a convenience store. A nasty piece of work in a Santa Claus suit is robbing it shooting dead the store clerk when he tries to resist. He then drives off. Sure enough, the Chapman family driving along then stops when they see the same man in the Santa costume pulled over by the side of the road. Asking him if he needs help he then pulls his gun on them. This scene is hardcore in the brutal stakes as shot dead is Billy’s father and then his mother dragged out of the car, has her blouse ripped off and her throat slit. Billy is hiding after getting out of the back of the car watching as his mother is viciously murdered with his baby brother Ricky crying in the backseat. The children survive.

Flash forwarding three years later, Billy and Ricky are in the care of St. Mary's Orphanage under the supervision of a terrible elder nun Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin). Chauvin provides the real decent performance here and is effectively convincing as she deals out to Billy her methods of “punishment”. Despite the pleas of Sister Margaret (Gilmer McCormick), that Billy is psychologically tormented due to his parents’ murders and that his disturbances are at their strongest at Christmas time the old hag has none of it. She dismisses the proof she is offered of a disturbing drawing Billy drew in class of Santa Claus stabbed to death with multiple daggers. Taking personal charge of Billy, she subjects him to beatings, ties him to his bed for the crime of having nightmares about his parent’s murders and running out into the hallway and forces him to confront his fears by making him sit on the lap of a Santa Claus visiting the orphanage. The sight of an 8-year-old boy punching and flooring a grown man dressed as Santa is one of my most cherished cinematic moments of hilarity.

There is a pivotal moment in this second act that contributes to Billy’s tip over the edge in the third. Witnessing a teenage couple in the orphanage making love by peeping through a keyhole he has a flashback to his mother’s murder when seeing the young woman’s breasts. Caught by the sadistic Mother Superior Billy is flung away from the door as she opens it and proceeds to curse the couple and beat them with the young man’s trouser belt. Out in the front yard in the snow she confronts Billy and asks him about what he saw and he replies he does not know. She tells him what they were doing was very very naughty -

Mother Superior: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.”

These two scenes portray the sexual repression of catholic understandings and like the slasher sub-genre as a whole sex is a sin here and Billy deals out the “punishment” with extreme measures to the “naughty” who participate. Grandpa’s scary tale and the immediate traumatic experience of seeing his parents’ murdered that Christmas by a sociopath in a Santa Claus suit combined with the harsh teachings of Mother Superior is what lends to Billy’s descent into madness. There is just a tip of the iceberg next to send him completely over the edge.

Flash forwarding once again to the movie’s present day of 1984 and Billy has grown into a strapping 18-year-old hunk (Robert Brian Wilson). Sister Margaret must have jingle bells for brains because she has the bright idea of getting him a job in of all places a toyshop. Everything is fine at first as Billy settles in quite comfortably and is happy until of course Christmas rolls around. Having all things Santa in his surroundings is not helping with the stability of his mind. Billy has taken a shine to his work colleague Pamela. One night in a dream having a sexual fantasy of her, as he is on top making love a Santa Claus stabs him in the back. Waking up Billy gets out of bed and sits down and huddles in the corner of the room in a childlike state and together with flashbacks to his time in the orphanage postured in the same position he is now he cries the words "I wanna be good. Don't punish me."

Near reaching breaking point, Billy is asked to replace the store’s Santa Claus who is off due to injury. He cannot take the sight of himself in the costume for obvious reasons. Evidently, his sanity is starting to severely lack when he threatens to “punish” a fidgety little girl sitting on his lap in Santa’s Grotto. When witnessing Andy another man working there attempting to rape Pamela it brings memories flooding back of his parents’ murder especially of his mother’s due to the sight of Pamela’s bare breasts. He totally flips now pulling Andy off Pamela and then hanging him with a string of Christmas lights. Then Pamela being ungrateful considering Billy just saved her from rape shouts at him calling him crazy which he bat shit is and gets carved up like a turkey with a box cutter. It is now up to Sister Margaret to stop him and make up for her incompetence. Obviously, I do not know whether you have seen this nasty little stocking filler or not, so I am going to leave the rest of the kills spoiler free as so not to ruin the surprise of your presents before you open them. 

Formulaic but it is what it is. This is an enjoyable slasher with boobs and splatter galore. There are many highly memorable moments in this mean spirited festive carve up. The murder set-pieces while lacking a suspenseful build up in their set-up are executed with merciless callousness putting down bloody presents under the Christmas tree for any gorehounds. There are some surprisingly nice camera shots thrown in also. Even a snowman is decapitated. If the filmmakers set out to entertain a demographic of bloodthirsty slasherholics then they achieved in what they set out to do. However, if you want solid writing, direction and acting (Chauvin is an exception) then avoid at all costs. It is the impossible to ignore charm of its cheesiness and an interesting emotional narrative of its protagonist/antagonist of Billy, which aids ‘Silent Night, Deadly Night’ along with its stand out kills in being a cherished slasher in my collection. Whatever you do though keep away from the abysmal sequels - “Naughty”!

*** out of ****

Dave J. Wilson

©2012 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.

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