Silent Night, Deadly Night caused a huge outrage when it was released in 1984. In fact, it was probably among the biggest movie controversies of all time. It wasn’t necessarily more violent than other horror films being made in the era; it wasn’t even the first slasher to use Santa as the villain. But despite its low budget, it had an impressive marketing campaign. I think that’s what made this particular production spawn more controversy than films like Christmas Evil. People were aware of it. They knew about it. The trailer was out there, kids could see it on TV and just like that, they’d be terrified of Santa for life.
To be fair, it really is a haunting trailer. Most of the film is told from Billy’s perspective as his psyche unravels until he finally puts on the Santa suit. But the trailer never shows his face, never tells us that this isn’t just the Santa that all kids loved and trusted having one really bad day. All we see are bits of the kills and Santa’s gloved hands holding various weapons while children chant “Santa Claus will get you if you don’t watch out” over and over again. I can completely understand why kids were so terrified, but it still wasn’t a new concept and plenty of children are already terrified of St. Nick to begin with.
The controversy served the film well, for a time. People kept sending in their angry letters, their hate mail and their death threats. That only made people want to see it more, of course, and for a brief moment in time it actually dominated the box office. Then the consequences were felt and the feature was pulled from theaters. It’s always been a fascinating bit of horror history to me, the question of “Why this outrage over this particular movie?” I mean, did Cannibal Holocaust get lambasted like this stateside? It did not.
The big surprise of Silent Night, Deadly Night—in a couple of different ways—is that it’s not that bad. One, it’s not as outrageously violent as some of the other slashers of its day. It goes further than Halloween, yes, but it’s not anywhere near the level of uncomfortable delivered by films like Maniac.
What I think actually makes Silent Night, Deadly Night interesting and what I really like about it is the fact that it is written from the killer’s perspective. In fact, bizarrely enough, the template is extremely similar to what Rob Zombie would use in his Halloween reboot. We start off with a childhood trauma, an inciting incident that plants the seeds for events to come. Then we see his adolescent years as an orphan being mistreated and, again, planting seeds. Then once he’s out, it’s only a short span of time before the rampage begins—and once it starts, it does not let up until the credits. It’s almost as if, when making his Halloween, Zombie actually remade Silent Night, Deadly Night and picked a different holiday.
The way the film is structured actually works fairly well, especially because it’s not overly long. A lot is set up in the first half, but the second half makes good on all of the expected carnage. Sure, it’s not sophisticated and it’s definitely tasteless, but that’s probably what someone going into a movie called Silent Night, Deadly Night expects. There are a lot of inventive kills, some utilizing the Christmas theme, others not.
I think the exploitation element helps it, ultimately. By the time Billy is in the Santa suit and running around yelling “Punish!” the appeal is just waiting to see what he’s going to do next. The iconic kill, of course, is Linnea Quigley being impaled by a deer’s antlers that are mounted on the wall. But my personal favorite is definitely the sled kill, where Billy just holds out his ax and decapitates two sledders in one swift motion.
Weirdly enough, there’s almost an element of sadness to it at the same time. Having gotten so much backstory with Billy, having seen how much he’s tried to fight this, you almost feel bad for him when he actually succumbs to his own demons. It’s executed really well, too. He’s suffered so much trauma, he still has these nightmares, but then he gets a job and he’s having something close to a normal life and it’s easy to root for him at that point. You still want him to turn out okay. But then he gets asked to wear the Santa suit as part of a Christmas promotion and that’s the moment where anyone watching can pinpoint the fact that he’s just doomed. His problems with Santa are abundantly clear and are kind of justified with how brutal that opening is. By that point, there’s no way he’s going to make it out of this okay.
It’s worth bringing up that opening, though, because it is rough. It’s probably harsher than anything Christmas-related we’d seen in a horror movie up until that point. We’d seen Santa strangle a woman in Amicus’ Tales from the Crypt, but raping and stabbing a woman is a completely different story. It’s certainly unnecessary, even if it does set up the horrific trauma for Billy to see that leads to the fear of Santa Claus that ultimately drives him over the edge.
It kind of embodies the tone, though. Overall, Silent Night, Deadly Night is kind of a mean-spirited movie. It doesn’t have the camp factor you expect it to. Sure, it’s goofy to see a raving killer dressed as Santa running around and yelling “Punish!” but there’s so much of a backstory element and bleak tone and visual style—despite the puffy red suit—that it almost feels like it could be a true crime piece.
Strangely enough, that’s part of what makes the feature endearing. None of the individual elements of Silent Night, Deadly Night should really work well together, but they kind of do. Mix that with the controversial marketing campaign and it’s easy to see why this became the horror movie most associated with Christmas, a title I imagine it will probably hold for some time to come.