1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night is an odd film to dissect. Released six years after Halloween, it’s an obvious attempt to cash in on the success of John Carpenter’s seminal classic. The gimmick in this B-rate “slasher” flick is a psychopath named Billy Chapman who dresses as Santa Claus and punishes the “naughty” on Christmas Eve – usually by slamming an axe into their heads. Needless to say, SNDN’s demented Santa did not become a horror icon like Michael Myers, but there’s still plenty of fun to be had in watching Billy’s Christmas massacre.
One of the first scenes in the movie is perhaps its most memorable, showing a young and innocent Billy visiting his catatonic grandfather, who lives in a mental institution. When Billy’s parents leave the room, his grandfather suddenly springs to life and pulls Billy close, excitedly telling him that Santa Claus punishes naughty children by killing them on Christmas Eve. When Billy’s parents reenter the room, the grandpa quickly returns to his unresponsive state, leaving the parents confused as to why their child is so startled. This ham-fisted scene sets the tone for the rest of the film quite nicely, though it’s disappointing that crazy grandpa does not appear again.
For a movie with such seemingly simplistic ambitious, SNDN has a bizarrely lengthy setup, spending a significant amount of time focusing on the killer’s childhood. After witnessing his parents’ brutal murder at the hands of a deranged criminal dressed as Santa Claus, young Billy is sent to a Catholic orphanage. Billy’s stay at the orphanage is made difficult by the cruel Mother Superior, who instills within Billy a twisted view of religious penance. As Billy grows into adulthood, he succumbs to his warped sense of justice and begins killing those deserving of punishment.
As is the case with most slasher flicks, SNDN as a whole is an excuse to show a lot of gore and T&A. What sets this dud apart from the rest of the flock, however, is some truly funny bad acting and a ludicrous story that handles sensitive psychological issues with the sensitivity of a jackhammer. Its lack of tact in handling themes of mental illness makes Psycho look like A Beautiful Mind. Take for example the scene early on with Billy spying on teenagers having sex that is ostensibly included to show the escalation of Billy’s psychosexual obsession, but is obviously just a way to get more naked bodies on the screen. The trashiness on display in this film is astounding, yet always very entertaining.
The film’s violence is about at the level you would expect, though none of the death scenes are particularly memorable. A scene in which Billy impales a woman on the antlers of a mounted deer head is fairly disturbing, even if TCM pretty much did the same thing a full decade earlier. For a movie plagued with problems, it’s funny that my biggest complaint is that the death sequences don’t embrace the Christmas-themed gimmick more. Billy doesn’t dress up like Santa until late in the film, and the only humorous use of violence is when Billy hangs a man by the neck using Christmas tree lights.
Silent Night, Deadly Night is by no means the first Christmas-themed slasher flick (that honor goes to 1974’s impressive Black Christmas, which even preceded Halloween), but it’s a very fun and quotable B-movie that is deserving of its cult film status. There are certainly better choices in the realm of movies that are so bad they’re good, but SNDN should appease gore hounds looking for a fun horror film to watch around Christmas.
Rating: 4 (out of 7) – Silent Night, Deadly Night is no Black Christmas, but it sure is a lot of fun to laugh at.