Welcome back to the scariest, and at times goriest, column here at Film Inquiry: Horrific Inquiry. Twice a month, I will be tackling all things horror, bringing two films back into the spotlight to terrify and frighten once more. And occasionally looking at those that could have pushed the envelope further. Join us as we dive deep into the heart of horror, but warning, there will be spoilers.
“Mommy, you shouldn’t have said that. It’s naughty to say bad things about old people. Santa Claus will punish you!” – Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
Sometimes the best horror experiences are those you go in blind for. Now, Silent Night, Deadly Night is not an unheard of holiday horror, but rather a beloved cult classic whose devotion runs even deeper with its sequel. And while this movie has been on my radar for some time, it’s a film that always alluded my watch list. But not only my watch list but my general knowledge of the film. Silent Night, Deadly Night is a film I chose this month because of its fans and cult following. With a sense of deepening FOMO, and the holiday season underway, Charles E. Sellier‘s Silent Night, Deadly Night was the perfect way to usher in the spirit of Christmas.
Santa Cometh to Punish
There is such a nostalgic feel to the opening, the essence of an 80s slasher deeply rooted in the film’s opening title card. As Silent Night, Deadly Night pans towards the camera, its impact releases an artistic splattering of blood, dousing our minds in preparation for the slasher that is to follow. And while the film has you wait a moment for its first blood draw, it works well to lay the initial framework that will become Billy’s psychosis.
source: Tri-Star Pictures
The film spends a lot of time following the Caldwell’s car before and after they visit Grandfather in the mental hospital. It feels and works as filler, many times feeling both unnecessary and too early in the film to begin utilizing, dragging the opening when there is no narrative construct in action. Silent Night, Deadly Night will have many moments of these, most often in its extended scenes of sexual prowess. While the film loses much of its essence in these moments, it is only temporary. The film possesses an unexpected depth of psychology surrounding Billy as he moves through the years from his parent’s murder culminating in his Christmas Eve massacre.
Silent Night Deadly Night begins by laying the foundation, Billy (Jonathan Best) and his family visiting their Grandfather in the mental hospital. At first, it seems the Grandfather is completely incapacitated. Yet, when the parents, strangely, leave young Billy alone with his Grandfather, he becomes alert and almost deviously demonic. He turns to Billy grabbing his arm and asking if he has been a good boy. While Billy initially responds that he has, he admits to Grandfather that he has in fact been naughty. An influence of folklore beyond Santa infuses the moment as Grandfather tells the boy that while Santa may come to bring gifts for good children, he also visits to punish those who have been naughty. He warns Billy that if he sees Santa tonight, he better run like hell – he had better run for his life.
We see the idea of Santa coming to punish naughty children begin to manifest in Billy, his pleas to his parents to keep Santa out of the house falling on deaf ears. They are more concerned that Grandfather may have spoken to him, rather than what he might have said. While the notion of punishment begins to fester in Billy, viewers are given a side story – a local criminal dressed as Santa stopping at a convince store, robbing and murdering the attendant. As he flees the scene, the moment feels random, yet predictable. As the Caldwells make their way down the road, they see Santa, his car broken down on the side of the road. While Billy pleads for his parents not to stop the car, no one listens to the child. As shots are fired and the Caldwell’s car runs off the road, Billy runs for his life from Santa as his Grandfather warns bearing witness to the brutality and punishment of Santa Claus.
source: Tri-Star Pictures
In these moments, the film leans into the traditional tropes of horror, the blouse of his mother ripped off as her breasts fall forward. Her throat is slit giving Silent Night, Deadly Night its first blood bath that was promised during the film’s title car. The mangled body of his father falls to the ground, a bullet hole in the head is visible to all. We witness the brutality with Billy capturing the visuals that will haunt him throughout the rest of his life. Many of these moments are expected. However, the move to deepen the damaging psychosis of this moment was not.
A Superior Method of Treatment
Silent Night, Deadly Night moves ahead two years, Billy (Danny Wagner) and his brother Ricky now living at St. Mary’s Orphanage. As the students hang their Christmas-themed drawings on the wall, everyone is horrified as Billy depicts the mutilation of Santa Claus. While Sister Margaret (Gilmer McCormick) seems to understand the deepening psychosis of Billy, Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin) is convinced he just needs to push through his pain. As she states and strongly believes, he didn’t even see what happened to his parents. There is an immediate denial of Billy’s truth from Mother Superior and a silencing of those who see he needs more than hard love. Sister Margaret warns that if they do not deal with the turmoil that lives within Billy, get to the root of his problems, and heal him, it will break out of him eventually.
source: Tri-Star Pictures
It is an interesting contrast that is created between Mother Superior and Sister Margaret. Where Mother Superior represents the old, Sister Margaret represents the modern. While one still embraces the brutal idea of piety, Sister Margaret understands there is is something deeper that needs to be addressed – and addressed properly. As the world of psychology began to unravel the mysterious of the mind and behavior, there were those who were willing to embrace it and those who were not. As the film critiques, the latter do the most damage. But Sister Margaret is not without her own faults, the film further critiquing the idea of herd mentality and following what someone says because they are at the head of the pack.
The idea of Santa punishing the wrong doers is further reenforced by Mother Superior. Billy is beaten, tied to his bed, and forced to watch the punishments laid out for those around him. He witnesses a couple having sex, Mother Superior immediately beats them upon discovery. The idea of what is right and wrong is laid out in a black-and-white format, the punishments dolled out brutal and unforgiving. As we watch Billy grow in this increasingly stifling and violent environment, a kind of empathy begins to develop for the adult Billy that will finally snap. From Santa punishing his parents to Mother Superior punishing both Billy and those around them, there is always someone who will force others to answer for their sins.
Enter Billy (Robert Brian Wilson). Silent Night Deadly Night holds some really awkward moments, scenes that feel so out of place. One of these such scenes is the euphoric 1980s-infused montage of Billy working at the Toy Store. While it develops a contrast between Billy happy and the murderous, it is one of the more ridiculous moments in the film. And honestly, it does little to heighten the transition Billy experiences Christmas Eve.
source: Tri-Star Pictures
Finding his Santa injured, the store owner turns to Billy, having him dress as Santa for the kids that are coming to visit. Dressed in the same suit worn by the man who killed his parents, Billy is apprehensive yet obedient with his boss’s request. You can see the fractures begin to form as Billy struggles to handle the children sitting on his lap. With each child, he begins to become the warning his Grandfather afforded him as a child. Warning the kids to stop kicking him because they’re being naughty and Santa punishes the naughty children, we know it is only a matter of time before he snaps.
And does he ever.
The kills in Silent Night Deadly Night are gruesome. Not the gore horror fans are accustomed to today, but they do not disappoint. One particular kill sees a half-naked woman being impaled by antlers on the wall, the camera holding a tight extreme shot so viewers can see the skin stretch before the antler pierces through. Not every kill is as effective as this one, but it will potentially have you squirming at times. Yet, not every kill is necessary, the film looks for bodies wherever it can as Billy makes his way back to the orphanage, his snapped psychosis finding focus and intent. Billy may have started punishing the sinners presently sinning around him, he transitions his murderous rage to punish the transgressions of the past.
Silent Night Deadly Night may not be the best horror film, but I understand the cult following behind it. And seeing as more people speak of the sequel, I can’t wait to dive right back in to watch Billy’s little brother Ricky take the reins.
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