Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) Directed by Charles Sellier
Throughout the history of exploitation cinema there has always been a morbid fascination with challenging conservative institutions and Western morality with a kind of spirited competition of violent imagery: The most disgustingly graphic film wins, or the one that utilizes the most gallons of blood to dramatize a violent scenario is the nastiest, or the one that features the most indecency is the most daring. These taunting standards assure you a place in the history of the exploitation milieu, regardless of whether the film is bad or not. What matters here is how filthy your film was and how brilliantly vomitous it is. Analyzing the context of what were indisputably the two most extreme decades for exploitation filmmaking, the seventies and eighties, it is easy to deduce that the Europeans surpassed the Americans in terms of the quality of their stylized, sweeping application of violence as an audiovisual methodology, however the American moviemakers also did their own thing and accomplished being fiercely transgressive in adding creativity to cinematic sleaze. The exploitative realm that the Americans exhausted was that of the Americanized gialli, colloquially known as Slashers. In the late 1970s, post-1978, and throughout the 1980s, American film companies capitalized on the popularity of a tasteless and cheap form of filmmaking. It seems that the public loved this kind of trashy entertainment -I suspect that there is a repressed desire in each of us to rejoice in fictitious violence every time we go to the movies- consequently, movies where we saw an inquisitive killer condemning adolescent promiscuity and sociocultural debauchery with brutal deaths became more than an unapologetic entertainment; it was a cathartic indulgence in the face of so much patronizing propaganda that mainstream cinema had installed in those days. But why do I mention this? Why am I taking the verbal trouble to explain the objectives and mechanisms of American exploitative cinema?
In 1984 Tri-Star Pictures released in theaters a Christmas slasher – though not groundbreaking in its holiday horror theme, that credit goes to Black Christmas (1974), and somewhat to Christmas Evil (1980) as well – which was, as expected, a smash box-office hit. The film is called Silent Night, Deadly Night. It carries a name provocative and enticing enough to be a smart advertising strategy to appeal to even the most snobbish moviegoers. But its attention-grabbing title is only a small part of its holistic macabre charm as a slasher flick; the plot featuring a young man dressed as Santa Claus as the killer feels like nothing we’ve seen before. This last comment may have sounded hyperbolic, but the truth is that despite the aggressive amateurism surrounding this production, the film works in unpredictable ways. It may not be original per se, but it treats admittedly crude and implausible material as if it were the quintessential American slasher. Consequently, all we see here is purity in the most exploitative sense of the word; the repulsive events that take place in the plot deal with the psychosexual vehemence that typifies the gialli as art, whether it is good art or not, that is not the discussion. The amazement I got from watching Silent Night, Deadly Night was mainly due to its cinematic audacity and propensity to render the gory events even more savagely violent than they already are. It is a persuasively mean-spirited approach to filmmaking. Customarily, slasher films are driven by an emphasis on the mystery behind the killer and the creeping danger he poses to the victims. In contrast to this practical gimmick, Silent Night, Deadly Night is driven by the post-traumatic stress that prompts the killer to do what he does.
It’s a hilariously sleazy story as it is earnestly tragic. On Christmas Eve, 5-year-old Billy Champman (Jonathan Best) is traumatized for life after he witnesses the grisly murder of his parents committed by a felon dressed as Santa Claus. This trauma is further exacerbated when his grandfather tells him that naughty children don’t get presents at Christmas, but rather are punished. Billy grows up in a strict Catholic orphanage run by nuns. There, all he encounters is mistreatment and religious prejudice. Billy’s fears now as a young adult (Robert Brian Wilson), resulting from the traumas he has endured, turn him into a frightened and hesitant man. Although his athletic and virile exterior exudes manliness and confidence, his inner self expresses a resentment and hatred that sooner or later will be externalized. Now Billy works in a toy store and to his misfortune his boss forces him to dress up as Santa Claus during the Christmas season to greet customers. This unleashes in Billy an irrepressible wrathful turmoil that drives him to become what he dreaded the most as a child, an evil Santa Claus who chastises those who don’t behave well. The narrative by this time resembles an ironic fable, in which the protagonist, the victim of the tale at the beginning, eventually morphs into the same terrors that his psyche implanted in his childhood evolution into adulthood. From the outset this festive slasher does not excel at filmmaking, the editing is crude and slapdash, the cinematography is lousy and the performances uniformly atrocious, nevertheless there is an exquisite malevolence lurking in all its ugliness that possesses a superlative wit.
Television producer Charles Sellier directs this film in the most frivolous way possible. It’s more than likely that his lack of experience in the medium contributed to the levity, but ultimately, the script written by Michael Hickey gives Sellier numerous opportunities to work that levity into a shape-shifting, quite transfixing style. There are segments in Silent Night, Deadly Night that deserve to be in the pantheon of slasher cinema’s finest – the atmospheric, bleak toy store massacre sequence is one of those – but what doubtlessly grounds this cheapie as an excellent horror film is how it manages to make us feel with every goddamn hostile frame and the angry meanings they carry. It is transgressive cinema through and through; and the more you reflect on how blasphemous its premise is, the more you admire the destructive energy that this film releases just by making an iconoclastic exercise out of the banal. The motives that fuel Billy’s psychopathy are the apprehensions instilled in his morals since he was a child. Beyond having witnessed the murder of his parents, his dogmatically religious upbringing engendered in him a guilt laden with anger and bitterness. Christmas iconography is subverted by Billy’s mercilessness, and this perversion of tradition and the integrity that constitutes it lends the film an aura of provocative art designed for both laughing at the absurdities of holiday puritanism and questioning the idealization of the sanctimonious, incorruptible moral man.
The spirit of this slasher is delightfully cynical when you interpret all its gratuitous porn and lurid gore with Billy’s same unbridled enthusiasm for punishing naughty children; everything about Silent Night, Deadly Night captures the audiovisual extremity of slasher practice phenomenally well, it may not have the idyllic Christmas cheer one expects from a family classic but it’s the kind of cynicism one most needs at this holiday season.