Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)


A lot is made now about how everyone is too sensitive and that art and expression are being censored due to the kneejerk reactions of a few people that happen to just shout louder than everyone else.  I see many posts about how things were better back in the 1980s when people weren't so concerned about stepping on toes and everyone was a lot more open.  I personally wonder if anyone who posts this actually ever lived through the 1980s.

The first half of the 1980s saw a number of "concerned parents" organizations, supposedly grass roots, calling for censorship of the arts.  Part of this evolved from the "Satanic Panic", as a number of fundamentalist preachers drummed up the idea of Satanic cults existing on the fringes of America, sexually abusing and doing other things to our youth.  As they worked behind the scenes, and somehow controlled all mass media, the story went that they were trying to make Satanism normal in society.  This also extended to things like barcodes and credit cards.  While the whole thing was a flash in the pan panic, it served to rile up others against television shows, movies and music.  Keep in mind the 1980s gave us the PG-13 rating and the PMRC. 

It also briefly gave us CAMM and MAMM, Citizens Against Movie Madness and Mothers Against Movie Madness, respectively.  They only lasted a brief time, but long enough to make sure Silent Night, Deadly Night got pulled from theaters only a couple weeks after its release in November 1984.  Helped along by actors such as Mickey Rooney and an entire portion of an At the Movies segment with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, the movie became the latest example of American's moral decline.  Never mind that Christmas Evil had already made it to theaters in 1980 and A Nightmare on Elm Street debuted the same day.  Suddenly, an axe-wielding maniac in a Santa suit in a low-budget film made in Heber City, Utah was going to put the final nail in the coffin of democracy.

In 1971, after a rather frightening visit to his grandfather (Will Hare), Billy (Jonathan Best) sees his father (Geoff Hansen) and mother (Tara Buckman) murdered by a guy in a Santa suit (Charles Dierkop).  He and his infant brother Richard are remanded to an orphanage run by an order led by Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin).  In 1974, angered by Billy's (Danny Wagner) inability to get past what happened that night, Mother Superior decides to start using harsh discipline and punishments, further reinforcing the trauma as well as equating sex with deviant behavior.  

Despite this, Billy (Robert Brian Wilson) comes of age and leaves the orphanage and, in 1984 with the help of Sister Margaret (Gilmer McCormick), gets a job working for Ira Simms (Britt Leach) at his toy store.  Things are seemingly fine for a while, with Billy finding himself attracted to coworker Pamela (Toni Nero).  As Christmas approaches, however, many of his same problems arise, leading to constant berating from his direct supervisor Andy (Randy Stumpf).  When the usual store Santa is injured, Ira has Billy take on the role, with disastrous results.  Embodying the role of Santa, not as one that delivers gifts but as one that punishes the naughty, he goes through the town on Christmas Eve to punish the naughty in his own way.  Meanwhile, with the help of Sister Margaret, the local police try to stop him. 

Gene Siskel, in his famous pearl-clutching diatribe, made sure to "name names" on who was involved with making this film, going so far as to say they had "blood on their hands."  To be perfectly honest, no one died or, as far as I know, even got scratched in this, despite a real axe being thrown at a wall near Linnea Quigley.  That is in contrast to a couple years before when, on the big-budget Steve Spielberg-produced Twilight Zone: The Movie Vic Morrow and two child actors were killed after a helicopter sequence went wrong during John Landis's segment.  Despite neither he nor Ebert really caring for that movie either, not a word is spoken.  It reflected a huge movement against "pornographic" violence, as if audiences for these movies were somehow getting gratification from seeing latex torsos getting punctured and dripping out fake blood.  The audiences for the films, like today, were well aware that none of this was reality, and the people who made the movies knew that if it was too realistic no one would want to watch.  

This is even considering that the movie that they, and anyone back in 1984 saw, was not the same version of the movie I watched.  Producer Ian Barmak and director Charles E. Sellier Jr. self-censored the film before even submitting it for a rating from the MPAA, knowing that in the current climate a number of scenes would not pass muster.  Still, because of the advertising campaign and the ridiculous controversy from CAMM, MAMM and others, the movie was inexplicably pulled from theaters after two weeks.  The original plan had been to do limited release until shortly before Christmas, then increase the number of theaters in which it was showing.  It was brilliant because, even though there was never any consideration of having to complete with Wes Craven's film, it would have let the hype around that movie die down a bit and give audiences more of what they were craving.  Instead, Barmak eventually bought it back from Tristar and re-released it two years later without much fanfare or controversy.

Also, despite the uproar, the controversy was never intended.  Everyone involved was ready for blowback from the Catholic League, as a good portion of the first third of the film is concerned with the abuse that Billy suffers at the hands of Mother Superior.  Although it gets into full exploitation territory for the bulk of the film the whole first part, detailing how Billy turned out the way he was, was the important part of the movie.  It did away with the usual telling the story around the campfire or a police officer giving exposition and just went ahead and showed the audience why Billy was so disturbed.  Danny Wagner, as a child actor, is great in this portion, as is Lilyan Chauvin.  She's also not made out to be an absolute villain, but someone who inadvertently does a great wrong while intending to actually help Billy. 

The big surprise for with Silent Night, Deadly Night is that I expected it to be like most second- or third-tier slasher films, with a decent beginning and ending and then 45 minutes worth of padding, walking around the woods or talking about killings that the production didn't have the budget to film.  This is not the case.  The nudity is obviously gratuitous, the killings are the usual exaggerated slasher style, but the movie generally works like it was supposed to and tells a decent story.  It suffered from terrible sequels and an unnecessarily nasty reputation, but it is one of the better examples of the genre, with a lot less stumbling around in the dark and acting stupid.  It is also taken seriously throughout much of the film, with some of the humor being intentional.  Unfortunately, the unintentional often comes from Robert Brian Wilson's line delivery of "Punish!" or "Naughty!", although there are some times where he is able to put forth a rather discomforting and chilling performance. 

It is well shot, decently scripted and contains a number of classic scenes.  It still pales in comparison against A Nightmare on Elm Street and would still be the cult film it is without the controversy, but it was good enough where it would not have "sank like a stone" like most people involved with it were afraid it would.  Tristar on their end did the movie an injustice by not riding out the controversy to make more money, as having a bunch of self-righteous prudes marching in front of a theater is pretty much free publicity when it comes to movies like this.  The surprising thing is that the actual movie itself is pretty good and succeeds and being what it wants to be.

Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
Time: 85 minutes
Starring: Robert Brian Johnson, Lilyan Chauvin, Gilmer McCormick, Toni Nero, Linnea Quigley
Director: Charles E. Sellier Jr. 

 

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