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Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

Plot: the weather outside is frightful and this year Santa’s homicidal.

If one were to look at the direct forefather of the 1980s slasher the first two things that come to mind are the German krimi and the Italian giallo. Both existed parallell from each other, at times overlapped and stylistically frequently took influence from each other. Also not unimportant were the terror and suspense films produced on both sides of the Atlantic. For more than a decade prior these forms existed in Mediterranean European – and American cinema; but it woud be the double whammy of the finely-honed Halloween (1978) and the cynical Friday the 13th (1980) that truly crystallised the slasher formula as it would become known, setting in stone many of its conventions. While the dubious merits of Friday the 13th (1980) and its even more ingrate imitations is up for debate what remains uncontested is that just about every imaginable holiday – religious, folkloric or otherwise – now was fair game to be given the slasher treatment. Keeping in line with seasonal holidays Christmas was next.

As these things go Silent Night, Deadly Night might not have been the first. It was after all preceded by notable terror films as Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972), Black Christmas (1974) and Christmas Evil (1980). It was however the first to reap a whirlwind of protest and moral outrage when it arrived at the box office in 1984. For a week (or so) it outgrossed a little movie called A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) at the box office. Concerned parents, community gatekeepers and moral arbiters assembled in a group calling itself Citizens Against Movie Madness as a way of challenging the amount of violence in filmed entertainment and declared war on the film industry. The depiction of Santa Claus as a spree killer and the now infamous Burt Kleeger movie poster had the group up in arms and select theaters were duly picketed. By the second weekend of protests numbers had drastically fallen to about 45% before the movie was unceremoniously pulled and shelved for a year. According to executive producer Dennis Whitehead the pulling came at behest of Columbia/Tri-Star who were owned by Coca Cola who in turn saw Christmas a major advertising opportunity for their soda. Art always suffers in name of the bottomline. In a delicious bit of irony Citizens Against Movie Madness collapsed almost immediately in the aftermath of their victory on Silent Night, Deadly Night as its figureheads pulled in different directions. In light of being pulled hastely Silent Night, Deadly Night nevertheless managed to spawn a healthy two direct sequels (1987-1989), two in-name only sequels (1990-1991) and the obligatory millennial remake with Silent Night (2012). Not bad for something that can hardly be considered a vital contribution to the form. That being as it may Silent Night, Deadly Night is a lot better than it perhaps has any right to be.

December 24, 1971. Making their way across Utah a young family consisting of father Jim Chapman (Geoff Hansen, as Jeff Hansen), his wife Ellie (Tara Buckman), their five-year old son Billy (Jonathan Best, as Jonathon Best) and his infant brother Ricky (Melissa Best) are en route to visit their old catatonic and slightly senile grandpa (Will Hare) in the local mental hospital. When Dr. Conway (Oscar Rowland) informs Jim and Ellie that the records need reviewing Billy is left alone with the old man. He emerges from his catatonic state and tells Billy that “Christmas is the scariest night of the year!” and that Santa brings presents to those who are good and punishes those who are “naughty”. By the time all the formalities and administration are taken care of it’s night and it’s time to head home. Meanwhile, on the other side of time a violent criminal dressed as Santa (Charles Dierkop) holds up the local general store killing the storekeeper Mr. Levitt (Eric Hart) in the process. Seeing Santa alongside the road Jim pulls the car over thinking the jolly old man is experiencing car trouble. Instead the criminal pulls his gun killing Jim, raping and killing Ellie before fleeing in the night. Understandably shook from the night’s event Billy and Ricky are put in an orphanage.

Three years pass and it’s now 1974. Still traumatized from the events of that fateful night Billy (Danny Wagner) and Ricky (Max Broadhead) are living at Saint Mary’s orphanage. There he draws the ire of Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin) by drawing pictures chronicling his trauma. Only Sister Margaret (Gilmer McCormick) seems sympathetic to his plight and that he’s haunted by nightmares of the night three years prior. Mother Superior instills in him that “naughty” behaviour should be punished and that “punishment is necessary, punishment is good”.

Another ten years pass and the orphanage has set up 18-year old Billy (Robert Brian Wilson) with a job in the warehouse of Ira's Toy Store via assistant manager Mrs. Randall (Nancy Borgenicht). His immediate superior Andy (Randy Stumpf) is chagrined that Billy’s virtuous behaviour has put him in good graces with Mr. Simms (Britt Leach) but also his co-worker Pamela (Toni Nero). As Christmas is rapidly approaching Billy gets increasingly nervous and agitated, moreso when the lights and decorations go up. When a sudden shortage in personnel results in no in-store Santa, Mr. Simms decides that Billy is the ideal candidate. After the Christmas sales the store closes for an office party. There Andy tries to rape Pamela and later that night Denise (Linnea Quigley) and her boyfriend Tommy (Leo Geter) sneak in to get their rocks off. Haunted by visions of that fateful night in 1973 and that everyone “naughty” should be punished Billy’s psychosis turns him pathologically homicidal. On the street Billy asks Cindy (Amy Styvesant, as Amy Stuyvesant) if she has been good this year not knowing she’s Denise’s sister.With vice everywhere will Sister Margaret and Captain Richards (H.E.D. Redford) be able to stop Billy’s murderous rampage before he gets his hands on Mother Superior?

Most of the cast consists of blue-collar working actors who all built extensive careers on American television. The biggest names here are French screen monument Lilyan Chauvin and beloved character actor Will Hare on one side and Linnea Quigley and Tara Buckman on the other. The former were stars in the mainstream and the latter were about to consolidate their names in the hell known as low budget exploitation. Chauvin debuted in 1950 and had an impressive six-decade career wherein she mostly played strict, matronly roles. Will Hare is the more recognizable of the two and caught his first big break with Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956). Other notable credits of his include Heaven Can Wait (1978), Enter the Ninja (1981) but it was probably his role as old man Peabody in Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future (1985) that ensured his cinematic immortality. Quigley had worked on Graduation Day (1981) and Savage Streets (1984) and was about to break into the big time with The Return of the Living Dead (1985) and Night of the Demons (1988). Tara Buckman had starred in The Cannonball Run (1981) and was about to work with Greek shlockmeister Nico Mastorakis on Terminal Exposure (1987). She, like so many American actresses of the day, got mixed up in the deranged world of post-Eleven Days, Eleven Nights (1987) and Top Model (1988) softcore dross from Italian porn specialist and part-time pulp filmmaker Joe D’Amato. In that capacity she could be seen in Blue Angel Cafe (1989) and High Finance Woman (1990). Buckman’s next big break came with Xtro II: The Second Encounter (1991) from Harry Bromley Davenport.

As far as American slashers go Silent Night, Deadly Night is hardly the most outrageous, obscene or the most cynical of its kind. That isn’t to say that it isn’t plastered from front to back with blood and boobs because it most certainly is. That Quigley gets the most skin in was all but expected, even this early into her career. The American slasher was an obvious scion of the terror and suspense films from the decade before. These terror and suspense films were modeled on the German krimi and the Italian giallo that were their earliest ancestor. In doing so they boiled them down to their most lunkheaded, basest form excising their subtleties and nuances. Naturally young filmmakers took all the wrong ideas from what made these drive-in shockers appealing and pushed those to their most logical, reductionist conclusion. That didn’t stop foreign directors from filming their own American style slashers for the international market. This in turn led to some quaint and sometimes baffling genre exercises from all corners of the world. By the mid-80s the American slasher was about the only viable horror subgenre left which speaks to the direness of the situation. Look no further than the framing story to Alex Chandon’s Cradle Of Fear (2001) to see the American slasher, ugly and forever creatively bankrupt, alive and well.

Now that the floodgates were well open (in truth they had been opened some four years prior with Sean S. Cunningham’s little summer camp movie) producers were quick to embrace their most cynical, regressive and degenerate inclinations. The moral outrage and controversy surrounding Friday the 13th (1980) did not dissuade producers and directors alike and in the following years the world got the likes of New Year’s Evil (1980), My Bloody Valentine (1981), Final Exam (1981), Bloody Birthday (1981), Honeymoon Horror (1982), Don't Open Till Christmas (1984) and A Bloody New Year (1987) or basically just about any and every excuse of a holiday or occasion to throw a bunch of beautiful people together, have them take their clothes off and kill them. Preferably in some outlandish and bloody fashion. That’s not even mentioning the international response to the American slasher which resulted its own line of deranged cult classics in form of such diverse offerings as Bloody Moon (1981), Srigala (1981), Pieces (1982), Terror and Black Lace (1985), Grave Robbers (1989) and Intensive Care (1991). Late additions such as Slaughterhouse (1987) and Cutting Class (1989) were usually memorable for all the wrong reasons or long forgotten “leave it off the resumé” titles for now A-list Hollywood superstars. Towards the end of the decade the slasher as a whole was ripe for ridiculing, something duly taken care of by the fantastic Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988). William Sachs' The Incredible Melting Man (1977) had already done so a decade before, but it was far more subtle in its intentions to deconstruct and ridicule the subgenre. Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) would reinvent the exhausted and exhausting subgenre for an entire new generation of fans.