Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
I guess this is significant? I mean, it spawned multiple sequels, it's supposedly being remade AGAIN, and NECA made an action figure of the killer a few years ago, which...
Honestly, I bought it for a custom project I just haven't gotten around to yet.
The point is, this must have a fan base. I'm not entirely sure why, but then again "slasher" was never really my subgenre of choice. And, to be fair, there are impressive aspects to this movie - I'll get to all that in a moment - but first, let's talk plot.
Like Christmas Evil, Silent Night, Deadly Night is centered around the film's killer Santa, here named Billy, who is structurally the movie's protagonist. The movie starts with an extended - and I do mean EXTENDED - prologue providing his backstory, in which he visits his grandfather in a mental facility on Christmas Eve. While he's believed to be virtually comatose, Billy's grandfather speaks to him when the two are alone, warning the boy that Santa will punish him. This proves prophetic when their family later stops to help a stranded man in a Santa suit, only for "Santa" to shoot Billy's father before sexually assaulting and murdering his mother. Billy survives, as does his infant brother in the backseat.
We're past the thirteen-minute mark, incidentally, before we transition out of this prologue into
the main story yet another prologue. Yup, we skip ahead a few years, and Billy's in a Catholic orphanage, where...
I'm sorry, I know movies aren't real, and I know it's not like this is the *only* movie to do this, but orphanages were all but nonexistent in the U.S. by the '70s, when this is supposed to take place. Sorry - pet peeve and all that.
At any rate, there are two important nuns: a relatively young, loving one named Sister Margaret and the Mother Superior, a stern old woman obsessed with punishment. Despite Margaret's desire to help Billy heal, Mother Superior is fixated on using a firm hand to teach discipline and obedience. And, well, she's in charge, so you can probably see where this is going. I'll save you the details, but suffice to say it's not a happy childhood and Billy certainly hasn't let go of his hatred and fear of Santa. Add on to that a fixation with punishment and an extremely unhealthy understanding of sex, and you've got this movie's recipe for a psychopath.
Now, twenty-five minutes into an hour-and-twenty-five-minute film, we skip ahead to an 18-year-old Billy needing a job. Sister Margaret gets him hired at a toy store, which... okay, I guess it's a horror movie, so we've just got to accept characters are going to do profoundly dumb things.
At first, it goes pretty well. Billy wants to fit in. He wants to behave and all that. And he does. Until Christmas.
He starts unraveling around the decorations. The Santa imagery haunts him, bringing back memories of the man who killed his parents. His coworkers notice; some are nice, others cruel. Then, on Christmas Eve, the store's Santa calls out sick, and Billy's asked to fill in, despite the fact there are clearly better candidates. No one notices him terrorizing the kids to get them to keep quiet and pose for the pictures, so as far as his coworkers and boss are concerned, he's good at the job.
After they close, he has a full mental breakdown and basically winds up convinced he's the real Santa. Which is kind of a problem, since in Billy's mind Santa exists to punish the "naughty" in extremely horrific ways. He comes across one of his coworkers sexually assaulting another and kills them both. Then he murders his boss and the other employees before heading out across town, killing various other people he finds.
I should note that Billy's conception of "naughty" is never really defined. Anyone engaging in a sexual act seems to be fair game, but it's unclear why he kills everyone at the Christmas party. He spares one young kid after she tells him she's been good all year (actually, he spares her and gives her a bloody box cutter), but that's about it in terms of mercy.
Sister Margaret and the police try to find him, but he's always one step ahead for some unexplained reason. They tell us it's because Billy's smart, though his actions seem more contrived than intelligent. Again, I know this is just genre convention, but the main reason he's so effective at killing is that he's able to magically pop out of wherever he needs to be, regardless of whether it makes sense how he got there. Likewise, at several points, he's brutally murdering people while others nearby hear nothing. It's less scary than absurd.
Eventually, Sister Margaret's able to predict Billy will return to the orphanage to try and kill Mother Superior, and the cops are (eventually) able to stop him. The movie ends with him getting shot, collapsing, telling the orphans they're finally safe since Santa's dead, then his brother (now about the same age Billy was in the prologue) glares at Mother Superior and utters the word, "Naughty." So, yeah, no surprise to learn he takes over in the sequel.
So. How is it?
Ugh. I don't know where to start. Aspects are at the very least impressive for the time, particularly if we're talking about the gore effects. So if you're really into that sort of thing, this might be worth seeing for historical perspective. But it's not like gore hasn't improved in the past thirty-seven years, so I certainly wouldn't recommend this to modern mainstream horror audiences.
The soundtrack is pretty good, and there are some great atmospheric shots, particularly in the toy store. The leads are solid, for what that's worth.
Thematically, I'm not sure if this was trying to say anything about Billy's psychology - if so, it doesn't succeed. I'll be generous and assume that was just present for tone.
The movie's use of Santa is a bit better. The story is exploring the flipside to Santa as gift-giver: in folklore, he punishes, as well as rewards, even if modern versions tend to sugarcoat those stories. To the extent the story works at all, it's as a sort of modern-day folktale. The fact the mantle of dark Santa passes from the killer at the start to Billy to presumably his brother plays into this. Granted, plenty of other Christmas horror movies have done the folklore thing significantly better since (seriously: take your pick between Rare Exports and Krampus), but still it's worth acknowledging.
And speaking of things worth acknowledging...
Okay, so far you've read what probably seems like a mixed-to-negative review. Here's the thing, though: I've been nice. Like, really nice. Hilariously nice. Because until this moment, I haven't even touched on the misogyny.
Everything I've talked about so far - the Santa stuff, the story, the characters - as far as I can tell, all of it exists as an excuse to objectify, exploit, and mutilate women's bodies on screen.
Yeah, okay, I know some of that comes with the genre. This is hardly the first horror movie to cash in on topless women getting brutally killed, and others have been even less shameful. But it's been a while since I've seen anything that was this fixated on the intersection between naked women and violence in a way that wasn't entirely based in camp. It's uncomfortable in all the wrong ways.
In case it wasn't clear, this isn't getting a recommendation. That alone is more than enough, but if you want more, the movie's mostly just boring. The pacing really doesn't work: this is structured like a psychological thriller, but there's no substance to keep your attention, unless regular shots of topless women are enough to entertain you. As a movie, I far preferred Christmas Evil, which had a nearly identical premise but delivered something genuinely weird. Not that I'm unconditionally recommending Christmas Evil, but if you're going to invest your time in one of these, go with that one.
To avoid ending this entirely on a bad note, I'll say two more positive things. First, I appreciated that the movie at least tried to frame the underlying cause as religious austerity. And second, as bad as most of this was, it is in virtually all ways possible - including its portrayal of violence against women - better than the utterly irredeemable 2012 remake.
Lastly, as I've already said several times in this article, this isn't my preferred subgenre. So if there's something I'm missing, I'm all ears: I'd love to know why you love this, or why it's a classic, or whatever. But please, I'm begging you, don't waste my time if all you've got to offer are insults or vague assurances there's something profound here you can't or won't explain. Please bring some substance or skip the comment entirely.