With its now iconic poster of a Santa Claus arm gripping a shining ax as its owner disappears down a chimney, Silent Night, Deadly Night sent shockwaves through American cinemas, opening to a firestorm of critical backlash and audience disgust at its seemingly tasteless teardown of Kris Kringle.
Though the film doesn’t feature the North Pole, magical reindeer or flying sleds and is very much rooted in the “real world,” its story line makes liberal use of Santa imagery in the tale of a traumatized young boy in the grips of PTSD after witnessing the brutal murder of his parents by a car thief wearing St. Nicholas garb on Christmas Eve. Sent to a Catholic orphanage run by a sadistic Mother Superior (a frightfully fascistic Lilyan Chauvin), the traumatized little boy grows into a polite young man with flaxen hair and a gentle smile.
Eager to restart his life and put the past to bed, Billy (Robert Brian Wilson) takes a job in the town nearby, where he stocks the shelves at a local toy story. Loved by the regulars even if his strait-laced ways and good manners irritate his hard-drinking coworker, Billy begins to find his way – until the Christmas season comes around. The lights roll out, trees go up and snow falls on the town. Demons begin to well up inside of Billy, who suffers from brief but terrifying flashbacks to the night of his parents’ horrific demise. When he has to stand in for the store’s Santa Claus, Billy becomes unhinged and embarks on a full-tilt murder spree, picking off everyone who’s been “naughty.”
In this tiny town of quiet, dead-end streets and snowy woods, the victims are limited to bullying teenagers and frisky babysitters (your typical horror movie fare). The executions range from stomach carving to decapitation to an especially creative death involving a pair of deer antlers. As the night moves towards Christmas morning, Billy makes his way back to the orphanage of his youth, eager to take revenge on the nun who forced him to keep his trauma buried deep inside.
Directed by Charles Sellier, Jr., a writer, producer and director best known for bringing The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams to television in the 1970s, Silent Night, Deadly Night remains a standout in a filmography of mostly Christian-themed and family-friendly titles.
Though vilified upon its release, the film has picked up love over the years and is now a darling in cult circles, having spawned a series (the subsequent films achieving an underground following of their own) and seeing a re-master in recent years courtesy of Shout! Factory. The film checks the boxes of typical slasher fare, including a wealth of random sex, nudity and inventive, over-the-top murders. But viewers expecting a simple story featuring a maniac Santa Claus might be taken off guard by this disturbing character study of a man wrestling with his trauma. Silent Night, Deadly Night is more than a horror movie set at Christmastime. It’s a tragedy about succumbing to one’s demons.