Five-year-old Billy has his parents murdered by a criminal dressed as Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. Still haunted by this not so jolly holiday, Billy gets raised in an orphanage by a strict Mother Superior, the only compassion he finds is by sweet Sister Margaret (Gilmer McCormick). But his fear of Santa Claus is never shaken.
Fast forward to Billy turning age eighteen (Robert Brian Wilson) when Sister Margaret gets him a job at a toy store. He turns out to be a model employee, he even develops a crush on cute co-worker Pamela (Toni Nero). Things are going good. That is until the store Santa gets sick and the owner Mr. Sims (Britt Leatch) asks Billy to fill in.
Being a good, dutiful employee Billy relents and dons a Santa costume – and with it comes flooding back all the bad memories he has of Father Christmas. Billy snaps into insanity, sets out to punish the naughty and goes on a killing rampage dressed as jolly old St. Nick.
Silent Night, Deadly Night invited a huge amount of controversy – even before it was released. When television commercials began airing for this upcoming ‘killer Santa Claus’ movie, it drew outrage and protests. Parents groups said the ads were scaring children. To placate complaints, Tri-Star then moved the television ads to air after 9pm, late enough when little ones wouldn’t see them, but that didn’t quiet down outrage. Folks were just not happy with this depiction of a crazed, ax-wielding Santa. Television stations eventually started cancelling their contracts to run any advertisements for the film.
Today I think there are much less sacred cows around. When the loose remake Silent Night came out in 2012 no one even flinched. A slasher film starring Santa Claus? Sure, why not! But in 1984 with its poster image of Santa’s hand gripping an ax while going down a chimney, it was just too much and something groups could complain about.
Silent Night, Deadly Night ignited a firestorm of protests by parents. Film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert famously called out the disgusting nature of the film and shamed those who who made it. The Catholic Conference declared the film as ‘morally offensive’ and said it was, ‘a little abomination of the slash and bash genre’.
Upon its release on November 16, 1984, theaters were picketed by protestors holding signs saying, ‘Deck the halls with holly not bodies’ and ‘Santa ain’t no hitman’. The protests grew to other major cities.
The old motto ‘any publicity is good publicity’ didn’t turn out so well for the film. Amidst all the commotion, about two weeks into its release, Tri-Star pulled the film completely out of theaters. In the ten days it was in cinemas, Silent Night, Deadly Night had outgrossed another slasher film that came out at the same time as it, the eventual classic A Nightmare On Elm Street.
Reading about the history of the film and how much of an uproar it created (which is really the most entertaining thing about the movie) seems like it was such a different time. Today we see Mel Gibson play a gun-toting Santa Claus in Fat Man. We just got the action/comedy Violent Night where Santa fights a bunch of mercenaries. We get horror films starring the Banana Splits, The Grinch, even Winnie the Poo and they barely elicit a reaction from anyone.
Silent Night, Deadly Night is certainly not a film targeted to children. This is a R-rated slasher movie through and through. I guess at the time Santa Claus was still a somewhat sacred image. The idea of presenting a killer dressed as St. Nick was just a line too far for some at that point. Even though, Santa is not actually the killer in the movie. Perhaps that might have made a difference to the protestors had they bothered to actually see the film.
Oddly enough, there had been horror films depicting a killer dressed as Santa Claus before. Christmas Evil (aka You Better Watch Out) had just come out a few years earlier and didn’t get close to the amount of attention that Silent Night, Deadly Night received.
I think folks were getting worked up over nothing really. Silent Night, Deadly Night is just another run-of-the-mill, poorly made slasher flick that flooded cinemas in the years following the success of Halloween. These types of movies were coming out on a weekly basis back in the early 1980s.
The gimmick this time was to set it at Christmas time and have the killer be dressed as Santa Claus. That window dressing didn’t hide the fact the movie isn’t all that good. The filmmakers were even surprised by the outcry the movie attracted. The movie didn’t seem like anything special to them. And it isn’t.
There is really nothing else notable about it to me other than Billy dressed as the Jolly Old Elf running around racking up victims. It’s the only thing that’s worth remembering about it. The acting is poor, the story is nothing special and the kills are average.
In fact, it takes a decent stretch for Kris Kringle to do some killing. The film begins in a flashback with 5-year-old Billy Chapman driving along with his parents on Christmas Eve to visit his comatose grandfather. When Billy is alone with his grandpa he’s given a warning by the old man – Santa will kill you tonight.
I don’t know why his grandpa would tell his grandson this. But he’s old and loopy, so why not.
Driving home that night, the family comes upon a criminal dressed as Santa. This Santa kills Mom and Dad forcing a terrified Billy to run away, while his baby brother is left in the car. Fast forward a few years and the two boys are living in an orphanage. Billy remembers that night and is now haunted by Santa. He’s given no compassion and only receives strict discipline by Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin). Sister Margaret (Gilmer McCormick) however sympathizes with the scared boy and hopes to save him by more a kindly approach.
The first twenty minutes is spent mainly at the orphanage and seeing little Billy abused by the mean Mother Superior. The film takes its time to show how Billy’s mental state gets developed. However, it’s not really fun to see. I think the main audience for this type of film wants to get to the fun slashing/nudity/gore elements as soon as possible. So, they’ll have to be patient for that.
Fast forward again to now 18-year-old Billy and Sister Margaret gets him a job at a toy store. Billy is a hard worker, impresses his boss and develops a crush on co-worker Pamela (Toni Nero). It’s Christmas time and it happens that the store’s Santa is sick and they need someone to take his place. They can’t disappoint all the kids. Cue Billy putting on the costume and after him having some freaky flashbacks, he snaps.
Billy proceeds to kill his boss and all his co-workers in the toy story. For some reason he then kind of moves around the town, popping into houses and kills teens in the midst of doing some naughty things (there’s the sex and boobs for fans).
In my favorite random scene of the movie, there’s some bullies who steal some younger teens sleds. These two naughty boys have fun sledding down a hill, until they’re surprised when ‘Santa Billy’ is there with his ax and decapitates one kid. His headless body arrives at the bottom of the hill and his head rolls down following it.
It’s just such an odd scene. Bullies who steal sleds….? This is what bullies were up to on Christmas Eve in 1984? They’re so gung ho about sliding down a hill too! It’s a weird setup, but I guess it was a different time. That’s what bullies used to like to do in 1984. At least it pays off with a funny kill.
After a night of some axing, the police finally gets wind of Billy and figure out he’s on his way back to the orphanage. It’s then a waiting game of the scared orphans, worried Mother Superior and nervous cops of when he’s going to pop out.
Like a lot of older films, through the years Silent Night, Deadly Night has gained its fair share of cult fans. It’s movie I don’t really see the attraction to. It’s not particularly well made and the kills aren’t even that interesting when we get to them.
I would have thought with a killing Santa as the hook to this movie, the kills would center around ‘Christmas themed deaths’. Other than one of Billy’s co-workers being strangled with Christmas lights and maybe a girl being impaled on some antlers on a mounted deer (I’m reaching for a reindeer connection) all the others kills are rather unexciting.
Get some candy cane stabbings, Christmas tree electrocutions, poisonings by egg nog! Let’s get creative! Billy mainly wields his ax throughout the film. Compared to what we see in horror films today, the blood, gore and violence plays pretty quaint to me. A lot of it’s pretty cheap looking, which doesn’t help either.
I view Silent Night, Deadly Night more as curiosity than a fun exploitive slasher flick. It’s an interesting artifact from the bygone slasher age of cinema. I don’t really get a kick out of it. Other than that ‘sledding beheading scene’, just because it’s so silly. Oh, and seeing some of the older toys on the store shelves, bring back some memories. I’m looking at some of the shelves and thinking to myself, “Hey, it’s a Jabba the Hutt toy! I had that!”
I wish the movie reached the ‘so bad, it’s good’ category for me. I might’ve liked it had it gone all in on a killer Santa Claus on the loose, but as it is, it’s a stale, old slasher film that once upon a time had notoriety and controversy. Today, there’s really not much else to it for me.
Here’s Siskel and Ebert review of Silent Night, Deadly Night – it didn’t get a thumbs up