Cine Outsider header
front page    disc reviews    film reviews    articles    interviews  
You've been a very naughty boy
A UK region 2 DVD review of SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT by Gort
 

If you're young enough, it's possible that you've never heard the term Video Nasty. It's not an official description, but one coined by British tabloid newspapers to describe a particular type of horror movie that only saw the light of day here with the arrival of home video, which was initially not subject to the same degree of censorship and regulation as it's cinema equivalent. Films like these were deemed unspeakably evil by the sort of people who like to paint themselves as upstanding and decent, and putting them out on video was regarded as downright irresponsible. Think of the children, damn you! The tabloids got involved (of course) and politicians saw Middle England mileage in coming down hard on this sort of trash. A hit list was drawn up, probably based on titles that made Daily Mail columnists shudder, and any film that might be deemed morally corrupting by those who desperately needed a good dose of moral corruption was banned.

Now although this was a specifically British phenomenon, one that doubtless bemused our American cousins, there were a small handful of films that also prompted outrage on the other side of the pond, one of the most notorious being the very film under examination here. Given that there were far more violent and more morally questionable films than this doing the rounds in the early eighties, just what was it about Silent Night, Deadly Night that prompted such a hostile reaction? Simple really – the killer was dressed as Santa Claus. And as we all know, Santa Claus is a jolly and benevolent fellow who brings presents to well behaved children at Christmas, not a homicidal maniac who punishes them for their naughtiness.

The response was sometimes hilarious. The mighty PTA (that's the Parent Teacher Association for those of you who have never been pestered by this particular American acronym) condemned the film and picketed cinemas (sorry, theaters), demanding that it be pulled from distribution. Critic Leonard Maltin gave it a rare zero star rating and asked "What's next, the Easter Bunny as a child molester?" (a frankly brilliant suggestion in my book), and fellow scribes Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert made televisual fools of themselves by reading out the credits and saying "shame, shame, shame" after each one. Now seriously, could you come up with a better ad for a horror film than that lot?* But withdrawn the film was and no attempt was even made to submit it for a BBFC rating in the UK, where it remained the unseen subject of genre fan speculation for years. Now it arrives here for the first time and we can finally see whether it lives up to the controversy it inadvertently stirred.

If you knew nothing about the film and walked in just after the opening titles you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd stumbled into live-action Disney feature rather than controversial horror. It's Christmas Eve and cheerful Jim Chapman is driving his family up to Utah to pay Grandpa a festive season visit. Little Billy is asking about Santa Claus and wants to stay up late to see him, but smiling mother Ellie tells him it's best he doesn't or he won't get any presents, then returns her attention to the baby she's coddling. It's a picture of pre-Christmas family sweetness. There's only one peculiar aspect to the whole sequence, and it may just be the result of makeup misjudgement. Little Billy appears to be wearing lipstick. Bright red lipstick. Nah, this has to be a mistake.

When they reach Grandpa's place, it's revealed to be the Utah Mental Facility where Grandpa is a patient. He's apparently deteriorated since the family last saw him and is now in a catatonic trance. But the moment Mum and Dad's backs are turned he snaps out of it and proceeds to scare the bejesus out of young Billy by assuring him that far from ho-ho-ho-ing and bringing him presents, Santa is coming tonight to punish him for being naughty. This, as you can imagine, puts the boy off the whole idea of meeting Mr. Claus. Unfortunately for him, destiny has other ideas. In the dark of night and still far from home, the family are flagged down by a man dressed as Father Christmas. Little do they know he's just robbed a convenience store and shot the clerk enough times to make really sure he's dead.

I should point out at this juncture that the Chapman family are actually a lot more sensible than genre tradition might lead you to expect. When Billy explains the source of his new found Christmas fears, for example, they don't dismiss his claims, but instead reason that Grandpa must have temporarily snapped out of his trance and talked to him. And when bad Santa pulls a gun on our Jim, he doesn't raise his hands and beg for mercy, but instead throws the car into reverse and hits the accelerator. He only comes a cropper because he's hit by a bullet and backs into a ditch, a move that actually plays like a genuine accident rather than a manufactured getaway stumble. Dad's fatally wounded and Mum's hope of escape is nobbled when Bad Santa drags her from the car, rips open her blouse (that's not the last time this happens), hits her a few times and cuts her throat, all in full view of the hiding Billy. Now just how do you think this will affect him in later life?

Three years later and Billy and young brother Ricky are in an orphanage run by a draconian Mother Superior who is unsympathetic to the older boy's traumas. She sends him to his room for creating nightmare-tinged drawings, ties him to his bed to stop him wandering around, and come Christmas insists that he sit on Santa's lap and behave himself. Billy responds by knocking Santa flat with possibly the best child-delivered punch I've ever seen. The Mother Superior beats him for his trouble and installs in his impressionable young mind the idea that naughtiness is always punished and that punishment is good. Uh-oh. Complicating matters is that Billy catches sight of a couple having it off in one of the upstairs rooms and being beaten for their behaviour by you-know-who, actions he somehow links with the murder of his parents. No, I couldn't get that one either.

Fortunately, not everyone at the orphanage is so unfeeling, and when Billy reaches the ripe age of 18, kindly Sister Margaret (who hasn't aged a day since the pair first met – just what is her secret?) lands him a job at a local convenience store to help ease his way back into normal society. He gets on well enough with his fellow employees, except the store's professional dickwad Andy, but when Christmas comes and the man earmarked to play the store Santa is injured, guess who kindly store boss Ira Simms nominates to take his place?

Silent Night, Deadly Night gets off to a fine start, with an arresting prologue and some enjoyably melodramatic character shaping under the stern hand of the unpleasant Mother Superior. When Billy evolves from scared little boy into smiling and good natured super-jock there's still a sense that the plot could go either way. But once he dons the Father Christmas beard and the red and white suit he becomes a face behind a mask, transformed into just another stalk-and-slash killer distinguished only by his seasonal apparel.

Yet in what was a crowded and largely undistinguished market, Silent Night, Deadly Night still has a lot going for it. The first half is rather smart, and Billy's transformation takes place late enough in the film for his rampage to act as an extended climax rather than the film's sole raison d'être. Charles E. Sellier Jr.'s camera placement and editing choices are snappy enough to make you wish he'd helmed more movies (he's produced over fifty but directed only a handful – some explanation as to why is provided in the extras), while the script intermittently rises above the genre average (a babysitter trying to make out with her boyfriend orders the child in her charge to go back to bed or "Santa won't come," to which her boyfriend mutters in frustration, "He's not the only one") and for the first half at least it shows signs of exploring the psychology of the killer, something that's tossed to the wind in the final third. The concept of an evil Santa also provides its share of dark pleasures, the most amusing being the quiet threats that Billy whispers to the irritable child on his lap, scaring her into silence and prompting her mother to smilingly remark how good he is with children. Futurama fans will doubtless delight at seeing one of the series' most memorable guest characters so demonically foreshadowed.

My only real problem with the film comes in the final five minutes, which to avoid spoiling for newcomers I'll detail at the bottom of the page in a manner you shouldn't be able to read by accident. It's a personal gripe, but one others may well find themselves sharing. On the whole, though, Silent Night, Deadly Night lives up to the promise of its premise, if not in the expected manner, surviving on its wit and assured handling rather than the violence of its killings and gratuitous tit shots. After twenty-five years of UK unavailability it's finally here, uncut, for British horror fans to retrospectively appreciate. And it's only a month until Christmas...

sound and vision

A generally spiffy 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer whose spot-on contrast and crisp detail occasionally but noticeably suffer a quality drop, suggesting that we're looking at a restoration created from more than one source. A bit of digging reveals that this material was originally missing from the cinema version and was restored for the American DVD release. For the most part, though, this is a fine job that does the film proud.

The Dolby 2.0 mono soundtrack is also better than you might expect, having a decent dynamic range and clarity, no obvious distortion on the louder music, and only a trace of background fluff in the quieter scenes.

extra features

Audio Interview with Director Charles E. Sellier (35:23)
An extra borrowed from the American release in which director Sellier is interviewed by phone about the film and its production. A chatty and informative interviewee, Sellier provides detailed information on how the project came about and how he became involved and explains why he prefers producing to directing (too hard, too much standing around in the cold) and how one scene developed from its script form to the version in the film. He also talks about the post-release controversy and Tristar's decision to pull the film from cinemas (which he believes was not in response to the protests), and reveals that as an 'older and wiser' filmmaker he's not that proud of having made a slasher film and now feels that filmmakers need to take a more responsible approach to what they choose to show on screen.

Silent Night, Deadly Night Unrated Trailer (1:26)
The original unrated trailer, rescued from what looks like VHS tape, but with all of the film clips replaced by their remastered equivalent from the transfer here. The bookends show what it should have looked like all the way through.

summary

A lost classic it's not, but it's nice to discover that one of the most controversial slasher films of the 80s is actually classier than its reputation suggests. The PTA might still object, but given that their beloved image of Santa is effectively a fantasy created from folklore and adopted as a mascot by the Coca Cola company, one that children are encouraged to believe in but are ridiculed if they later continue to do so, I'd say the old fool is fair game. Arrow's DVD sports only one substantial extra, but it's a damned good one, and the transfer is very impressive. Recommended, but probably for horror fans only.



* Curiously, Lewis Jackson's 1980 slasher Christmas Evil, which also features a murderous Santa, slipped by unnoticed by those who had been so offended by (the idea of) Silent Night, Deadly Night.


My issue with the ending (highlight to read):

OK, the problem I have with the last five minutes is this. After killing all of his co-workers, a pair of bullies, and a young couple for trying to have sex (genre rules – you fuck, you die), Billy heads back to the orphanage to give the Mother Superior a seeing to (wonderfully foreshadowed by the appearance in frame of a bloodied axe head and the angry decapitation of a snowman). Now in the context of this narrative, Mother Superior has been set up as the one person (apart from awful Andy, and he's the first to cop it) deserving of some kind of payback, yet when Billy shows up she's no longer the stern shaper of serial killers from earlier, but a brave and handicapped protector of children, and Billy is thus shot before he can give her what for. Aside from its lack of continuity with her earlier behaviour, it's just a weeny bit frustrating.
Silent Night, Deadly Night

USA 1984
81 mins
director
Charles E. Sellier Jr.
starring
Lilyan Chauvin
Gilmer McCormick
Toni Nero
Robert Brian Wilson
Britt Leach
Danny Wagner
Tara Buckman
Geoff Hansen
Will Hare

DVD details
region 2
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby mono 2.0
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
Audio interview with director
Trailer
distributor
Arrow
release date
23 November 2009
review posted
23 November 2009

See all of Gort's reviews