The slasher that broke the reindeer’s back? VHS Revival recalls a prickly time for horror lovers
Some movies are a victim of their time. Whatever one may think of Charles E. Sellier’s exploitative festive slasher Silent Night, Deadly Night, one thing is for certain: it has found a rather prominent place in horror‘s rich and storied history. Back in the winter of 1984, the movie was pulled from theatres a week after its release due to widespread protests regarding an advertising campaign which depicted jolly old Saint Nick as a bloodthirsty killer. Incredulously, those ads ran on prime time television, which led to an almost medieval backlash from PTA members who had left their TVs tuned to Little House on the Prairie, only to return to a nation of distraught preteens keeping an unusually sharp eye on their chimneys.
That backlash soon became an all-out witch hunt as an equally exploitative mainstream media fuelled the fires of a very real horror. This was irrationality at its most fervent, led by a generation of critics who were quick to wheel out the proverbial guillotine. Denouncing the film as worthless and immoral, mainstream critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, both infamous for their scathing hatred of the slasher genre, even went as far as revealing the names of the film’s makers live on air, Siskel claiming that every penny made was tantamount to “blood money”.
On his weekly TV show ‘At the Movies’, co-hosted by Ebert, a seething Siskel would tell viewers, “There’s no question in my mind that the showing of Santa with an axe on free TV and commercials is sick, and sleazy, and mean-spirited. So let’s repeat the names of the people who did it: Tri-Star Pictures, co-owned by Colombia Pictures, CBS and Home Box Office. Shame on you! Now as for the film, I’ve got news for you, it’s worse than the TV ads, telling a typical mad slasher story about a boy who witnesses his father being shot, his mother being stabbed to death by a maniac in a Santa Claus suit. So now, the traumatised kid grows up and is asked to work in a toy store as Santa one Christmas, and it freaks him out. He impales one naked girl on a set of antlers. There’s another woman with a bow and arrow, and another with a knife, and yes, we even see Santa give one little girl a bloody knife as a gift and threaten another little girl with physical punishment as she sits on his lap… So let me repeat the names of the writer and director and producers of this film: Michael Hickey wrote the film, Charles E. Sellier Jr. directed it, and Ira Richard Barmak produced it. You people have nothing to be proud of, even if you made a few bucks off of all the negative publicity.” The fact that nobody involved with the film was hunted down and hacked to pieces is nothing short of miraculous.
Interestingly, horror wasn’t the only genre lambasted for its descent into darkness. That same year, influential director Stephen Spielberg used his influence to add PG-13 to the MPAA’s ratings system following a parental backlash to two summer releases he was directly involved with. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which featured a still-beating heart being ripped out of a human torso, was passed with a PG rating, leaving parents in uproar as slasher controversy reached its apotheosis in the States. Exactly a month later, Joe Dante’s Gremlins, a movie which Spielberg owned and had creative control over, was subjected to similar outrage, and so the move was made to add a rating that strongly advised parents to take caution when subjecting their children to films that, while marketed at a younger demographic, may include scenes that were unsuitable in the minds of some. That Gremlins featured a scene which could have belonged to a slasher picture, the newly bloodthirsty Lynn Peltzer stalking her nuisance intruders with a butcher’s knife that would make Michael Myers wince, was the biggest irony of all.
‘Video nasties‘ and slashers in general were the subject of so much sensationalism that as a kid the very words sent chills down my spine. I would spend hours wondering just how treacherous banned movies such as I Spit On Your Grave and the legendary Faces of Death actually were, and those adults who claimed to have seen them delighted in further hyping the mystery, safe in the knowledge that I would never be able to witness the real deal — at least at the time. That was the genius of the low-budget VHS boom. The hype, the cynical promotional campaigns, the often misleading and always wonderful posters and VHS cover art, they were all a part of the mystique, and distributors were only too happy to fan the flames and put butts in seats, fully aware their movies didn’t stand a chance of living up to their marketing puffery.
Mother Superior: They thought they could do it without being caught. But when we do something naughty, we are always caught. Then, we are punished. Punishment is absolute, punishment is good.
The 1970s saw traditional horror replaced by the more relatable variety as Dracula and Frankenstein grew passe and the once-reigning Hammer Horror stumbled towards commercial obsolescence. Films such as Tobe Hooper’s ‘based on real events’ The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and John Carpenter’s Halloween appealed to a generation raised on the more tangible horrors of the Vietnam War and the Manson Family Murders, while Bob Clark’s Black Christmas — a film that is regarded by many as being the first fully formed slasher — had its TV debut cancelled following a real-life murder that saw notorious serial killer Ted Bundy bludgeon two sleeping Chi Omega sisters to death before attempting to murder two others. Such atrocities occurred when Siskel and Ebert were kids, too, but youngsters back then were largely insulated, which may go some way to explaining their sensitivity towards the subject. By the late-1980s, society was very different. The evolution of the mainstream media, for better and for worse, had made such events far more accessible. I’m not suggesting it was healthy for kids to be subjected to this kind of thing, but when you consider the thousands of unexplained disappearances that happen each year, it couldn’t hurt to at least be informed on the subject. When it comes to safety, ignorance can be just as dangerous as indulgence.
It was this kind of reality-based horror that would make the slasher sub-genre so notorious. Supernatural horror, however terrifying or convincing, was still firmly in the realms of fantasy, and you could walk away from it knowing it was all just make-believe. The low-budget, practical effects chicanery of the slasher era was very believable. Any masked loon wielding an axe could be a real-life Jason Voorhees. The whole concept spoke to humanity’s very real capacity for evil, a taboo thought for a bygone generation who deemed those movies a bad influence that could push viewers over the edge of copycat insanity. The worst thing was, younger audiences clamoured for such movies. The slasher became so popular during the early 1980s that director Sean Cunningham was able to sell Friday the 13th based on a title and promotional ad alone. The fact that he was yet to even begin a treatment for the film was of little importance. “I had thought of this title some time ago called Friday the 13th,” he would recall, “and I said to myself, ‘If I had a movie called Friday the 13th, I could sell that.” Writer Victor Miller would share a similarly blunt recollection, explaining, “Sean called me up and said, ‘Halloween is making incredible money at the box office. Let’s rip it off.'” The rest is history.
So, is the movie that broke the reindeer’s back truly worthy of its notoriety? Not really. In fact, it doesn’t even come close. In my opinion, no horror movie is worthy of such a stigma because what we are watching is fiction, plain and simple, and if anyone is to blame for the brief psychological damage it did to a generation of horrified children, it is those sloppy folks at the stations who allowed the movie’s ad campaign to be aired at a time when minors may have been exposed to it. Murder was around long before this sub-genre came into existence. I mean, we’re all adults here. If we find a movie to be tasteless or immoral then we have the right to steer clear of it. If we believe a movie lacks any kind of moral value, all we has to do is look away.
It is perhaps worth mentioning that there were other Christmas and even Santa-related slashers long before moral outrage covered itself in sleigh bells. 1972’s Lloyd Kauffman-produced slasher Silent Night, Bloody Night set things rolling like a tumbling snowball collecting all manner of sharp implements along the sub-genre’s exploitative path of destruction. There was also the aforementioned Black Christmas and 1980’s Christmas Evil, a bizarre character study which saw a seasonally depressed man dress up as Kris Kringle and go on a deadly killing spree, all of it tied to a vague subtext concerning sexuality and gender-swapping, yet parents and critics hardly made a peep.
Of course, the cinematic landscape had altered quite drastically since 1980. 1984 saw the British Parliament’s passing of the Video Recordings Act, a legislation that forced all video releases to appear before the British Board of Film Classification after a moral campaign led to local jurisdictions prosecuting video releases for obscenity, leading to the notorious ‘video nasty’ scandal and the outright banning of 72 films that were believed to violate the Obscene Publications Act of 1959. Across the pond, pre-certificate horror was subjected to similar scrutiny, particularly the still relevant Friday the 13th Franchise, Paramount’s spuriously titled The Final Chapter proving just that in terms of everything that made the franchise worthwhile as a series of diminishing sequels sluiced through the cutting floor like so much rotten flesh.
Silent Night, Deadly Night is a tepid affair at best. For those with a taste for stalk-and-slash inanity, it more than justifies its cult status, a series of sequels proving there is a market for its particular brand of mindless hokum, but as an exercise in obscenity it ranks somewhere near the bottom. In fact, I could think of a dozen slashers more qualified to break the reindeer’s back, its familiar set-up seeing a young boy succumb to a premature tragedy that leaves him with a rather nasty aversion to both sex and Santa. By 1984, this was very much old hat, but there is a morbid fascination in seeing Santa involved with slaying of the much bloodier variety, and I can only imagine what impressionable kids thought when they switched over to see the bringer of commercial treasures swinging an axe at a wheelchair-bound nun. Religion may be the touchiest of all subjects, but for a child, and the companies looking to exploit the festive season, jolly old Saint Nick is much more precious. He may be little more than a corporate shill in Coca-Cola brand clothing, but he is also the man who comes down your chimney in the dead of night; the judge, jury and executioner who decides who has been naughty and who has been nice.
Grandpa: You see Santa Claus tonight you better run boy, you better run for ya life!
Sellier isn’t shy about desecrating one of corporate culture’s most revered creations, either. After seeing his parents slayed by a stick-up artist in Santa slacks, soon-to-be-antagonist Billy Chapman (Robert Brian Wilson) is subjected to the religious perversions of Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin), a fine actress who must have been in serious need of a cash injection. So out of place are her talents that Silent Night, Deadly Night feels like two movies glued haphazardly together, her earlier scenes providing a serious set-up for an utterly ludicrous finale which lacks any of the artistic or technical merit initially implied. Even the movie’s kills prove tame thanks to a painfully thin budget that lays waste to the Savini-esque magic found in other slice-and-dice vehicles, substituting any real practical effects for cut-away deaths or knife attacks which resemble someone drawing on cast members with a red fountain pen.
That’s not to say Silent Night, Deadly Night isn’t enjoyable. If anything the movie excels not in its ability to outrage but in its sheer absurdity, our unhinged leading man forced to dress up as Santa at a local toy store, resulting in a series of improbable visual triggers which inspire the obligatory flashbacks that would later constitute half of the first sequel’s running time (for anyone who has seen Silent Night, Deadly Night 2, you’ll know exactly what I mean). Wilson cuts a figure of ineptitude as our lumbering killer, tripping and bumbling his way from victim to victim as he makes his inevitable return to the orphanage that made him. The movie’s standout kills — a sled-bound beheading and a seasonal impalement — are surely played for laughs (the fact that Siskel rejected the film for possessing no camp humour is amazing to me), and genre hounds will get a kick out of a young Linnea Quigley running around in the buff, generously flaunting the assets that would make her such a cult horror figure.
Ultimately, the film is a victim of its own hype, or at least the hype that was bestowed upon it by disgruntled parents and opportunistic politicians, the latter capitalising on the ‘video nasty’ scandal as a means to simultaneously win favour and strip society of its civil liberties. In the UK, Margaret Thatcher would use moral outrage to scare working class voters into supporting a Conservative Party that plunged a generation into unemployment and homelessness in their haste for a global economy free from workers unions. Ironically, they would rely on actual violence to achieve their goals, a fact punctuated by the infamous Battle of Orgreave in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, where police were instructed to incite riots on striking miners before passing the blame through media propaganda in what historian Tristram Hunt described as, “almost medieval in its choreography… at various stages a siege, a battle, a chase, a rout and, finally, a brutal example of legalised state violence.” The hypocrisy is just staggering.
Silent Night, Deadly Night is pretty underwhelming all things considered, but as an exercise in promotion you have to take your Santa hats off to it. This was a movie which out-grossed Wes Craven’s seminal slasher A Nightmare on Elm Street during its opening weekend, a production that proved itself infinitely superior in just about every way imaginable. Slashers have gained a widespread cult following, thanks in large part to the joyous capacity of nostalgia as genre fans remember those days with a taboo lust that recalls the awestruck child in them. Many of those movies were cynical and exploitative and ultimately a bit naff, but those filmmakers were not looking to win any awards. They simply saw the chance to make movies the way Romero and Carpenter had before them — cheaply and with the opportunity of recouping a small fortune. Directors like Sellier may lack the genius and foresight of the industry’s finest, but they exploited their way to a payday and had a bloody good time doing it, both literally and figuratively. Good luck to them, I say.