Due to its premise concerning an axe-wielding serial killer dressed in a Santa Claus outfit, Silent Night, Deadly Night stirred up quite a ruckus when it hit cinema screens back in 1984. Most notably, renowned critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert positively detested it, calling the film both irresponsible towards the spirit of Christmas and morally reprehensible. Now a cult classic, Silent Night, Deadly Night is seriously flawed, but it nevertheless remains a somewhat enjoyable little slasher that does have its charms.
Opening on Christmas Eve in the 1970s, 5-year-old Billy is looking forward to receiving presents from his beloved Santa Claus. However, Billy’s mentally disturbed grandfather (Hare) shatters his excitement and frightens the impressionable youth, warning Billy that Father Christmas will punish the naughty children. The lad’s fear is only exacerbated when he subsequently witnesses his parents being brutally murdered by a man in a Santa costume. Following this, Billy and his little brother are sent to a Catholic orphanage where Billy’s psychological trauma is worsened by the nuns’ strictness. Fast forward 10 years, and Billy (Wilson) is a productive member of society with a job at a local toy store. But when Christmas season approaches, Billy’s boss forces the traumatised boy to don a Santa outfit and act as the jolly big man. Things do not go well, however – Billy snaps, grabs an axe, and sets out to punish all the naughty boys and girls.
The entire first half of Silent Night, Deadly Night is dedicated to exposition, with the flick delving into every detail of Billy’s childhood and Santa-related traumas. For an ’80s slasher, it’s rather commendable that writer Michael Hickey and director Charles E. Sellier Jr. were willing to use so much time setting up the characters before Billy’s murderous rampage. Additionally, Sellier’s direction is surprisingly accomplished, giving the picture a stark, grim feeling and infusing several scenes with genuine tension (even if the murder set-pieces are predictable). Nonetheless, Silent Night, Deadly Night takes itself a tad too seriously. Some scenes are unintentionally funny, but at other times the film goes through the ridiculous motions with such a straight face that it feels vile and callous instead of delightfully campy. Worse, the score is nails-on-a-chalkboard grating. Perhaps the film’s biggest sin, though, is that it feels worthless and gutless; there’s no intelligence or any sort of rationale behind the violence. One could contend that it comments on unnecessarily over-the-top disciplinary methods, but the film’s treatment of this is entirely surface-level, as the nuns are painted in broad strokes of black and white as flat-out evil.
At least one can laugh at the idiocy of Silent Night, Deadly Night from time to time. For instance, when Billy is working as Santa at the toy store, he’s clearly awkward and vindictive towards the children, but he goes through the day without a single complaint. Lulwhat? Added to this, a nun rings the toy store and finds out that Billy is playing Santa, but doesn’t bother to warn anyone about the potential dangers of this…she just hangs up the phone and heads to her car. Good thinking. And what would a slasher be without dumb murder victims? A policeman guarding the local orphanage decides to sweep the outside of the building (instead of doing any, you know, actual guarding), making himself a prime target. His police tactics are laughable in every respect here. And the nuns don’t even bother to lock the front door of the orphanage despite firmly believing that Billy is on his way.
Ultimately, slashers like Silent Night, Deadly Night are pretty much critic-proof, because they have their niche audience who’ll enjoy the movie regardless of how forgettable, conventional and unremarkable it is. And hey, this sleazy flick is sporadically enjoyable. Nevertheless, this premise should have been done better, as the flick generates an aura of sadism more often than one of schlocky glee, leading to unmistakable banality.