*. A movie whose vilification is perhaps only exceeded by that of I Spit on Your Grave. The Stocking of Outrage special feature on the Anchor Bay DVD gives a good sampling of the critical response, though it’s odd they don’t mention Siskel and Ebert’s epic condemnation, which I distinctly remember watching (it was one of the show’s all-time highlights). Roger and Gene basically called out the names of everyone involved in the film while saying “shame, shame.”
*. We don’t have critics saying things like that any more. The death of outrage? I guess. I know I don’t get as worked up about such matters. I figure people get the movies they deserve, more or less.
*. Did Silent Night, Deadly Night deserve such public shaming? Not entirely. It actually wasn’t the first film to feature a killer Santa Claus (that may have been Tales from the Crypt), and when you break it down it’s really not all bad.
*. The script, in particular, is solid. I say that in a relative way, meaning “solid, for a low-budget slasher film.” Yes, it’s very crude in its psychologizing, but unlike Freddy or Jason or Michael, Billy actually has a psychology and interior life, one that the entire first third of the movie is devoted to explaining.
*. Sticking with the script, there are nice verbal cues repeated, and amplified, throughout (in particular the justice of punishing the naughty). And Billy’s final tip over into madness is well prepared for and credibly triggered (the office Christmas party, and his sudden introduction to alcohol, combined with his being forced to “play” Santa).
*. Also, I like the concept of the evil Santa because so much of the Christmas myth is capable of this double interpretation. If you’re good you get presents, but what happens if you’re naughty? Shouldn’t you be punished? And, as the song goes, what is Santa doing sneaking around at night when no one can see him, and creepily watching us all the time? As Kim Newman points out, “a lot of children found Santa frightening even before the movies depicted him as an axe-wielding psychopath.”
*. The whole intro is psychologically astute in other ways as well. Christmas is a time to be together with family, but in this case “family” is a catatonic grandfather in a mental hospital, and old people are terrifying enough to small children anyway. Right away you’re uncomfortable even though nothing seems to be wrong . . . yet. We’re even left with an uneasy feeling about Billy’s mental health. Does he only imagine grandpa trying to frighten him? Nobody else sees Gramps come to life.
*. Another nice touch is the kindly nun as Billy’s Ahab, though I thought this part of the film could have been developed more.
*. In sum, I’d say this movie is better written than its more successful peers, like Friday the 13th, Halloween, or The Hills Have Eyes.
*. Of course what I’m talking about here is the film’s basic concept and design. What lets it down, mainly, is a very limited budget. It’s really cheap, and it looks really cheap. Embarassingly so. I mean, what the hell is that front door that Billy knocks down made of? A single sheet of balsa wood?
*. The low budget probably hurt the movie most in limiting the gore quotient to only one half-way decent “kill” (Linnea Quigley as the girl who is impaled on the deer’s antlers while her boyfriend remains strangely oblivious to what is going on upstairs). The rest of the murder and mayhem is pretty uninspired. The sledding boy who is decapitated was OK, but I believe this was cut from the theatrical release.
*. Charles E. Sellier Jr. What an odd director. The creator of The Adventures of Grizzly Adams (the first film I ever saw, on a double bill with Charlotte’s Web), and the evangelical producer of family-oriented Christian films. Yet this is one of his only directing credits. In the audio interview included in the DVD’s special features he says that he took the job as a favour to a friend at TriStar, and only ever saw it as a derivative bit of hack work (no pun intended). In the event, apparently he didn’t even direct the violent scenes because he was uncomfortable with them. He also, wisely, wanted no part of the sequel.
*. Wow. Did you see how sneaky Andy and Pamela were in getting away from the Christmas party for a little make-out session in the storage area? That’s hard to do without anyone noticing, especially when there are only seven people at the party in the first place. But then I’ll bet someone did notice!
*. Jonathon Best plays Billy at age 5 and he looks like an illustration from the book he’s reading come to life, what with his Bambi eyes and red, round lips. What a great bit of casting. He just screams innocence about to be defiled.
*. Robert Brian Wilson as grown-up Billy is actually pretty good. He could have played the part way over the top, but he seems as though he’s holding something back, as though he’s still fighting some kind of inner battle with his demons. Or perhaps he was just having serious doubts about having taken the role in the first place . . .
*. There’s nothing like that classic three-step jump cut when we discover Mr. Simms’s body with the hammer sticking out of his head. That’s a horror staple that goes back at least as far as Frankenstein (in the scene when the Monster first appears), though I suspect the more direct influence here comes from its use in The Birds.
*. Enjoy the little things. I love how, in the scene where Officer Barnes is hunting Billy down, the voices of the children singing inside the orphanage can be heard beneath the louder sound of the wind blowing across the plains. That’s nice sound work, and quite effective in the way it underscores how isolated we are (distant, muffled voices underneath empty, blowing wind).
*. The cutaways to the Christmas dolls during the toy store massacre, on the other hand, are just trite. A clear sign of a director with no feel for the genre and no idea what he’s doing.
*. It survives mainly as a historical curiosity today, a mid-80s succès de scandale that gave us the indelible image of Santa holding a bloody axe. Judged on its own terms it’s actually one of the more thoughtful slasher films from the period, though it’s finally undone by an impossibly low budget, a general lack of talent, and a director with no feel for the material.