Monday, 28 April 2008

Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)


The huge success of Halloween inspired a wave of holiday-themed slashers, all keen to ape it's success. These included Happy Birthday to Me, April Fool's Day, Prom Night, Mother's Day and, of course, Friday the 13th (and cheekily parodied by Eli Roth in his phony Thanksgiving trailer for Grindhouse). Despite the fact that it was not the first slasher film to feature a murderous Santa Claus, and certainly not the first Christmas themed slasher, Silent Night, Deadly Night developed quite a bit of controversy in it's day. Showings were protested by angry mothers and Siskel and Ebert went so far as to read out the credits on air, following each name with "shame, shame, shame". It was pulled a few weeks after release. Such a response might be warranted if it featured Jolly Old Saint Nick decapitating rosy-cheeked cherubs with an axe. I'd certainly see it. Instead it's the far more prosaic psycho-killer wearing an ill-fitting Saint Nick outfit and killing fornicating teenagers formula we've seen many times before.

This film takes the less traveled and far more interesting route of focusing mainly on the killer. You may think you've had the worst Christmas ever. Maybe your uncle got drunk and threw up on the Christmas turkey. Maybe you never got that sixth Constructicon (Bonecrusher) even though you specifically asked for it because you have the other five Constructicons and now you can't make Devastator. But brother, spare a thought for poor Billy Chapman. Firstly his parents leave him alone with his supposedly comatose grandfather, who springs to life (it's a Christmas miracle!) and tells Billy that Santa Claus dishes out severe punishment to naughty boys and girls and that, should he hear approaching sleigh bells, he should run for his life. If that isn't enough to warp his conception of Saint Nick, on the drive home his parents are murdered by a carjacker dressed as Santa Claus.

Billy and his baby brother Ricky are placed in probably the only Catholic orphanage in Utah. Understandably, Billy is a little disturbed come Christmas time, but Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin) isn't having any of that, dishing out tough love as only a crotchety old nun and a stiff leather belt can deliver. She tries to get Billy to sit on Santa's lap, but, fueled by crazy-strength, Billy bloodies his nose with a haymaker that knocks him out of his chair. Somebody get that kid a boxing scholarship! His sexual attitudes are further warped by Mother Superior, who whips him good for spying on a fornicating couple, denouncing the couple as "very naughty".

Despite the fact that nobody else seems to age, Billy grows into a strapping 18 year old (Robert Bryan Wilson), and the kindly Sister Margaret (Gilmer McCormick) gets him a job at a toy store. Probably not the best place to be working for someone with a morbid fear of Santa Claus, but she means well. Billy proves himself as a capable employee in the happiest musical montage you ever did see, but when the boss unfurls the first Christmas banner of the season, Billy's face becomes a mask of smouldering rage. His attitude gets worse and worse as the holiday approaches, but reaches boiling point when he is forced to fill in for a colleague and don a Santa Claus costume.

To make things worse, a girl he has the hots for (dreams of Santa-appointed punishment prevent him from making a move) starts making out with a prick of a co-worker during the office Christmas party. When he stumbles across her being raped in the stockroom, his mind snaps like a cheap candy cane. It's punishment time! Billy garrotes him with some Christmas lights, setting a nice festive tone, but sadly moves on to the pedestrian claw hammer, Stanley knife and (surprisingly functional) toy bow and arrow to dispatch his other co-workers.

After similarly punishing two fornicating teenagers, he runs across a little girl. After she promises that she has not been naughty all year (liar!), he presents her with a slightly used Stanley knife. Merry Christmas, little girl! Billy also decapitates a sled-stealing bully mid-ride, causing his headless corpse to come sliding down the slope and his head tumbling after.

Meanwhile the cops don't know what to do, arresting every Santa Claus in the state. Sister Margaret tells the cops that Billy is going to head back to the orphanage, for some reason. They are convinced, and some overzealous cops even gun down a man dressed as Santa Claus in front of the terrified orphans. Unfortunately it's just Father O'Brian, distributing presents to the children. Whoops! Eventually Billy does return, and he is riddled with bullets, moments before he brings the axe down on Mother Superior's head. These kids are going to have issues, having Santa Claus gunned down before their eyes twice in one day. In the standard sequel-happy ending, Billy's brother Ricky menacingly denounces Mother Superior as "naughty".

I was pretty disappointed with Billy's catch cry of "Punish!". Think of all the Christmas puns that went unused: "I think I hear SLAY bells", (brandishing a knife) "I've got something to stick in your stocking" etc. But I guess this isn't that kind of movie, trying to go for the sympathetic, Maniac-type killer. I don't know about that, but at least you go "man, that kid's gonna be fucked up" a few times. I guess that's good enough.

It's not ridiculously gory, but there's enough to satiate the gorehounds. There's also a lot of nudity, if you're the kind of person who needs titillation with your bloodletting. There's two instances of tops being torn off in the context of a rape, which I find unpleasant, but one girl (played, naturally, by Linnea Quigley) goes out searching for her cat while wearing nothing but a pair of tiny Daisy Dukes. That's the kind of naughty I can get behind! Actually, this film goes further than most slashers in conflating sex with naughtiness, at least where women are concerned.

After all of the controversy and hype surrounding this movie (the front of the box claims, in bold letters: "The film they didn't want you to see!"), it turns out to be a fairly standard 80s slasher. Arguably in poor taste, but what decent horror film isn't? It's not good enough to be frightening, but not bad enough to provide that "what were they thinking?" feeling (for that you've got to turn to the sequels). I liked the fact that they focused on the killer rather than some spam in a cabin, though. If you were having a night of Christmas-themed slashers, I'd put this one on towards the end of the evening, once people are good and drunk.

No comments: