Monday, December 25, 2017

12 Horrors of Christmas: 'Silent Night, Deadly Night' (1984)

To close out this feature on Christmas horror movies, here's the closest thing there is to a signature Christmas-horror franchise, with six installments that, in true horror fashion, are sometimes related to each other in name only. Silent Night, Deadly Night is not nearly as popular or well-known as many other franchises that originated during the slasher boom of the 1980s, but it's an enduring horror brand name that seems likely to get another reboot sooner than later (especially with the current high demand for holiday horror). Also like many horror franchises, it springs from a movie that wasn't very good to begin with, valued more for its name recognition and general concept than narrative or filmmaking quality.

The opening prologue (of two) is pretty creepy, though, with young Billy (Jonathon Best) visiting his institutionalized grandpa (Will Hare), who appears catatonic when others are around but gives the kid an unhinged warning about the dangers of Christmas Eve and the vengeance of Santa Claus. Then on the way home, Billy and his family are attacked by a criminal in a Santa suit, who kills Billy's parents (after attempting to rape his mom) and leaves Billy and his infant brother traumatized orphans. Disappointingly, the grandpa never returns to the story, and Best, the most effective of three actors as Billy, is replaced as the character gets older. A second prologue finds a slightly older Billy being bullied by the strict nun who runs the Catholic orphanage where he and his brother have ended up, further traumatizing him by forcing him to celebrate Christmas and interact with a man playing Santa Claus.

Finally after 15 minutes or so, we get to the main portion of the story, in which Billy (now played by Robert Brian Wilson) is a strapping 18-year-old still dealing with PTSD but getting no sympathy from anyone. He gets a holiday-season job at a toy store, which is obviously a terrible idea, and eventually ends up having to fill in for the store's Santa. That finally breaks him and sets him on a murderous rampage dressed in a Santa suit. The setup is so choppy (including an absurdly upbeat toy-store montage set to an atrocious easy-listening Christmas ballad) that the movie has basically lost all momentum by the time the chopping starts, and even though Billy's history of Santa-related trauma is painstakingly established, his reasons for killing his various victims are muddled. He starts by "punishing" a co-worker for attempting to force himself on another toy-store employee, but then just slaughters everyone at the toy store indiscriminately, and picks his later victims seemingly at random.

The tone is aggressively nasty, which is kind of refreshing, and the movie was so controversial at the time of its release that it was picketed by concerned parents groups and pulled from theaters. Of course, it all seems pretty quaint now, especially given the proliferation of Christmas horror movies, but this is a film that has no problem gunning down multiple Santas and setting its violence-filled climax at an orphanage full of children. I think I'd appreciate the nastiness if the story and character development were more coherent, and the movie suffers in comparison to the similar, lesser-known Christmas Evil from a few years earlier, which is a much more intense, well-acted and thoughtful movie about a traumatized guy who dresses up as Santa and kills people. Thanks to its trumped-up controversy and catchy title, Silent Night, Deadly Night turned into a franchise, but it's better at branding that at storytelling.

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