Dir. Charles E. Sellier, Jr. (1984)
A young boy whose family was murdered by a criminal dressed as Santa Claus grows up to become a St. Nick serial killer.
If you asked a bunch of horror fans to name a Christmas horror movie, there's a pretty good chance that several of them would mention 1984's Silent Night, Deadly Night, a film that wears its Christmas on its sleeve and fights to become the most iconic example of a killer Santa Claus in pop culture. With iconic poster art that shows Santa's axe-wielding hand climbing out of a chimney, the film has become a cult classic that truly represents the holiday season like perhaps no other movie out there. By using the classic slasher formula and never shying away from its central character's traumas, Silent Night, Deadly Night has etched its name into history and is on the regular rotation for much of the horror audience.
Billy (played as a young adult by Robert Brian Wilson) watches his parents die at a young age at the hands of a common criminal who happens to be dressed as Santa Claus. He and his sister are put into an orphange run by mean nuns, where he is inundated with the message that sinners should be punished and that the punishment should be absolute. When he is hired as a stockboy at a local toy store, the rage from the events of his past and his misguided fervor explode into a vicious rampage in which he kills anyone and everyone he deems even slightly sinful in an attempt to ensure that the naughty receive their comeuppance.
There are a lot of similarities between this film and one we examined last year, Christmas Evil. While SN,DN certainly has achieved much more success than the film that came out four years prior, it's not as good of a film. I was a huge fan of Christmas Evil after a first viewing last year, appreciating the dreamlike filmmaking and the batshit crazy finale far more than I had expected going into the film. SN,DN is much more of a standard slasher film, though its one in which the killer's identity is never in question. It utilizes almost all of the tropes, from the naughty being punished, copious (and surprisingly frequent for a Christmas movie) nudity, and a killer who uses various tools at his disposal to off his victims. None of these are criticisms, of course, and while I do feel that this film is a bit of a ripoff of the prior, it's an excellent holiday horror in its own right and has rightfully earned its spot as a cult classic.
The themes of religious sexual repression and consumerism are weaved within the film fairly expertly, and its an effective slasher film in and of itself. The film is practically dripping with Christmas, fully embodying the holiday from the music to the aesthetic. You don't get a whole lot more yuletide than this film, though I definitely think that Santa would be a lot less popular with the kids if this was how he behaved. When Billy punishes those he deems to be naughty, he does so with reckless abandon, and by the time the police are on his trail, the audience is left with the feeling that there's only one way that this can end. And, of course, they'd be right.
The finale of the film, featuring a police force that goes as far as accidentally shooting someone else dressed as Santa Claus, is a complete shift in tone from the rest of the film, but it works surprisingly well. The manhunt never takes away from the slashery Christmas feel, and even helps to elevate the film beyond the confines of the genre. It's a good film, one that is easy to see why it makes so many people's yearly holiday lineup. It's also delightfully cheesy, and the horrible acting only helps add to the hamminess. While it would be impossible for me to rank this movie as one of the best Christmas horror films, it's a fantastic effort nonetheless and hearkens back to all of the things we love about horror in general. Just, ya know... Christmasey.
Who this movie is for: Christmas horror fans, Slasher aficionados, Kringle carjackers
Bottom line: Silent Night, Deadly Night is a Christmas cult classic that easily belongs on and holiday playlist. It's dumb and cheesy, but it's also a pitch-perfect slasher film that is perhaps the best representation of Christmas horror. It's fun, campy, and features some iconic imagery that help elevate it well beyond most dumb Christmas horror. While I'm personally a bigger fan of its forerunner, Christmas Evil, this one deserves its place as a holiday classic.