Silent Night, Deadly Night wasn’t the first Christmas-themed horror movie, or even the first to incorporate a killer Santa Claus, but it had the misfortune—or perhaps good fortune, ultimately—to arrive toward the end of a grueling cycle of holiday-themed slasher films. Critics had become bored with a genre they hadn’t liked much in the first place (outside of Halloween); and by the time Silent Night, Deadly Night came out in 1984, religious groups and parental organizations were ascendant. Together, these professional filmgoers and amateur tongue-cluckers formed a powerful coalition, and effectively branded Silent Night, Deadly Night as the latest and most egregious example of “how low our society has sunk.” It didn’t help that the movie had such an effective ad campaign, placed in newspapers and on TV where kids could easily see it, showing the arm of an ax-wielding Santa sticking out of a chimney. But the outcry against Silent Night, Deadly Night had the long-term effect of making the movie a must-see among teenagers with access to their parents’ video-rental cards, and thus successful enough to garner four sequels and a semi-remake.
Would any of this have happened if the movie had been called Columbus Day, and been about a serial killer wearing a doublet? Probably not. In nearly every way, Silent Night, Deadly Night is as run-of-the-mill a slasher film as the ’80s produced, enjoyable today primarily for its kitsch value. Robert Brian Wilson stars as a young man who grew up so traumatized by both Christmas and sex that when his boss at the toy store orders him to play Santa, Wilson flips out and starts punishing the “naughty”—and nearly everybody he meets is at least kind of naughty. Silent Night, Deadly Night was a relative anomaly in the career of its director, Charles Sellier, who got his big break in show business as the creator of the TV series The Life And Times Of Grizzly Adams, and was heavily involved in the Christian entertainment industry for most of his later life, until his death in 2011. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t seem committed to the spirit of Silent Night, Deadly Night. The movie’s kills are appropriately gruesome, but more winter-themed than Christmas-themed, and Wilson’s backstory—which takes up more than a third of the film—is about as pro forma as it gets. His parents are killed by a man in a Santa suit, and he’s raised by nuns with a strict sense of right and wrong. Ergo: Killer Santa. (The first sequel, Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2, is even lazier, spending its first third repurposing footage from part one before spending only about 45 minutes on the next phase of the story, in which the original villain’s younger brother dons the red jacket and picks up a pistol.)
But Silent Night, Deadly Night is The Silence Of The Lambs compared to Silent Night, a new slasher film that’s being touted as a revamp of the 1984 scandalizer, even though the only real connection is that Silent Night also features a murdering St. Nick who judges the people he kills. Where Silent Night, Deadly Night starred a cast of nobodies and focused on the origin of its antagonist, Silent Night has Donal Logue playing an irascible red herring in a Santa suit, Malcolm McDowell playing a small-town sheriff, and Jaime King as a deputy who pursues every blind alley in her hunt for the Kris Kringle who’s been terrorizing her community. But the biggest problem with Silent Night is that it’s relentlessly, unpalatably sour. Writer Jayson Rothwell and director Steven Miller have fashioned a movie where the killer is anonymous and the victims are nearly all creeps, involved in various levels of criminal activity and sexual depravity. Silent Night is slick but soulless, looking to jolt the audience repeatedly without adding any real depth beyond a passing comment about how the bad economy turned this town into sleaze central. Silent Night is a complete Christmas bummer. It’s too bad it didn’t come out in 1984, because this would be a movie worth protesting.
Key features: An old 40-minute audio interview with Sellier on Silent Night, Deadly Night, a giggly commentary track on the sequel (in which the makers talk about how tame the movie is in comparison to what’s on broadcast television today), and a weirdly impressionistic five-minute behind-the-scenes featurette on Silent Night.
Silent Night, Deadly Night: C
Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2: D+
Silent Night: D-