With regard to Silent Night Deadly Night, two things are indisputable. One, it's a great title for a horror film. I would also suggest It Killed Upon a Midnight Clear and Deck the Halls with Boughs of Murder. Two, the idea of Santa Claus being a killer holds a lot of promise: He has supernatural abilities, he's apparently immortal and he has unfettered access to people's houses. The only difference between Santa and Freddie Krueger is that Santa dresses more stylishly.
But with regard to the actual film Silent Night Deadly Night, two other things are indisputable. One, it's disappointing that the killer isn't actually Santa but merely a guy wearing a Santa costume. Two, the movie blows. It's ho-ho-horrible. It's Krap Kringle. It's completely St. Ri-nick-ulous.
Like 98 percent of all cheaply made slasher films from the 1980s (and scientists estimate their numbers at well over 100,000), Silent Night Deadly Night is about a traumatized youngster who grows up to be a psychotic killer. Our hero in this case is Billy, who is 5 years old in the film's 1971 prologue. It's Christmas Eve, and he and his parents and baby brother are going to visit Grandpa, who is catatonic and lives in a Utah rest home. (This is unusual for Utah, where catatonic elderly people are generally elected to public office.) While he's alone with the old man, Billy is surprised by his grandfather's sudden lucidity, and more so by the fact that Grandpa has chosen to spend this rare moment of wakefulness to terrify the child with talk of a malevolent, vengeful Santa Claus. I urge you to watch this excerpt:
Grandpa says: "Santa Claus only brings presents to them that's been good all year, to the ones that ain't done nothin' naughty. All the other ones, all the naughty ones, he punishes!" Needless to say, this vision of an Old Testament Santa Claus alarms young Billy, who, like all children, has occasional bouts of naughtiness on his record. If Santa has a zero-tolerance policy for naughtiness, he'll have a lot of punishment to dole out -- and Billy will be on his list!
To further complicate matters, later that night Billy's parents are murdered by a roadside bandit dressed like Santa Claus. What a way to ruin Christmas! Witnessing the slaughter of your parents is even worse than getting socks! Billy sees the whole thing, including the part where the killer rips open his mother's blouse before slitting her throat. This is a key moment for the film's fanbase, which comprises people for whom the sight of naked breasts is not erotic unless they (the breasts) are bathed in blood. Billy hides in the bushes from the killer while his baby brother screams in the car. The killer goes looking for Billy ... and then the movie cuts to three years later, when Billy and the baby are living at an orphanage, having been snatched from the jaws of death by fortuitous film editing.
The orphanage is run by a severe, vaguely foreign nun that everyone calls Mother Superior even though her mothering skills are actually quite inferior. On the other hand, at least she isn't dead, unlike some mothers I could name. But she fails to see why Billy is so traumatized by Christmas and Santa Claus. She thinks he should quit being a baby and get over it -- and she has a good point. I mean, it's not like his parents were murdered by Santa Claus on Christmas Eve or anything.
So some boring things happen, and then the movie jumps ahead in time again to the present (well, 1984), where Billy is a big, dumb, inarticulate, 18-year-old slab of damaged goods. He gets a job at a toy store at Christmastime, which is obviously the perfect career choice for a person terrified of Santa Claus. He's a good employee, though, and there's a montage of him working that's accompanied by a watery Dan Fogelberg-style holiday song whose chorus goes, "It's always Christmas on the warm side of the door," whatever the hell THAT means. The warm side of the door would presumably be the one that faces inside the house, but that would mean it's always Christmas inside every house that has a door, i.e., every house that isn't an igloo. And I've been in a lot of houses in my day, and they've all had doors, and I've never seen one where it's ALWAYS Christmas. So this song is a liar and I hate it.
Anyway, the store's Santa Claus gets injured and the manager convinces Billy to put on the costume and take his place, which proves to be an easier sell than you'd think, since it turns out Billy is a a marble-mouthed lunk who won't speak up for himself. After doing his duty as a sullen, unenthusiastic Kris Kringle for the kiddies, Billy remains in costume (why?) during the toy store's staff Christmas party, which mostly involves the middle-aged manager and a woman known only as Mrs. Randall drinking shots of liquor and singing royalty-free Christmas carols.
Bored with these festivities, Santa Billy wanders back to the stockroom, where he sees Andy, his vile and swarthy co-worker, attempting to have his way with Pamela, another co-worker, whom Billy has a crush on. Andy has clearly passed the point of drunken-office-party inappropriateness and into the realm of sexual assault, and it's all too much for Billy's fragile psyche. His last remaining shred of sanity finally snaps, and he strangles Andy to death with a string of Christmas lights. This upsets Pamela, who is apparently angry at having her rape prevented (?), and Billy responds to her ingratitude by killing her, too. For good measure, and perhaps in response to my own requests, he also kills the manager and Mrs. Randall. Sleep in heavenly death, suckers!
Santa Billy goes on a bit of a rampage at this point, if half-heartedly killing a few townspeople at a leisurely pace can really be considered a "rampage." He busts into a house where a couple of horny teens are goin' at it in the basement, impales the female teen on the antlers of a deer's head mounted on the wall, and throws the male teen through a window. Somehow this results in his death, marking the first time I've ever seen someone smash through a window in a movie and receive any injury at all. Then Billy is confronted by the now-dead female teen's little sister, who believes he is the real Santa Claus (she is dim) and asks for her present. Billy inquires as to whether her conduct has been 100 percent naughtiness-free, and she says it has. As a reward, Billy gives her the bloody box cutter he used to kill Pamela back at the toy store. You can't make this stuff up, folks.
Once word gets out that a man dressed like Santa Claus is murdering people, the local police spring into action and start screwing things up. For example, when two cops see a Santa climbing a ladder into a house's second-story window, they rush in and almost shoot the guy before realizing it's the homeowner sneaking into his sleeping daughter's bedroom to ... wait, why is he doing that? Since when does Santa enter children's bedrooms? What was he going to do, leave a present under her pillow? And why does he need the ladder if the girl's asleep anyway? Can't he just walk in through her bedroom door? Never mind, the cops should have shot this guy after all.
Aided by a nice nun named Sister Margaret, the police determine that maybe -- just maybe! -- Billy will head back to the orphanage to get his revenge on mean ol' Mother Superior. "The kid may be nuts, but he's not stupid," the police captain says, making it obvious he knows nothing about Billy, whose stupidity is easily the most noticeable thing about him.
Back at the orphanage, the kids are eagerly awaiting their annual visit from a local priest dressed as Santa Claus. I'm a little offended that you would even think I was going to make a joke about a Catholic priest scheming to get kids to sit on his lap. Honestly, how dare you? Anyway, he doesn't get a chance, because a cop shoots him, right there in front of the kids. Turns out the priest, one Father O'Brien, didn't hear the cop yelling at him to freeze because he was deaf. Yes, a deaf priest. Who gets recruited every year to play Santa Claus. Because kids love nothing more than sharing their Christmas wishes with a man who can't hear them.
The cop who killed kindly old Father O'Brien apologizes profusely for the mix-up, but Mother Superior is pretty upset. To be honest, she's being kind of a hard-ass about it. The cop goes outside so he can check around the property and make sure it's safe, and also so he can be killed by Billy, which happens on schedule. Then Billy Claus enters the orphanage and is once again greeted by happy children, who seem to have recovered pretty quickly from the trauma of seeing a priest gunned down not 10 minutes earlier. Billy makes for Mother Superior and is shot dead by another cop, the one who didn't think Billy was stupid, who arrived just in time to see how wrong he was. If you're keeping score, this is two Santas executed in full view of the children today. Living at an orphanage is not nearly the tuneful, merry existence portrayed in Annie.
Oh, and remember how Billy used to have a baby brother? Well, after disappearing for the entire film, he's back again in this final scene, still living in the orphanage and angry at seeing his big bro killed. The movie implies that he will carry on Billy's murderous legacy. What the movie forgets to imply is that this kid is, in fact, Billy's little brother. He was only 4 the last time we saw him, so this 14-year-old in the final scene is completely unknown to us. The only reason I know it's him is that the credits say so. Which, just FYI, is not a good place to reveal a character's identity.
Silent Night Deadly Night spawned a theatrical sequel and some straight-to-video sequels that are by all accounts even worse, which is hard to imagine, so I prefer not to. This one is bad enough. On the other hand, it's better than Christmas with the Kranks, so there's that.
* * * * *
Eric's Bad Movies appears Thursdays at Film.com. In the meantime, visit Eric's website, aka Little Town of Deathlehem.