The movie that’s widely considered one of the primary influences of the entire slasher film subgenre is set at Christmastime. Black Christmas takes place in a sorority house during the Christmas season, but the setting or the time of year did not generate a lot negative buzz for that movie. Ten years later, another Christmas-themed horror movie more than made up for that dearth of controversy, and even the Scroogiest among us would have a hard time disagreeing that Silent Night, Deadly Night doesn’t richly deserve its share of scorn for cutting the head off Christmas and peeing down its neck. Thematically speaking.
The real question is how can you top a movie that made one 60-year-old Milwaukee resident tell her hometown newspaper the Chronicle-Telegram that, “The degenerates that make these movies should be exterminated!” By the time that the Silent Night remake came in 2012 it was just another brandname I.P. to be exploited for quick horror remake bucks. The trend, by that point, was nearing its end, but Silent Night presented one last opportunity to make a splash, and if you can’t be offensive, you can at least be fun.
Before getting to the remake, let’s first consider the original Silent Night, Deadly Night. Any controversy hung on the Charles E. Sellier Jr. film certainly didn’t hurt its box office opening weekend. In fact, Silent Night opened two slots higher than another horror movie that came out the same weekend, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. The box-office winner that weekend was the decidedly not sacrilegious Oh, God! You Devil, the third chapter in a trilogy where legendary comedian George Burns plays both God and Devil.
Looking back, Silent Night, Deadly Night maybe the last gasp of the grindhouse era, a film remarkably indifferent to either controversy or bad taste. Movies like this were about to be remanded to midnight screenings at third-run cinemas, or, more likely, the weirdo indie movie shelf at one of the growing number of video stores across North America. The cinema, not to mention the growing number of mall-based multiplexes, were for top shelf Hollywood material: blockbusters, prestige pictures, and a new class of enterprising, franchising boogeymen like Jason and Freddy.
Into this world enters Silent Night, Deadly Night. It was rough, it was raw, and it had freewheeling nudity and graphic violence; it was like someone threw a dead skunk on the perfectly polished floor of the mall’s charming multiscreen cinema. The same weekend Silent Night came out, people were also watching the future Oscar-winner Amadeus, or the legal drama A Soldier’s Story. Heck, the summer blockbuster Ghostbusters was still in theatres in November! But an axe murderer dressed like Santa Clause?!?! Quelle horreur!!
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Make no mistake, the protests against Silent Night, Deadly Night were well earned, and even watching it in 2020 creates a certain amount of discomfort. It’s not the Paul Verhoeven-esque violence of seeing a Santa-dressed robber empty his revolver into a store clerk, and it’s not the brutal murder of young Billy’s parents by the very busy Claus-clad criminal, but it’s the fact that this boy is clearly traumatized and instead of getting him help, almost everyone in his life makes his anxieties worse. It’s not that Billy’s murder spree in the second half of the film is forgivable, but it is understandable. Like the antiheroes of Taxi Driver, Falling Down, or even Joker, Santa Billy earned his rampage.
That rampage, though, was indiscriminate. We see Billy murder Andy, his supervisor at the toy store where he works, when Andy tries to rape Pamela, the object of Billy’s softcore porn fantasies, but he also murders the rest of his toy store colleagues. Chanting “Naughty” all the way, and committed to the idea that punishment is good and right as taught to him by the Mother Superior of his Catholic orphanage, Billy murders a young couple celebrating an amorous Christmas Eve, and then a couple of delinquents that steal a kid’s toboggan.
The gruesome nature of the kills in Silent Night, Deadly Night would be tough to top for any remake, and is there even such a thing as shock value anymore? To shock and awe seemed like Sellier’s goal because before Silent Night he was known as the producer of unsolved mystery docs like In Search Of… and family-friendly fair like The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams. Could a remake have a goal beyond making money off name recognition?
Steven C. Miller’s film is a case of art imitating life imitating art. A real-life Silent Night, Deadly Night in Los Angeles in 2008 served as the inspiration in a case where a recently divorced man dressed up in a Santa suit and massacred his former in-laws. The Santa killer in the remake is also a man on a mission, but his methods are exacting, his murders are unnecessarily elaborate, and his motives are only revealed at the very end.
Like the original, Silent Night is obliquely about trauma, and it only deals with it in a slightly more serious and direct way than the Sellier film. Deputy Aubrey Bradimore played by Jaime King is struggling with her place in the world, and on the small-town police force, as she deals with the death of her husband. On her rounds, Aubrey encounters Santa Jim, a kind of drifter that spooks kids with the threat of more than a lump of coal on Christmas Day, and he’s just one of the lonely and disgruntled characters in this small Midwestern town that’s slowly dying like so many others in the modern age. There’s a lot of material there for something serious, but turning Silent Night into a statement film would be a kind of a betrayal of fan expectations.
So Miller does the one thing he can do given the film’s history and reputation, and that’s take a quick left turn into camp. He hired Malcolm McDowell, still a working-class English actor at heart up for any job, as the town sheriff, a man who’s Dirty Harry in his own mind even though he’s basically the police chief of the Murder, She Wrote town. Miller also hired Donal Logue to play Santa Jim if for no other reason than to see Logue deliver the pitch perfect monologue about the crass commercialism of Christmas and its effect on the human spirit. In another movie, it might have felt preachy, but in Silent Night it’s just another Christmas movie tradition checkmark to have a character go off on an anti-consumerist tirade.
“[…] if you can’t be offensive, you can at least be fun.”
Every murder in Silent Night is over the top, and everyone one of them are Christmas themed in some way; from the simple act of an axe to the groin for the local pornographer, to an electric chair made of Christmas lights for an adulterous deputy, to the most excruciating of the deaths where Killer Santa put a girl in a woodchipper. The grim and gory violence is countered with a bright pallet of Christmas colours, and like all your favourite Hallmark Christmas movies, there’s the unshakable and pervasive feeling that Silent Night was shot in Canada in the middle of summer. Despite the parkas, no one seems cold, and the trees are still decidedly green.
And like those Hallmark movies, there’s more than a little wish fulfillment. That bratty kid that swears and yells are her mom when she doesn’t get her way is tasered to death, the creepy reverend gets his fingers (and God knows what else) cut off, and the impotent mayor gets an utterly unremarkable death by being hanged from a string of Christmas lights. No one undeserving is killed, and in the process a town is forced to reckon with its own hypocrisy and degenerate nature even as it slathers on a veneer of holiday cheer. It’s not Shakespeare, but it works.
Silent Night was given a pro forma theatrical release, but was mostly seen on home video when it came out, and because of that, it’s likely that it might have missed many fans’ must-see list. One doesn’t want to engage in cliches like, “It’s better than it deserves to be,” but Silent Night deserves credit for deftly setting itself apart from the controversial legacy of its predecessor. In a sense, it’s the culturally sensitive antidote to Silent Night, Deadly Night, the acceptable face of the killer Santa idea.
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Or maybe we’re just all bitter and jaded now. Merry Christmas!