Directed by Charles E. Sellier Jr.
Expectations: High, I’ve heard good things.
Argh, this one is just shy of being absolutely phenomenal. The first half is full of incredibly well-done psychological horror, showing the fucked up childhood of Billy and how the damage is manifesting itself throughout his life. About halfway through the film devolves into the sadist slasher movie I expected the whole thing to be and it loses a lot of the steam it had built up. Oh well, even with this frustrating issue, Silent Night, Deadly Night is a fantastic slice of 80s horror and any fan of the genre should definitely check this one out.
The film opens with a family traveling to visit Grandpa in the nursing home. He’s silent and apparently trapped in his head, but when left alone with his grandson Billy, suddenly Grandpa comes to life. He tells Billy about how Santa doesn’t just bring presents to those children that are good, he also punishes kids that were naughty. And not just mostly good, you gotta be ALL good or else Santa will punish you! Billy trembles in fear, and later when they’re traveling home and they stop to help out a Santa with car trouble, Billy freaks out. When this Santa, who happens to be a criminal in disguise, attacks and kills Billy’s parents, the concept of a pleasant, jovial Santa is forever eradicated.
This opening and the following orphanage scenes are the high points of the film for me, but the next major sequence in a toy store is pretty damn good too. The transition to the 80s (the film’s opening scenes are set in the early 70s) is decidedly 80s too, moving from a tense, fearful moment to an 80s song montage within the space of a minute. It works to set up the character as a teenager and sell the 80s as the new setting beautifully. As a child of the 80s, seeing all the forgotten 80s toys in their original boxes that I remember so well, either from actually having them or from commercials, was awesome and made the sequence very enjoyable. From the Jabba the Hutt playset to the Castle Grayskull to Poochie to those shitty Halloween costumes that were nothing more than plastic masks with colored plastic bags for suits, I thoroughly enjoyed checking out the contents of the toy store’s shelves. I know everyone won’t have this same experience, but thankfully the scenes are good unto themselves as well.
There’s real drama and psychological horror contained within the first half of the film, setting up a great, tragic character whose downfall is seemingly inevitable. As I mentioned above, when the shift happens it changes the movie from a tragic, psychological horror film into a sadistic slasher movie, where we follow our “hero” as he takes out whoever happens to be in his path. While the scenes can be enjoyable from a special FX standpoint, with the character build-up of the first half they are more disturbing and troubling than anything else. This, I’m sure, was the intention, but there’s just something unsettling about watching a horror movie where you follow the revealed slasher as the hero. Add this to the fact that most of this section is the slasher killing random people only introduced moments before. It’s just hard to find any meaningful satisfaction in moments like this.
The violence is something worth mentioning too, as in the early scenes it’s not all that gory but it is very intense and feels like it comes from a real place. The depth of Billy’s psychological damage informs every one of the early scenes of violence, making it hard to tear your eyes away, but yet remaining revolting. Lots of these moments are performed with a blade, and the simple effect of putting a knife to flesh and dragging it along their body while a tube squirts blood is ridiculously effective and stomach churning. As the film moves into its sadistic half, the kills get more over-the-top and gory, losing a lot of the visceral impact of the earlier moments. They’re more impressive from an FX standpoint, with things like Linnea Quigley impaled on a set of antlers and a really fun decapitation, but they all lack the psychological grounding of the earlier violence so they don’t resonate nearly as well.
Silent Night, Deadly Night is much better than I expected it to be, keeping my interest throughout and making me cringe quite a few times. It wastes a lot of the goodwill it built up in its opening half, but despite this I really liked this one. I’m definitely intrigued to check out the sequels! And I’ll leave you with my favorite line from the film:
“7 o’clock! It’s over! Time to get shit-faced!”