Silent Night, Deadly Night December 25, 2020
Robert Brian Wilson
1 Hr., 19 Mins.
nderrepresented in the typically cheery holiday-movie subgenre is the person for whom the season is legitimately nightmarish. Silent Night, Deadly Night, an infamous Christmas season-set horror movie from 1984, has a character who more than makes up for their representational absence. It seems unlikely to me that there is a person, real or made-up, who has lived through something as traumatic as it is
inextricable from Christmas-season iconography as the lead of Silent Night, Deadly Night. Billy, a rosy-cheeked 18-year-old orphan (Robert Brian Wilson), witnessed his parents’ violent murder by a man donning a Santa costume on Christmas Eve when he was a little boy. A slasher movie, Silent Night, Deadly Night does not cover that Santa’s violent spree, although we do witness him, before he gets to Billy and his family, gun down a convenience-store clerk when an attempted robbery goes awry. “Thirty-one bucks — merry fucking Christmas!” he fumes as he fans through the evening’s cheated payout.
Instead the movie covers what could be described as a “snap” for Billy, and what results from it. When he was a child, he didn't receive any professional help (he was sent to an orphanage commandeered by a humorless nun); he has come to be understandably retraumatized every winter, when it is impossible to avoid all season so much as a fleeting image of the benevolent gift-giver. Billy has mostly been able to suppress his torment over time. For the bulk of its first act, Silent Night, Deadly Night jumps around every few years, showing how his aversion to Christmas, and especially Santa, has worsened, with nothing by way of alleviation.
After present-day Billy is asked to fill in at the last minute for the Santa Claus at the department store he works for, suppression becomes impossible. In one of the film’s many examples of sketchy armchair psychologizing, the dress-up nudges him into a delusional and violent rage. With his Santa suit on, it seems he believes himself to be the man who killed his parents. For almost all of the 79-minute-long movie, he walks, zombie-like, around his nowheresville town and kills people with the unnerving placidity of Halloween’s (1978) Michael Myers. But unlike Myers, who slays whenever he’s so much as homicidally enticed, Billy mows down anyone he has in the moment deemed “naughty." It's cosplay at its most repellant.
Silent Night, Deadly Night is not the only horror entertainment to feature a killer costumed as the bearded saint. Among its forebears are 1980’s Christmas Evil, which also features a lead character who goes into a violent fugue state while dressed in his Christmas-Eve best. And, not so graphically but similarly creepy, a memorable episode of The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries (1977’s “Will the Real Santa Claus Please Stand Up?”) in which lead Pamela Sue Martin had to fend off a rotund, red-suited robber who unfortunately felt the need to wear a ghoulish Saint Nick mask I have still not forgotten. (I’ve seen the episode just once during childhood.) But Silent Night, Deadly Night is by far the most controversial to feature the season-specific gimmick, not least because its prominent advertising made luridly clear the idea that, in its universe, Santa is not a kindhearted philanthropist with magic on his side but someone generous with his deadly weapons.
The movie is at least not so lazy that its knife-and gun-wielding Saint Nicholas has no discernible personality akin to Jason Voorhees or the majority of the “mad slashers” to terrorize mostly teens in the 1980s. Until Billy becomes a fully-fledged mass murderer, the film is even a little refreshing — a subversive, dark novelty in holiday entertainment. When a character tells Billy at the beginning of the movie that “Christmas Eve is the scariest damn night of the year,” we get a kick out of it. It’s anomalous to watch Christmas-centric entertainment in which the lead character does not like the holidays not because of a Scrooge-ish grumpiness or general familial dysfunction but rather something supremely horrible. I’m sure Billy is not the only person to associate the holidays with something awful, although in movies his company is scarce. The way grief suffuses Christmas tidings in Silent Night, Deadly Night is canny and, at first, not fundamentally uncommon.
Novelty aside, Silent Night, Deadly Night approaches its psychology lopsidedly, and it’s too essentially sad to make its mechanical, sleazy approach to generating slasher-movie suspense work. It first makes us feel grimy, then wearied. The kills are like the holiday-special versions of what we might normally see in the genre. A sleigh ride turns into an opportunity for a beheading; a taxidermied reindeer antler in a victim’s living room becomes an unconventional item with which to stab. The movie spends so much time establishing Billy as a sympathetic character that it would have made more sense to have a different killer at large wearing the Santa costume, with Billy somehow having a connection to his spree and attempting to stop it as a way to find closure. Billy’s descent into madness in the movie feels constrained. Writer Michael Hickey’s characterization of him for too much of the movie belies any sense that he could so violently snap (he reminds us of a lost doe, and we feel bad for him), and Wilson’s performance is too affectedly sinister. It’s like Billy has suddenly body-swapped with a killer in the Freaky Friday (1976) style rather than simply psychologically unraveled. The movie’s upholding of the insensitive trope that trauma, interlaced with mental illness, will unavoidably lead to a violent eruption is unimaginative — and offensive — too.
Unsurprisingly a commercial success, Silent Night, Deadly Night spawned five sequels. Continuing its story as much shrewdly reiterates the idea that grief can be passed down (two of them feature Billy’s younger brother as its evil Santa incarnate) as it does cheapen it. Like a gift from a distant relative, it was never very reasonable to expect anything very special from Silent Night, Deadly Night. But it’s hard not to get your hopes up this time of year. C