Silent Night Deadly Night (1984) ***
Director: Charles Sellier
Runtime: 1h 36m
In his book, Projected Fears, Kendall R. Phillips argues that Halloween and its subsequent slasher offspring represent a desire, on the part of American audiences to return to a stable, conservative culture. The critic sees Michael Myers and his descendants as performing the bloody work necessary to sweep American society clean of all the filth and perversion that has accumulated since the 1950s. This is a load of nonsense, as Phillips identifies the Final Girl as the character who embodies the conservative ideal that the films are supposedly aspiring to. If the Final Girl is the end goal of the slasher monsters, why do they spend so much time trying to destroy them? As always the simpler explanation is the better one: conservative good girl types are just more sympathetic characters for audiences and filmmakers. In a horror film, it’s helpful that the audience is able to sympathize with and relate to the protagonist. Such an explanation is obvious to anyone who hasn’t spent more than ten years inside academia, which is why it’s nowhere to be found in any of the more learned literature.
Phillips’ theory is interesting however, when applied to a much less well-known horror movie, which is why I’ve called it to your attention here. The killer in Silent Night Deadly Night actively occupies the punisher/redeemer archetype that Philips shoehorns Myers into. Indeed, Billy Caldwell openly exposes a philosophy of based around puritanical morality and savage punishment. The only problem is that while it’s one that the audience can understand, it is not something that any sane person would agree with. Billy kills people that arguably have it coming, but also slaughters innocence in equal or greater numbers. Nobody would ever agree that all of Billy’s victims have it coming. Instead we are outsiders looking in on a lunatic’s twisted morality, able to understand and even perhaps sympathize with him but still disgusted with his actions. The effect is much like Maniac or Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer in that Silent Night, Deadly Night forces audiences to see the world from a twisted, insane perspective that they would otherwise never consider. It is of course nowhere near as successful in it’s aims as those two other films, limited as it is by it’s devotion to its yuletide theme, but the attempt is admirable nonetheless. While it may not realize its grand ambitions, Silent Night Deadly Night is still an admirably nasty and unpleasant bit of mid-1980s horror.
In 1971 Little Billy Caldwell has the worst Christmas on record. His family’s yearly visit to grandpa finds the old man reduced to a completely catatonic state. However, when Billy is left alone with granpa, while his parents fill out some paper work, the crazy old geezer springs to life. As it turns out granpa was pulling a Chief Bromden, and only playing at being comatose. He warns Billy that Santa Claus is a vicious thug who brutally punishes all those who fall short of his exacting moral standards. This encounter is understandably traumatizing, but what happens next ensures that Billy will need some very expensive therapy for a long time to come. While driving home a murderer dressed as Santa Claus flags down the family car. He shoots Mr. Caldwell and then sexually assaults Mrs. Caldwell before slitting her throat. Billy books it and hides in a ditch on the side of the road, but he sees and hears everything. This horrific encounter gives Billy a lifelong fear of Santa Claus and by extension all things related to Christmas.
The local catholic orphanage takes in Billy and his baby brother Ricky. Ricky was too young to remember anything that happened but Billy has a few fragmented memories of Christmas 1971 and is obviously deeply disturbed by them. He misbehaves all through the Christmas season, and is so terrified of Santa Claus that when a local man dressed as that jolly old elf comes to visit on Christmas Day, Billy punches him in the nose rather than sit in his lap. The orphanage is run by a superfluity of nuns, one of whom, Sister Margaret, has taken a special interest in Billy’s case. She pleads with the Mother Superior to give Billy the help he desperately needs. Sister Margaret is obviously thinking some kind of therapy or counseling, but Mother Superior has little patience for that kind of hippie bullshit. Mother Superior espouses an especially dour, punishment-based version of Catholicism common among the women charged by the church with teaching grade school. Her solution to Billy’s attitude problem is to beat him savagely whenever he gets out of line. This combined with the Mother Superior’s rather puritanical views about sexuality, plants the seed for a dangerous sado-sexual fantasy in the disturbed young Billy.
By 1984 Billy has grown into a hunky beefcake of a teenager. With assistance from Sister Margaret he lands a job unloading boxes and stocking shelves at Mr. Sims’ department store. The film shows the first few months of Billy’s employment through a montage, accompanied by inexplicable country music, each shot depicting the trouble young orphan as a model employee. This all changes with the start of the Christmas season: Out of nowhere Billy is suddenly sullen and easily distracted. He hides it well, but all the Santa Claus decorations and yuletide spirit scares the crap out of him. At the same time, Billy is beginning to develop romantic feelings for one of his coworkers, Pamela the checkout girl. His wet dreams about her start as normal enough stuff, some heavy petting mixed in with images of her naked body, but they turn twisted quick: Out of nowhere, Santa Claus appears and guts the poor girl. Needless to say, his catholic school education and childhood full of trauma have made it particularly difficult for Billy to adjust to normal adolescent lust.
Fortunately, the Christmas season is almost over; unfortunately a last minute accident deprives Sims’ department store of their Santa Claus. Now if anyone should take on the role it should be Mr. Sims, he has both the figure and the maturity demanded of a Santa Claus. The only problem is Sims hates Christmas with a passion that I’ve only seen in disappointed Jewish children. He’d tear down all the decorations at once if he didn’t think that such an act would loose him money from holiday shoppers. There’s no way that he’s getting into the Santa costume willingly. He fobs the job off on Billy, who, once he dons the costume, is scared stiff by his own reflection. Billy’s take on Santa Claus, which re-imagines the merry distributor of presents as something akin to God’s avenging angel, has its advantages. For one it makes dealing with obnoxious children much easier, Billy just has to warn the poor little brats that if they’re naughty in front of Santa they will be punished severely. In the darkest and funniest moment in the movie Sims marvels at how good Billy is with children.
Billy has been acting strange all day, but he keeps a lid on it until the Christmas party that breaks out once the store closes down. Billy’s boss in the loading dock, a real sleazebag named Andy, sneaks off with Pamela to make-out. Initially she’s into it, but when Andy tries to escalate things she makes it clear that she wants none of it. In classic sleazebag form, Andy isn’t one to take no for an answer, and decides to rape her. Little does he know that Billy is peeping on the two of them, and that he’s been conditioned to see any act of sex as a sinful activity that deserves horrific punishment. Moreover, everyone has been calling Billy Santa since he put on the suit, and the poor crazy boy has begun to identify as the figure. So, Billy strangles Andy with a string of Christmas lights. Pamela is too terrified of the Santa suit-wearing killer to be very relieved at being rescued from a rapist (It’s a real frying pan and fire situation here). Here is a great example of Billy’s warped, almost incomprehensible moral code in action: to him, Pamela is just as guilty and deserving of punishment as Andy. The audience probably doesn’t mind seeing Andy hanged with Christmas lights, but watching Pamela get gutted with box-cutters is another thing altogether. From here on out it should be obvious that no sane person will agree fully with Billy’s understanding of sin and retribution, though at times his code may align with the viewers. From there, Billy then goes on a full-fledged rampage through the store, killing all the employees with a hammer, fire axe and bow and arrows. With the entire staff of Sims Department store lying dead Billy ventures out into the night. He has a lot more killing to get through and a lot more sinners to punish before Christmas is over.
By the standards of early-to-mid 1980s horror Silent Night, Deadly Night is on the tame side. However, this means that by the standards of our own lily-livered epoch the movie comes across as a real nasty piece of work. When Billy corners a little girl and demands to know if she has been good all year long, there is no reason whatsoever to suspect that he isn’t going to slaughter the poor little thing. That she escapes from the encounter unharmed is a relief, but the scene only feels so tense because the movie has spent the previous sixty minutes showing us that it takes place in a bleak universe devoid of any notions of justice or restraint. Indeed, the scene would not work if Silent Night, Deadly Night had been any less nasty in the previous scenes. Though I’ve seen plenty films worse than this, I’m still consistently amazed by the unrelenting bleakness and savagery of early 80s horror movies. Nor will I ever understand where the truism that our popular entertainment has been getting more and more violent since the middle of the century came from. The last 30 years cannot possible compare to the decade before it.
The biggest downside of Silent Night, Deadly Night is that it has one of the worst soundtracks I’ve ever heard. All of the Christmas carols in the film have been composed for the movie, and as a result nobody has ever heard any of them before (or since). Innocent, light-hearted songs can be terrifying when taken out of cultural context or inserted into creepy situations (He sees you when your sleeping, etc). However, this doesn’t work when the songs are unfamiliar ditties composed with the intention of being creepy. Some might be mildly disconcerting, but most just feel like they are trying too hard. At other times the original soundtrack is downright baffling, I mean really what was the deal with the country ballad that plays during Billy’s work montage? I haven’t encountered such a tension-breaking bit of music in an otherwise effective horror movie since Last House on the Left (1972).