After the excitement of Halloween, Christmas can always come as a little bit of a let-down for die hard horror fans, with most of the TV schedule being stacked to the hilt with seasonal goodwill guff. So, what better way for those of a darker nature to gather some festive spirit than rolling out the 80’s cult classic Silent Night, Deadly Night and cracking out the eggnog. While at the time of its release it was seen by the general public as a somewhat ‘anti-Christmas’ movie, it is one festive favorite that horror fans return to year after year, possessing such an endearing quality that for those with a black sense of humor, it is hard to resist.
With hindsight, it is easy to see why Charles E. Sellier Jr’s 1984 yuletide based slasher was destined to become such a cult favorite. I mean, what’s not to like? A murderous crazed Santa Claus, traumatized kids, inventive use of Christmas decorations as weapons, crazy family members, nuns, plenty of grue, and a Santa’s sack full of fun. It was a very different story when it was released. Following an advertising campaign which many people found offensive, the heart of America was up in arms that someone dare touch upon such a sacred time of year to use it as a theme for a horror film. So much so, angered parents took to picket lines to stop people heading into the cinema to take a sneaky peak at what all the fuss was about. Things were not helped much by the scornful review critics Siskel and Ebert gave it either. Siskel called the ad campaign, portraying a brief shot of a Santa Claus holding an axe, “sick and sleazy and mean-spirited”, then going on to list the names of those involved and stating “shame on you”. Siskel then mentioned writer Michael Hickey and producer Ira Barmak personally, saying “you people have nothing to be proud of even if you made a few bucks off all the negative publicity, your profits truly are blood money.”
Initially picked up by Tri Star, the film was dropped like a red hot poker after the scandal and threatened to be buried, until another company, Aquarius Releasing, picked it up a year later. The second theatrical run flopped even worse than the first, yet almost 30 years later, Silent Night, Deadly Night still remains a horror fan favorite despite what the studios and general public thought of it at the time of its release. Sadly, director Charles Sellier Jr. passed away in 2011 and producer Ira Barmak in 1993 (Ira incidentally vehemently defended his movie, calling out Siskel and Ebert as using Silent Night as a ploy to create controversy and fuel their own ratings). Their legacy lives on, as every year generations of horror fans, young and old, cannot resist bringing out Little Billy in his Santa suit and watching him impale a young , topless Linnea Quigley on those antlers, or rampaging at sadistic nuns with his bloody axe. If nothing else Silent Night, Deadly Night is a lot of fun, and isn’t that what Christmas is supposed to be about?
Diabolique caught up with producer Scott Schneid, Writer Michael Hickey, and 2nd Unit Director Michael Spence to ask them about their experience of making the movie in 1984, the aftermath of what followed later, and how they feel about it today.
DIABOLIQUE: What was the inspiration for the script?
SCOTT SCHNEID: I think the inspiration for the script was Dennis Whitehead, my producing partner on the project, and I were looking to get into the film business. We were just a bunch of young guys at the time and there was a lot of horror films getting made, low-budget horror films… because of the VHS boom. I had received a screenplay (a very amateur screenplay), by an undergraduate student from my Alma Mata, my college back East. He sent it to me; I was an agent trainee in Beverley Hills. He sent me the script and it was pretty awful [laughs], but there was a one line sentence in the script which was about a killer Santa Claus. It was called, ‘He sees you when you’re sleeping’… It was a terrible, but I loved the one line idea. This was in the day of Friday the 13th and the first Halloween and I thought this could be a potential for a teenage franchise — a psycho dressed in a Santa Claus suit on the loose, Christmas Eve, all the visual imagery, the iconic Santa… you know, Christmas imagery, interweaving that into the killings. I thought as naturally teenagers are the most rebellious creatures on the planet, they would love the concept. I thought it would lend itself to sequels. So that’s where the one sentence idea originated from. Dennis Whitehead knew Michael [Hickey], they had a friendship. Michael was a young writer at the time, and Michael basically threw out that entire screenplay. There’s nothing left apart from that one sentence idea. Michael developed and wrote a whole new story off that, all new characters, all new constructions.
DIABOLIQUE: So when you were rewriting it, or reworking it, did you think that it was going to cause any backlash somewhere?
MICHAEL HICKEY: Frankly it never occurred to me [laughs].
SCHNEID: It never occurred to me for one second. I thought we were making an R rated movie for a teenage audience. I never thought for a second it was going to piss anyone off!
HICKEY: What happened was really quite unpredictable. At least to my knowledge, it had never happened before, where you had people picketing the movie theaters because they don’t want to see a movie. Ordinarily people just don’t buy a ticket!
DIABOLIQUE: When you got into production how did that process go? Have you got any amusing onset anecdotes?
MICHAEL SPENCE: I don’t know about amusing — it was a great stretch for me because it was my first time to really direct anything… we had a lot of fun with a lot of different things. I don’t know that it was very amusing really, it was very cold and we were on a very tight shooting schedule, always working very hard, trying to get it done. So it wasn’t particularly amusing [laughs].
DIABOLIQUE: How faithful were you to the original working script? Was there anything you found you had to change significantly?
SCHNEID: The finished film that Charles and Michael [Spence] as 2nd unit director shot was 99% the way it was delivered on the shooting script to Ira Burman. We delivered that script to Ira, who had a deal with Tri Star to make some low budget movies, and he hired Mr. S to direct it. He shot at least 99% of what was on that page?
HICKEY: At least.
SPENCE: As far as I remember, it was very much as scripted. There was some, as there always is, leeway in exactly how things are staged… but from my memory we shot pretty much what was on that page.
HICKEY: Yes that is correct, it’s word for word.
DIABOLIQUE: Let’s get to the aftermath now, that was pretty rough. As you said, you didn’t expect any lobbying, then Tri Star pulled the picture and there was some controversy over the ad campaign as well. How did it feel to be on the receiving end of that, and was there any backlash to any of you personally?
HICKEY: There was no personal backlash that I saw, apart from someone I worked with had seen the Siskel and Ebert review on television, they were particularly vitriolic — apparently missing the point that the movie wasn’t made for middle aged cultural elitists, but they had their opinion. And this lady I worked with saw and decided, without having seen the movie, that this was her opinion too [laughs], and she came into my office and let me know it! I just listened, I was amused, and I inquired if she had seen the movie. She said ‘no’, and then it was a little hard to take anything she said seriously. I didn’t mind any of the negative backlash, I didn’t feel it was directed to me personally. I thought those people were entitled to their opinions and that was it. It’s what made the whole thing such an experience. Otherwise it might have been released, played for a couple of weeks, and then dropped out of sight forever, but apparently it will never drop out of sight. I feel like it was all for the good.
SPENCE: I was just gonna say, I guess I’ve worked on, in one form or another, maybe over 100 films in my career. This is the only one that anyone still talks to me about [chuckles]. All these years later, I have these young guys, when they find out I was involved and they just wanna sit down and talk about it. That’s an interesting element of that.
HICKEY: And for that we have to thank Mother’s Against Madness!
SCHNEID: And I actually saw the movie at a number of different theatrical locations when it came out in 1984, and I took my Mom to see it! Believe it or not we actually had to cross the picket line … this is my old Jewish Mother! … [Micheal Hickey interrupts at this point and asks Scott if she still considers herself his Mom, a comment from which the trio all take great amusement]… and we actually had to cross the picket line. People were holding banners saying — ‘SANTA AIN’T NO HITMAN!’ and ‘DECK THE HALLS WITH HOLLY NOT BODIES!’ [laughs] I was really embarrassed! My Mom really wanted to see it, it was her young son’s first film. I was sort of horrified sitting next to her in the dark, and then I said to her, ‘well Mom’, sheepishly, ‘what did you think?’ and so she said ‘I’ve seen worse on television!’.
DIABOLIQUE: When it was picked up on the 2nd run by Aquarius, how did that go in comparison to the first? I watched an old news clip earlier where they were up in arms that it had been re-released, and Siskel was on there comparing it to I Spit On Your Grave. I think he said it was one of the most contemptible films he had ever seen. I just wondered whether the bad publicity brought in a new crowd when it showed again?
SCHNEID: I actually saw it when it was re-released in Culver City, California. It saw it at a movie theatre. They opened the new release with a company called Aquarius Releasing, which is out of business now for years I believe. And it was a small theatrical release across the country, there was nobody in the theater, this was April of 1985, who’s going to see a Santa Claus Christmas movie in April?
DIABOLIQUE: These days it’s a cult classic, I mean over here in the UK, Arrow video released it a few years ago uncut. How does it feel to be part of that success, that legacy?
SCHNEID: I just hope some people don’t spit on my grave! [laughs] It was a lot of fun, we developed and did a long time ago. It’s like Michael said, you just can’t believe it. It’s amazing despite all the negative publicity and the picketing. Michael, Dennis, and I, and I am sure that goes for Michael Spence, we were all young guys at the time, trying to get a movie made, y’know? And it’s pretty amazing that this is the result of all that effort. To try and get a movie made and to do the best we could with developing that story… and wow look at the results!
HICKEY: I think it’s nice, at the end of the day, to have your work appreciated. I think that’s part of what’s going on.
SPENCE: I saw it a couple of years ago at a revival theater here in Los Angeles. My wife and I just decided to go over there and see it on a hoot, there was a line around the block for two different shows. It was showing with, I think, Black Christmas, which was a much higher budget, much more well-known picture in some regards. And people got up and left that screening, but all of them sat through Silent Night, so I’m not sure what that means accept that it was amazing to me. I was totally blown over by that.
SCHNEID: It was like sitting through a screening of the Rocky Horror Picture Show at Midnight! They were just hooting and howling and laughing. I was blown away by it as well, Michael.
HICKEY: The fact that people today, young people, laugh at it and understand that it’s to a large extent made to be a black comedy, it’s very gratifying. At the time nobody thought there was anything funny about it, and I did and I still do. I watched it recently and I think it’s funny. I guess I’m a little dark, but that seems to be at least part of what kids are responding to today. And that’s nice because of the fact that it’s in some respects a black comedy, which was completely missed first time around.
SCHNEID: I agree, Michael, because when we were developing the script, I always thought it had an edge of satire and black comedy to it. Always, always.
HICKEY: That was the redeeming value, I think, at the time.
DIABOLIQUE: Finally, have any of you got any favorite moments from the film?
HICKEY: I like it when little Billy touches Santa and he goes flying — it’s a really well staged stunt! [laughs]
SCHNEID: There are a lot of moments I love in the movie, but I love the scene when Santa has just killed the woman on the reindeer antlers and has thrown her boyfriend through the glass window, and is leaving the house. Then the little girl who has been waiting up all night says, ‘Santa you came! Did you bring any presents?’ and you know he’s just killed two people… he goes ‘Have you been good?’, she says ‘yes!’… ‘are you sure?’ [laughs]. I was in Boston when that scene was going on… a woman jumped up in the theater behind me and said, ‘IF SANTA KILLS THAT LITTLE GIRL , I’M LEAVING!!!’— it was hysterical!
SPENCE: One of my favorite moments, it’s just a small thing — we were shooting in preparation to kill the deputy, or one of the deputies, and my cameraman and I were going around this old building in Utah looking for different ways to do it. Somebody had built a snowman out front, and I don’t think this was scripted as I remember, but we had him walk in past the camera and take his axe and lop of the head of the snowman. I thought in some ways that was kind of perfectly indicative of the kind of humorless level of the movie that we were all kind of going for.
SCHNEID: That’s one of my favorite shots in the movie. I was just thinking of that when I was just telling my story. One of my favorite shots of the movie is when the axe anchors the frame, and all the blood drips off it I think and then he hacks the head of the snowman. I loved that! Superb, visually it’s fantastic!
HICKEY: They did a lot of things very well, that was certainly one of them. I think that moment is in the script, isn’t it?
SPENCE: I can’t remember, it’s only been 30 years! [everyone laughs]
SCHNEID: Hold on one second, I will pull my PDF up right here!
SPENCE: Well I thought that because everybody likes it, let me take the credit for it and move on!