Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) is proof that positive controversy sells. When the infamous slasher film was released to theatres it was immediately met with outrage. The American public wasn’t quite ready for a beloved holiday icon to join the ranks of knife-wielding maniacs. Parents and children picketed screenings, armed with signs that read: “Santa is not a murderer” and “We Love Santa!”. It was a clear-cut case of people objecting to a film without seeing a single frame. Even critic Gene Siskel wasted little time in expressing his disdain, claiming the filmmakers had “profited from blood money.”
Despite all the commotion, Silent Night, Deadly Night was just one of many slasher titles that flooded the market throughout the decade. Its story was of a young man named Billy Chapman, who was haunted by the trauma of witnessing his parents being murdered by someone dressed as Santa. The memories, combined with a childhood of being tormented in a Catholic school eventually drove him over the edge. All of which culminated in Chapman embarking on a spree to dispense punishment to unwilling victims. In the end, the controversy far outweighs the form and content of the film, but it certainly helped secure its place in history. The rise of home video was the greatest fortune to come its way, as all the uproar ensured a high amount of rentals and sales from video stores across America.
It was the rise of YouTube, however, which brought newfound popularity to its sequel, Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 (1987). While dismissed the first time around as inept, with James O’Neill citing it as a “annoying pseudo-comedy” in his horror VHS book, Terror On Tape, it’s gone on to become a cult favorite. Not because of anything shocking or grotesque, but the unique performance from actor Eric Freeman. Mugging for the camera and overacting all of his lines, Freeman has since become an essential part of popular culture. This is due to his boisterous reading of the words “Garbage day!” before dispatching a suburbanite with a handgun. In being completely objective, which isn’t easy when discussing something you love unconditionally, Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 can only lay claim to being half of a film. The story of Ricky Caldwell (Billy Chapman’s younger sibling), while boisterous, is heavily supplemented with stock footage from the previous film. Still, the jumbled concoction makes for a thoroughly entertaining experience.
Things could have ended there, but the story of Ricky Caldwell would be continued two years later in Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! (1989). As the last entry in the series to maintain any continuity with its predecessors, it’s always been the victim of unfair criticism from fans. Although commonly described as ‘boring with a miniscule plot’, I feel this is an inept critique, along the same lines as Gene Siskel describing Offret (The Sacrifice, 1986) as “too long.” Taking over the role of Ricky was Bill Moseley, outfitted with a glass-domed skullcap and confined to a coma for much the films first act. While the complaints about the character design carry some validity, they usually come from the same people who overlook a killer wearing a William Shatner mask and returning to life every Halloween. When one comes straight to the point, Better Watch Out! possesses a certain level of ambition behind it. This can be attributed to Monte Hellman, a veteran director whose titles include Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and The Shooting (1966). Hellman seemed like the unlikeliest choice to helm the production of a direct-to-video release. In retrospect, we should all be glad he did.
Unlike the previous two movies, which closely followed the antagonist, (Billy in the first and Ricky in the sequel.) the focus instead is on protagonist Laura Anderson (Samantha Scully). Within the first few minutes, it’s firmly established that this entry is attempting to break new ground. The movie starts with a dream sequence in which Laura encounters Ricky, Santa, and a world shot with distorted camera angles and decorated with blank white walls. The whole experience feels slightly reminiscent of Dario Argento’s Phenomena (1985), right down to Laura (who bears a similar resemblance to Jennifer Connelly) awaking in a hospital room with electrodes attached to her head. This also establishes the psychic link Laura shares with the comatose Ricky. While the trope of a blind person possessing ESP has been utilized several times before, here, it helps the movie break away from the standard slasher formula that had been present in the previous installments. Although a small amount of stock footage from the first film is utilized to establish the past trauma which still plagues Ricky, it doesn’t become the crutch that it did in Silent Night, Deadly Night 2.
If you take a moment and go back to the first movie, there’s a similarity in regards to Laura’s character development. Silent Night, Deadly Night took time in the first act to establish Billy as sympathetic. As the viewing audience, we saw the trauma he underwent with his parents being murdered, and how images of Santa Claus constantly triggered his violent memories. That, on top of the constant torment he underwent at the orphanage made us empathize with him. A considerable amount of time is devoted to painting Laura in a similar light. As Doctor Newbury (Richard Beymer) uses her as a guinea pig to reach Caldwell’s mind, there’s a sense of helplessness as she’s brought into a world beyond her control. That’s what one gets with Hellman’s contribution, a mid paced slow burn that allows the events to unfold in a natural way. It might not have the high body count that slasher fans crave, but there’s no denying its atmosphere and mood. While the previous two films had some sensational depictions of murder, the on screen violence in this one is surprisingly minimal. I’ve always been a proponent of real horror being what one doesn’t see. While it’s made apparent that an act of violence has taken place, most of the time it’s only the aftermath that’s displayed. (With the exception of a few scenes.) It’s a wonderful way to let the audience connect the pieces for themselves. To paraphrase the opening prologue from William Shakespeare’s Henry V, “Your imaginary forces work.”
Off-screen carnage aside, there also exists a juxtaposition of a children’s classic into the narrative. This is found with Laura, her brother (Eric Da Re), and his girlfriend (Laura Harring) traveling to their grandmother’s house for the holiday. Here, we have an integration of “Little Red Riding Hood.” The trio in a red car (riding hood) heading to a destination, (Grandmothers’ house) where Ricky (The big bad wolf) arrives beforehand to murder the matriarch before the trio can safely make it. Naturally, this adaptation couldn’t be complete without a huntsman, and this movie has one of the more interesting ones you’ll come across. On the trail of Rocky is Lt. Connelly, (Robert Culp) accompanying Doctor Newbury. Culp, best known to American audiences as Kelly Robinson from the television show I, Spy easily gives the standout performance of the film.
Because this entry marked the end of Caldwell’s story, it’s hard to imagine where the series could go from here. Sure enough, two more sequels would follow that went in completely new directions, with new settings, characters, and abandoned what the first film had established. Although the Silent Night, Deadly Night series isn’t held in the highest regard by fans, it’s refreshing to see repetition and formula take a backseat to unique storytelling. If we can sit back and praise Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) for its unique characteristics, then there’s room at the table of underappreciated movies for Silent Night, Deadly Night 3.