3 out of 5
Directed by: Charles E. Sellier, Jr.
Sure, it’s a slasher that revels in its slashery tropes of gory kills, dark humor, and excessive boob nudity – this last bit rather uncomfortably tied to instances of rape – and despite claims, at the time, to the contrary, the flick was clearly trying to bait a certain amount of notoriety by focusing on a killer Santa (although I don’t believe it was the first killer Santa movie…), but the first Silent Night, Deadly Night also shows an interesting dedication to relative realism in a lot of regards (relative realism) and is up front with its setup, not trying to hide events behind any twist or reveals, which gives it an unusually weighty feel… before it descends into franchise-hopeful catchphrases.
It’s 1971, nearing Christmas, and young Billy Chapman peruses a kid’s book on Santa while he and his baby brother, Ricky, are being driven by the parents to visit grandpa at the old folks’ home. Billy is left alone with the spookily silent old coot, as mom and dad step aside with the doctor to hear about gramps’ declining mental state. And then grandpa turns to Billy and lets him know the truth about Santa: those who are naughty are punished. Have you been naughty, Billy?
On the drive home, Billy’s questions about an avenging Santa prompt his parents to ask where he got such ideas. Their belief in Billy mentioning that grandpa had said this is where the film’s tone / script takes a swerve around most horror setups: mom and dad respond logically, both trying to soothe Billy (as opposed to staunchly shutting him down, which is how most horror parents would act) and also shocked at grandfather’s apparent sudden mental fortitude, which is also a logical response in this case that most flicks would just blow past. This discussion is interrupted by the untimely appearance of a broken down car and its passenger – dressed up as Santa, of course – for which they stop. A preceding sequence lets us know this man is no good – he’d just robbed a convenience store – and he fulfills that no-goodness by viciously attacking the couple. Billy, already rattled by the confirmation that Santa is evil, makes a break for it and successfully hides, although both parents are killed. (After the afore-alluded to groanworthy indulgence of “let’s rip the woman’s blouse off and let the camera focus on her chest while she’s attacked…”)
It’s now 1974 and Billy and his younger brother Ricky are in an orphanage, with a typically tuff Mother Superior. The “lessons” Billy has had ingrained by his past traumas seem to only be enforced here: any slight deviance is viciously reprimanded by the Mother, and she’s especially harsh toward Billy, as she believes that the power of faith and mandated good behavior can overcome any pesky PTSD. While this is a typical enough “origin” detail for movie killers, Silent Night again stakes out some differences, by not making Mother Superior unbelievably harsh. Ignorant, absolutely, but you absolutely buy into a character with her brand of “guidance;” it’s close enough to variations we’ve likely seen enacted by teachers or parents. It should also be noted that director Charles E. Sellier, Jr. gets really nuanced and grounded performances out of the boys playing the 1971 and ’74 versions of Billy (Jonathan Best and Danny Wagner, respectively).
Flash forward to an 18 year old Billy, played with, once again, a believable mix of naivety and stoicism by Robert Brian Wilson, wanting to do right when a helpful nun from the orphanage gets him a stockboy job at a retail store, close to Christmas. He begs off any hints toward “illicit” behaviors – drinking, for example – and clearly wants to stay on the right side of naughty, without the film making any dumdum expository steps toward explaining this, yet again proving some genre notability.
Alas, the store’s hired Santa Claus takes ill, and Billy is the only one available who can fill the role…
…And then, after some further inciting incidents at that evening’s holiday party (with more rape-induced nudity, sigh…), Silent Night finally becomes the slasher it’d been building toward, with Billy picking up an axe and yelling “Punish!” before doing a round of Michael Myers / Jason Vorhees-inspired kills around the neighborhood, chopping his way back to the orphanage. These kills are pretty good, and although actor Wilson isn’t really as convincing shouting his catchphrase (which gets repetitive) or doing the unhinged killer shtick, the movie still has some appreciative balance with tropes (two teens having sex get killed) and that relative realism, as the cops are pretty quick to jump on things and – for the most part – competently respond.
This is still mostly a B-movie, mind you, as well as a totally average slasher, but there’s also enough unique points in its favor – and, when it’s slashy, some really funny bits and good kills – to make it a worthwhile viewing, and notable beyond its at-the-time notoriety.