Twelve Days of Axe-mas: Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

I am taking part in The Chicago Creepout’s Twelve Days of Axe-mas holiday viewing event. This is my day one.

Note: The version of Silent Night, Deadly Night that I watched contained some footage not shown in the theatrical version.

As much as I hate to admit it, I’m old enough to remember the uproar about Silent Night, Deadly Night when it was first released all the way back in 1984. As a ten-year-old, I was petrified of the idea of even seeing a horror film, let alone actually sitting down in a darkened theater, watching one. But my more adventurous friends couldn’t wait to see the film because of the its reputation as something that crossed the line. After all, no one really seemed to throw a fit about the other slasher films that had come out and those were terrifying and really gory (so I was told), so the scares and gore in Silent Night, Deadly Night had to be far worse than any other horror film ever made to cause such mass moral outrage.

Of course, the moral outrage was all the film had going for it, but that was enough to make it a modest franchise in the ‘80s with four sequels (and a recent DTV remake). As I matured and discovered the joys of a good horror movie, I still did not bother to check out the film. Beyond its reputation, most reviews portrayed it as a poorly made, paint-by-numbers slasher flick. Since my taste in horror runs more to the weird, the supernatural, and the over-the-top, I continued to pass on Silent Night, Deadly Night, even with its wonderfully tacky VHS box art of an axe being held out the top of a chimney by someone in a Santa Claus costume.

Now that I’ve finally watched it, tempered by my greatly lowered expectations, how does the infamously “amoral” film stack up? Slightly better than I anticipated, but nowhere in the realm of a good film.

I’m not going to bother with a plot synopsis because, despite its Christmas-time trappings, it’s just another slasher flick. Director Charles E. Sellier Jr. gets some decent mileage out of the stark, rural Utah locations, one clever kill utilizing a mounted deer head, and a nicely bizarre prologue featuring a creepy old man (veteran character actor Will Hare) delivering an unsubtle warning to his grandson about the dark side of the Santa Claus myth and what happens to those who are naughty.

Unfortunately, the flaws in the film heavily outweigh the few things it gets right. Sellier is never able to fully hide the low budget–the interior scenes are especially bad with amateurish lighting and minimal set design. The acting is broad, but never broad enough to be enjoyably over-the-top. The script is so shallow and unimaginative after a decent enough first act that it sabotages all momentum the film has achieved to that point. I could go on with all the problems the film has, but there is no point to doing so. If you have seen even one cheap, poorly made slasher flick, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

What about that moral outrage the film sparked upon its initial release? Not surprisingly, it was a ridiculous overreaction to seeing a man dressed as Santa Claus killing people. What the people who raised objections to this movie probably never bothered to learn (because I doubt they actually watched the movie) is that the filmmakers never claim Santa Claus is a murderer. The killer in the film is a deranged man who is driven over the edge after being forced to don a Santa costume. As a (probably unintentional) metaphor for people who get sick-and-tired of the forced cheerfulness and overtly commercial nature of the Christmas season, that plot development is almost clever. As a marketing hook for a horror film, it’s no crasser than having your killer be physically-deformed and mentally disabled or exist as a supernatural child murderer.

As I expected, Silent Night, Deadly Night’s reputation is more interesting and entertaining than the actual movie. It’s of some interest for its place in slasher history, but as a piece of entertainment, it’s lacking in too many areas to recommend.

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