It was finals week at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In the newly-built Union South, replete with fireplaces, restaurants, a convenience store, an ice cream vendor, and a concert stage, students were at every table, in groups or alone, staring at their laptops and studying intensely. But upstairs, the Cinematheque’s new director of programming, Jim Healy – formerly an assistant curator at the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY, and a programmer for the Chicago International Film Festival – was warmly welcoming a small collective of brave souls into the Union’s Marquee movie theater for a double-feature of bloody, bloody Christmas cheer. The crowd was the usual Madison film buff mix: some older folks, but some students too, either taking a break from studying or writing off finals week altogether, plopping down into a plush seat with beer in hand. Then the mayhem ensued – first, with a Tom and Jerry Christmas short (only slightly less violent than what would follow).
Okay, 1974’s Silent Night, Bloody Night is misleadingly titled. For one thing, it’s not particularly bloody, despite a few brief shots of severed hands; and it’s not particularly chock full of Christmas, either, though ostensibly it takes place over the holidays. Released during the heyday of 70’s exploitation and drive-in horror, but before all the tropes of the “slasher picture” had fixed the genre just a little too firmly, the chief appeal of this low-budget effort (associate-produced by Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman) is its loopy, untethered script. Mary Woronov, exile of Andy Warhol’s Factory and on her way to the land of Roger Corman (Death Race 2000 was next), stars as young Diane, the daughter of a small-town mayor, who teams up with a stranger named Jeffrey Butler (James Patterson) to investigate mysterious disappearances around his grandfather’s house over the course of one night. That house was the site of crimes and madness dating back to the 1930’s, and Butler’s attempts to sell it off lead to the deaths of various elderly townsfolk at the hands of a mysterious killer, and a climax which emphasizes a long flashback involving homicidal mental patients from the local asylum running riot (one cuts out a man’s eye with a broken bottle). The flashback is stylistically shot, but much of the film, directed by Woronov’s husband of the time, Theodore Gershuny (Kenek), is a bit plodding, the victim of a script that keeps its characters away from the old dark house as long as possible, to ludicrous extremes; the film’s running time would be cut in half if our two protagonists would just make the short drive to the house to see what’s going on. Roger Ebert calls these “idiot plots.” Still, at least there is a plot, a bit more advanced than your later school of slasher film, since it depends on Faulknerian tortured pasts (read: incest). Patrick O’Neal plays one of the first victims, and John Carradine has a small part as a man who can only communicate by ringing a bell (shades of Breaking Bad). Candy Darling, another ex-Warhol associate, has a cameo (in the flashback); the film was shot in Long Island, and was re-released under various titles. The print screened at the UW Union South bore the title DEATHOUSE, which could really use an extra “h.”
Before the next feature started, Healy ran some vintage horror trailers: Death Screams (1982), Eat and Run (1987), Q: The Winged Serpent (1982), and Mother’s Day (1980). All of which set the mood perfectly for Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), a film that’s actually much more of what you’d expect from a Christmas-themed horror picture. That is, a man dresses in a Santa suit and kills people (often naked women) for being “naughty”…what more could you possibly want? Directed by Charles E. Sellier, Jr. – producer of In Search of Noah’s Ark (1976) and the Grizzly Adams TV series – the film is a shameless cash-in on the 80’s slasher craze, delivering sex and violence at a pace to hold the teenage audience’s rapt attention. In a hysterical prologue, we meet young Billy (Danny Wagner), who’s visiting his seemingly-catatonic grandfather in a nursing home. But we quickly learn that gramps is faking the condition; as soon as Billy’s parents are out of earshot, he leans over and tells Billy that Santa Claus is a man to be feared – and if you’ve been naughty, he’s coming to punish you. On the drive home, his parents make the unwise decision to stop for a hitchhiker in a Santa suit. Turns out the man is a violent criminal, fresh from robbing a convenience store and shooting the clerk. Billy’s mom and dad are brutally murdered, and Billy and his baby brother – somehow escaping from the killer – are sent to a Catholic orphanage. The trauma of seeing his parents killed by Santa Claus is bad enough, but enduring the torments of the Mother Superior (Lilyan Chovan) pushes Billy even further into a psychotic state. When she forces him to sit on Santa’s lap, he’s so horrified at the experience that the kid lays the poor guy flat with a punch. But he’s also learning a skewed sense of what’s “naughty.” When the Mother Superior catches two teenagers having sex in an upstairs room (Billy watches through a peephole), she beats them with a belt. So, you see, when Billy does finally go over the edge and begin murdering people in a Santa suit, he must go after sexually-active teens. This isn’t slasher-movie cliché, this has to happen – or so the film has wasted half its running time explaining to us.
But before the killing starts, how about an 80’s music montage set in a toy store, in which the full-grown Billy (Robert Brian Wilson) lifts heavy things in the stock room and smiles a lot? Actually, I was lost in nostalgia during the toy store scenes – I hadn’t seen the Star Wars Jabba the Hut throne room action figure set since I was a kid (and played with it endlessly). And there’s Smurfs merchandise, and there’s a sad-looking G.I. Joe Halloween costume! The joy must end, though: when Billy’s crush is assaulted by her boyfriend, our deranged protagonist – wearing the Santa suit that he’s been forced by his employers to wear – kills both of them in his “you’ve been naughty” rage (the girl’s boyfriend is strangled with Christmas lights). He slays another employee with a bow and arrow, frequently found in toy stores. Billy, who – disappointingly – can’t quite keep his face covered with his Santa beard, has a Jason Voorhees-style superhuman strength. Later he visits a cabin in the woods and kills a naked babysitter by impaling her on the antlers of a mounted deer – never mind that the antlers seem to have very rounded tips. And in the film’s most satisfying death scene, he decapitates a bully coasting down a bunny slope on a sled. I only noticed one actual Christmas carol in the film, “Deck the Halls.” To get around those sticky copyright issues, most of the Christmas carols are custom-made for Silent Night, Deadly Night. These include “Sweet Little Baby,” “Christmas Flu,” “Santa’s Watching,” and “Slayrider.”
The film would have come and gone as another modestly successful horror film, but for a TV commercial depicting the murderous Santa Claus holding an axe, which – surprise, surprise – caused an uproar from concerned parents. Presumably, those parents had freshly-traumatized kids; and, if the film’s logic held true, those kids all grew up to be killer Santas. (I’m sure there was an outbreak of Santa-themed murders in recent years, and I just missed the news reports.) Siskel & Ebert jumped on the bandwagon of condemning the film, Siskel going so far as to say that the film’s profits “are truly blood money.” That would have made a good title for one of the film’s many sequels, actually: Silent Night, Deadly Night: Blood Money. But the critics and the protest groups didn’t pay much attention to those sequels, and the furor died down; revisiting the film in 2011, it’s just another cheesy relic of the 80’s, tasteless but harmless, in which the intentional and unintentional humor blend seamlessly together. One generation’s outrage is another’s camp classic; go figure. Here’s the At the Movies segment, thanks to YouTube:
Merry Christmas! See you in 2012.