Silent Night, Deadly Night: Ho Ho … Hold the Controversy

Silent Night, Deadly Night boasts a history shared by few ’80’s horror films. Arguably its infamy far outreaches its quality. At its best, Silent Night, Deadly Night is a sleazy B-movie that hits the ‘so bad, it’s good’ switch. Many horror fans may just consider it plain bad. But when this Christmas chiller was released on November 9, 1984, it sparked unusually widespread public outrage. The backlash rivalled the ‘Video Nasties’ moral panic in England. In this edition of The Vault, I examine the convergence of factors that elevated a trashy splatter film to cult status.

Silent Night, Deadly Night Has Its Roots in 70’s Grindhouse Cinema

Critics largely lumped Silent Night, Deadly Night in with the slasher film craze of the 1980’s. While it’s by no means mutually exclusive, Silent Night, Deadly Night arguably shares more DNA with 70’s grindhouse splatter films.

Film fans often cite Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho as the precursor to the slasher movie. Hitchcock’s infamous shower scene introduced the basic slasher ingredient of the depraved psychosexual killer. Familiar 70’s and 80’s movies, including the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and Friday the 13th, would each introduce more pieces to the familiar slasher puzzle. On one hand, Silent Night, Deadly Night’s tragic killer, Billy, exemplifies the sub-genre’s sexually depraved killer. But Silent Night feels more like the sleazy splatter movies that circulated Times Square’s 42nd Street once upon a time in the 1970’s.

With its grainy picture quality and casually sleazy blend of sex and violence, Silent Night feels like grindhouse splatter.

Though both sub-genres share similarities, the key difference lies in their primary focus. Slasher movies combine elements of suspense and graphic violence. In contrast, the splatter film is more concerned with the abject portrayal of terror and physical destruction. Typically, there’s little emphasis on suspense. Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast is to the splatter movie as Psycho was to the slasher film. Eli Roth and Rob Zombie dabbled in splatter aesthetics with Hostel and The Devil’s Rejects during the 2000’s “torture porn” movement. With its grainy picture quality and casually sleazy blend of sex and violence, Silent Night feels like grindhouse splatter. It has more in common with sleazoid movies like The Toolbox Murders and Abel Ferrara’s Driller Killer than Halloween.

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Santa Claus is Apparently Off Limits

Timing is everything. Upon its release, Silent Night, Deadly Night was met by waves of protests. Parents and teachers criticized the marketing campaign that put its Santa Claus-themed killer front row and center. Demonizing Santa Claus would traumatize children, they argued. Distributor TriStar Pictures buckled under pressure and pulled advertisements almost a week before its release date. Several theatres declined to even screen Silent Night, Deadly Night.

Of course, the idea of a killer dressed as Santa Claus wasn’t new. Just four years earlier, obscure slasher movie Christmas Evil featured a rampaging murderer dressed as Old Saint Nick. British anthology horror film Tales from the Crypt beat both movies to the punch by 10 years. Its segment, …And All Through the House has a homicidal maniac dressed as Santa trying to break into a home on Christmas Eve. Neither of these movies attracted any public protest.

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Friday the 13th, Censorship, and the Video Nasties List

At the time of its release, Silent Night was hitting a changing social climate. Some of this increased scrutiny of the horror genre can be traced back to Friday the 13th. In 1980, Friday the 13th was something of a game-changer for horror. Not that there was anything particularly original about the movie. Director Sean S. Cunningham mixed bits of Italian giallo with John Carpenter’s Halloween and a bit of grindhouse splatter for good meaure. As compared to ’70 grindhouse horror and Italian Giallo, Friday the 13th’s violence and sex was tame. But Friday the 13th was a box office success. The effect was to drag horror movie violence from seedy grindhouse theatres and videostore shelves into the public spotlight.

The effect was to drag horror movie violence from seedy grindhouse theatres and videostore shelves into the public spotlight.

A wave of slasher movie knock-off’s followed in the wake of Friday the 13th’s success. However, its success also attracted the attention of cinematic puritans, prompting a wave of censorship. Subsequent slasher movies, including Friday the 13th Part II and My Bloody Valentine, were hacked and slashed by the Motion Picture Association of America. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Ocean, activist Mary Whitehouse pressured the British government to introduce the Video Recordings Act in 1984. The Act resulted in the infamous ‘Video Nasties List’, which saw 72 horror movies denied certification by the British Board of Film Classifications. Silent Night, Deadly Night was marketed and released in this climate.

Silent Night, Deadly Night a Victim of Moral Hypocrisy

What makes Silent Night, Deadly Night such an interesting case study was the source of public outrage itself. Consider for a moment that this is a movie in which not one, but three, different female characters are killed in various states of undress. Scream Queen Linnea Quigley is impaled on a mounted deer head while wearing only shorts. All of this violence is captured with gruesomely effective practical effects. Yet public protestors didn’t have much to say about violence against women. Nor did protests focus on the characterization of mental health and trauma.

Instead public outrage centred on the movie’s use of Santa Claus and its effect on children. Like most moral panics, the morality espoused by the various claims-makers was rather random, if not outright suspect. Silent Night, Deadly Night’s marketing campaign didn’t help. Apparently, a few televisions ads aired in the middle of family-friendly television programming (see Hysteria Lives). It all resulted in a ‘won’t someone think of the children’ moment not unlike a South Park episode. Keep in mind, this was also around the same time the child safety movement and ‘stranger danger’ were getting a foothold.

From Public Enemy No.1 to Cult Classic

In spite of the controversy, Silent Night, Deadly Night went on to produce four anemic sequels, an Internet meme, and a loose 2012 remake. Scream Factory assembled a batch of materials for a special Blu-ray treatment. None of this should be surprising. Several of the original ‘Video Nasties’ movies have been remade over the last 10 years or so with not so much as a peep from critics. Silent Night, Deadly Night was released into a perfect storm for controversy. Critics were already scrutinizing the genre. This increased attention coupled with its Santa Claus-themed killer amounted to the worst case scenario of bad-timing. But time heals all wounds. Or ‘there’s no such thing as bad press.’ Either way Silent Night, Deadly Night has done what so many bad movies have done in the past – compensated for box office failure with cult status.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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