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Retro Review: Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

Killer Santa Movie Silent Night, Deadly Night // Credit Tri Star Pictures

By 1984 cinema already had several Christmas horror movies (Silent Night, Bloody Night & Black Christmas (1974)) and killer Santas (see Tales From The Crypt & Christmas Evil). But Silent Night, Deadly Night courted huge controversy and was even pulled from cinemas because of its high-profile, and killer Santa conceit. However, this led to the film gaining a cult following and it spawned 4 sequels and a remake.

Today we will see if Silent Night’s following is deserved or if it is only memorable because of the uproar around it.

Synopsis

When Billy Chapman’s (Jonathan Best & Danny Wagner) parents are murdered by a man dressed as Santa Claus he is placed in St Mary’s Orphanage. There he receives cruel treatment from the Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin). Who punishes him for his “unruly” behaviour and witnessing a “sinful” act. By 18 Billy (Robert Brian Wilson) is seemingly a functioning person. But when his boss (Britt Leach) forces him to be the store’s Santa, Billy begins breaking down. Upon seeing an act of sexual violence, Billy snaps. Now believing he is Santa he starts “punishing” anyone who is “naughty”.

What Did I Like?

Despite some silly elements Silent Night, Deadly Night’s story is well handled. The writing makes Billy’s downfall feel relatable and plausible. Showing him to be a genuinely decent person who is tortured and let down because of negative societal attitudes towards sex and trauma. And while the film’s final part delves more into slasher silliness than the character drama of the first two-thirds, the film does enough to justify getting us to that point. Meaning that it gets to be a serious character study and a full-blown slasher at the same time.

The cast is also surprisingly good. Jonathan Best naturally sells the innocence and frightened nature of young Billy. Robert Brian Wilson is equally charming and terrifying as older Billy. And Danny Wagner excels as the troubled 8-year-old Billy. Additionally, there are some great supporting performances. Britt Leach is fun as foul-mouthed store owner Mr. Sims and Gilmer McCormick provides some much-needed warmth as Sister Margaret. Lilyan Chauvin however is the standout as the film’s true villain, the Mother Superior. Thanks to her understated delivery, enraging dialogue, and holier-than-thou attitude.

And a few other things help make SNDN a fun watch. Gorehounds will love the over-the-top kills. Like a person being impaled on deer head antlers and a sled ride decapitation. The effective off-kilter score and creepy original songs like “Santa’s Watching” also help to generate a great uneasy feeling. And the superb set design, props, and costumes create a nice Christmas atmosphere.

What Did I Not Like?

On the less fun side, this movie features several scenes of sexual violence which can be understandably hard to watch. What makes it more unpleasant though is that our protagonist kills a sexual abuse survivor as “punishment”. Although understandable because of the story’s themes about the destructive impact of repression, it still feels unnecessarily cruel and exploitative.

The film also has a few moments that feel out of step with its overall mood. Much of the film deals with dour subjects. Such as abuse and the impact of trauma. So a sudden light-hearted 80s montage or a scene of a man coming out of a catatonic state to deliver an ominous warning breaks the immersion and comes off as nonsensical.

Finally, because much of the runtime focuses exclusively on Billy’s journey the last act has to work overtime setting up a number of victims and a police presence to defeat Billy. Which feels forced and brings the pace down considerably.

Verdict

Silent Night, Deadly Night is certainly not for everyone. It features some quite nasty content around sexual violence. It’s also sometimes tonally uneven. And the final movement’s pacing suffers from needing to quickly introduce too many characters.

That said it has earned its reputation as a Christmas horror staple because of its gripping and generally well-thought-out story. In addition, it has strong performances, some fun kills, a great soundtrack and good design work. So give this festive frightener a watch. Just block the chimney first, so this Santa doesn’t pay you a visit.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

Silent Night, Deadly Night (Official Trailer)

Also Read: A Horror Fans Film Guide To 2021

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Posted by
Josh Greally

Writer and filmmaker from Chesterfield. I have a masters in directing film and television and have written film reviews for several smaller sites in the past. Films are my life, but I also enjoy writing, reading, listening to music and debating.