Review : Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

Silent Night, Deadly Night is a slasher directed by Charles E. Sallier Jr and released in 1984. Depicting Santa Claus as a mass murderer, the film was very controversial upon release. The promotional campaign focused heavily on the killer being dressed as Santa. The result was negative reviews, angry crowds and ultimately censorship (the film was pulled off theaters a week after its release). Siskel & Ebert went as far as listing the names of the film crew and telling them “shame on you”. Well, shame on narrow-minded people because Silent Night, Deadly Night is a fantastic slasher !

On Christmas Eve, young Billy witnesses the murder of both his parents at the hands of a criminal dressed as Santa. Billy is sent to a Catholic orphanage with his little brother, Ricky, where he suffers years of abuse from the Mother Superior who believes the only way of helping Billy cope with his trauma is strict discipline. Ten years later, Billy finally seems to be leading a decent life, having found a job in a local toy store. However, when the Christmas season starts, Billy’s demons resurface and the young man goes on a killing spree, dressed as Santa and determined to punish the naughty !

Don’t be fooled by the killer Santa gimmick because Silent Night, Deadly Night is an excellent slasher ! The film gives a quick and effective portrait of the Chapman family. In a few minutes, it is quite apparent that this is a happy family, with loving parents and nice children. When the murders occur, you are already emotionally involved with our main character. The first act of the film focuses on Billy’s abuse during the time he spends at the orphanage. This is highly effective at not only explaining Billy’s mindset and behaviour but also at making the viewer care for this character whose life has been miserable since that traumatizing Christmas night. Billy is not a typical slasher killer in the sense that he isn’t a crazed psychopath but rather a victim whose psychosis has been nurished by an abusive environment. Instead of helping the young boy cope with the brutal death of his parents, all the adults around him try and repress his memory of that dreadful night. In distress, Billy acts out but rather than trying to understand his behaviour and provide help, all his actions are met with punishments. Spending so much time developping the character’s story is what makes the film different from a lot of slashers : it is a well-written tale and is not boring for one second.

When Billy has to dress up as Santa as part of his job, his mind cannot take it anymore and when he witnesses a co-worker being sexually assaulted, his psychosis comes back in full force. The rest of the film follows Billy as he goes on a killing spree to punish people he considers naughty. Silent Night, Deadly Night takes its time in developping a great story but doesn’t let that aspect diminish the slasher side of the film, which is, after all, the main event. Watching Santa Billy kill his victims in various ways is extremely fun from start to end. The kills are very creative and some of the best include a woman being impaled on antlers and a teen decapitated while sliding on a sleigh.

The acting is also very good, especially from Robert Brian Wilson, who plays Billy as an adult. He conveys emotion without the need for words and is great at showing the character’s internal struggle. In most slashers, the viewers is rooting for the killer mainly due to unlikable victims designed to be killed one by one. Here, the viewer ends up caring about Billy because of his sad story and all the unjustified abuse he had to endure during his childhood.

Silent Night, Deadly Night has a well-written story which is well developped while still being a great and entertaining slasher. The main appeal of the film is definitely its killer in a Santa outfit and what you will get in the end is not only an awesome slasher but also an overall great film.

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