The Series Project: Silent Night, Deadly Night (Part 1)
Happy Christmas, everyone! This is a warm and loving time of year when families unite, when gifts are exchanged, and when long desperate hours are spent trying to avoid speaking directly to one another. I think the reason so many big-name prestige pictures are released on Christmas Day is to provide families who have nothing to do en masse to do something together without having to speak. As Sarah Vowell once said, “We, as a family, don't have to speak. Tommy Lee Jones does the speaking for us.”
Christmas movies are a long and glorious tradition. In addition to the familial cinematic subterfuge, most individuals have a traditional Christmas movie they like to put on this time of year. TV stations will often run It's a Wonderful Life, or any number of animated films to feature Snoopy, The Grinch, Rudolph, or (to cite a recent atrocity) Shrek. I don't know about you, but I like to think of Die Hard as one of the best of Christmas movies. The 1988 classic is not only one of the finest action films ever made, but actually does manage to tap (just enough) into the loving Christmas zeitgeist.
And, when thought about, there are plenty of great Christmas genre films in the world. Die Hard has good company in Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (all three of which were, perhaps not incidentally, written by Shane Black). Each of these films celebrates Christmas, but also intentionally subvert the saccharine sentimentality of the year by giving us just enough warmth to please us, but also plenty of heretical action, blood and violence to pander to our inner Scrooge.
There is also a very long tradition of Christmas horror films in the world, which take that Scrooge-pandering to a new level by casting the merry time of year as a mere backdrop for horror violence, murder, and even some supernatural weirdness. Sometimes, in the midst of Christmas shopping, decorations and family planning, you get so fed up, you wish that Santa would become your avenging angel and murder the people around you. Or perhaps you're not into Christmas at all (yes, Virginia, there are non-Christians in the world), and you'd like to see – in your more violent moments – the Christmas imagery be turned into an instrument of violence. Luckily for our darker impulses, film producers have made some fine (and not-so-fine) film in this regard. There is Bob Clark's excellent 1974 film Black Christmas, which is often considered the first proper slasher movie. There are two films called Christmas Evil (one of which is alternately titled You'd Better Watch Out!). There's Don't Open Till Christmas (1984). There's Santa's Slay (2005). There's the insane straight-to-video killer snowman film Jack Frost (1997). There's even a mind-melting 1989 film called Elves, about evil murderous Nazi imps (the result of a failed WWII experiment) who wake up to go an a Gremlins-like rampage. They must be stopped by a department store Santa played by Grizzly Adams. Gremlins may be a holiday standby, but Elves will chew your face off.
The most famous of all Christmas-themed horror films, though, is probably the cleverly titled Silent Night, Deadly Night from 1984, which, if you pay attention the way I do, you'll find had four sequels. The film was essentially made as an excuse to get a guy into a Santa suit and then commit several holiday-themed murders. This is a thin premise for a single 90-minute film, so I was naturally curious to see how they'd stretch that premise into five. Well, I have now taken the journey, and I have seen all five of the films (part five was really hard to find), and I am back with another installment of The Series Project, wherein I will share my discoveries, and attempt to make these disparate horror flicks cohere in some sort of meaningful way. Join me, won't you, into the blackened bliss of the five Silent Night, Deadly Night movies.
You'll find that the films have little in the way of palpable continuity, although there are some earnest efforts to interconnect everything. The series is essentially two two-film series with one in the middle to link them. By the time five-foot-long roaches appear on screen (as they do in Part 4), you'll be wondering where the gory simplicity of a killer Santa went. But let's start at the very beginning. That's a very good place to start.
SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT (1984)
Directed by: Charles E. Sellier, Jr.
I learned that the director, Charles E. Sellier, Jr., had previously directed a lesser ski-school sex comedy called Snowballs. He is also an insanely prolific producer of TV westerns, some “B” horror films (he was behind a 1981 film called The Boogens), a series of Unsolved Mysteries-like documentaries about bigfoots and monsters, as well as a huge series of mushy faith-based documentaries (he was on board for a 2004 video film called George W. Bush: Faith in the White House). But then he also did stuff like Knight Rider 2000. He worked closely with Grizzly Adams. He had a famous reputation for four-walling theaters to show his films. Talk about a long and varied career. Sellier died in January of 2011.
Silent Night, Deadly Night came at an awkward period in slasher history. Horror movies were, of course, being made in earnest, and Slasher films were pretty much in full swing. Teenage gorehounds were appearing all over the map, and Fangoria magazine had been running for five years. But, in 1984, I think the movie world was not yet content to rely on undying supernatural teenager killers, and chose to cleave closer to the 1970s mindset of psychological horror, wherein the killers would be given backgrounds and concrete, empirical reasons for their killings. So rather than just have a guy snap, put on a Santa suit, and spend most of the film killing people, we spend a good 45 minutes of screen time setting up our antagonist as a fragile and mentally disturbed young man who would naturally flip out.
The film opens 13 years ago, where our hero Billy, about 5 years old (Jonathon Best) is taken to see his comatose grandfather (Will Hare) on Christmas Eve. When Billy is left alone with gramps, he suddenly springs to life and madly explains that Santa is coming tonight, and that Santa not only rewards “nice” children,” but physically punishes the “naughty” ones. Not with coal, but with actual physical violence. It's never explained why gramps is comatose when everyone else is present, or why he felt the need to warn his young grandson about Santa Claus, but there you are. Billy is now in the lookout for evil Santa.
Luckily (?) for him, a thief has just committed a murder/robbery at a local gas station, and is fleeing in a Santa suit to avoid police detection. He has car trouble, and Billy's parents stop to help. I'm guessing midnight had just passed, so it was technically Christmas Day. The Santa thug shoots Billy's dad in the head, hauls his mom from the car, rips open her blouse (I do like gratuitous nudity as much as the next guy, but I prefer it to not be during rape scenes), and slashes her throat. Billy witnesses all of this, and is accordingly traumatized. His infant brother Ricky is left in the backseat to cry. The infant, by the way, is one of the ugliest infants in cinema history. He looks like he's half eggplant.
Fast-forward three years, and Billy (now played by stage-four moppet Danny Wagner) is living a Catholic orphanage overseen by the stern Mother Superior (Lilyan Chaivain), and the more tender Sister Margaret (Gilmer McCormick). Christmas is approaching, and Billy is appropriately freaked out. Santa is coming, and Billy's still convinced that he or people around him will be killed. Mother Superior badgers him and beats him to convince him otherwise. Sister Margaret would prefer to psychologically understand the boy. There's also an incident where Billy comes across two teenage orphans (or maybe they were orphanage employees) having sex in a closet. The Mother Superior catches them and beats them on the spot with the guy's belt. That means every time Billy has seen bare breasts, he has immediately witnessed violence. Santa and boobs. Writing this down?
Fast-forward another ten years, and Billy is finally out in the world. He is now played by Robert Brian Wilson, who, in his short denim shorts, tank top, barrel chest, and beautifully coiffed blonde hair, looks less like a mentally disturbed orphan, and more like a gay beefcake model. Sister Margaret gets him a job in a toy store for Christmas, where he lifts boxes and is pretty much genial, if quiet. You would think that, by age 18, he would learn to talk to people about his trauma, and explain to them that Santa Claus makes him a little uneasy, but when confronted with all the Christmas imagery, he merely shrinks away. And how irresponsible of Sister Margaret to hook him up with a job in a toy store at Christmas. You'd think she'd try to find him a job in a Judaica outlet on Fairfax Ave just to keep him away from Santas. By the way, all five of the Silent Night, Deadly Night films take place in or around Los Angeles, so locals can play the famous game of “Spot the L.A. Street.”
This toy store, by the way, is AWESOME! It's shabby and poorly laid out, but the toys on display in the background can give serious flashback to people who were, like me, children in the early 1980s. In addition to the scads of Return of the Jedi merchandise, there is also a prominently displayed Mouse Trap board game, a few Poochie items (which I had forgotten about), and, get this… the Krull board game. Yes, a board game based on the weird-ass and mildly terrible sci-fi-fantasy mashup film from 1983. I didn't even know there was a Krull board game. I need to track one of those suckers down.
Anyway, it's just a matter of time before Billy's boss (Britt Leach) asks him to play Santa Claus in the store, and he is forced to wear a Santa suit on Christmas Eve. He is made glassy-eyed and weird by the suit. He is given support by his would-be love interest (Toni Nero), but, being the slasher fans that we are, we know it's a matter of time before he starts killing people. There is nothing tragic or serious about Billy's breakdown, by the way. The film may be setting him up as a tragic hero with a damaged mind, but it’s clearly more interested in the mayhem to come. Indeed, once people's heads starts coming off, you'll see more clearly why the film was made.
Billy, still in the suit, has a few drinks with his boss (he's never had alcohol before), and manages to catch a co-worker ripping the blouse off of his ladyfriend. It's then that all the trauma comes to a head, Billy snaps, and realizes that, as Santa, it's his job to punish the naughty. He strangles the attacker with a line of twinkle lights. Then he strangles his ladylove. Then he kills his boss, and fires an arrow through another co-worker. Then he takes to the streets with a fireaxe. I have to say, I've never actually seen a fireaxe under glass in real life, but there are always plenty in movies. I've seen plenty of extinguishers in buildings, as well as sprinkler systems, but never an axe. Go figure.
Billy then charges about the local suburb, breaking into houses and killing naughty people, i.e. everyone. He catches a teenager girl in Daisy Dukes (played by B-movie luminary Linnea Quigley) making out with her boyfriend on a pool table. He kills her by impaling her on a mounted deer head, and uses a utility knife on her Michael Cera-loooking boyfriend. He confronts the girl Quigley was babysitting (and who needs a babysitter in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve?), and she, being a cute li'l moppet herself, declares that she has been nice. Billy, placated, gives her a gift. He gives her the utility knife. The scene is actually tense and kinda funny.
Sister Margaret has, meanwhile, found all the dead co-workers, and the police get on the case. Margaret wants to talk to him, but leaves the important work to the cops. Billy finds a pair of bullies (they steal a sled) and decapitates one of them. Eventually, we learn that he wants to go back to his orphanage to kill everyone there. Oh no! By this time Mother Superior is in a wheelchair, but is just as cranky.
The cops kill a guy in a Santa suit on his way to the orphanage, but we learn later that he was actually a deaf old priest. Yup, this movie series actually killed a priest. In front of a bunch of kids, no less. But don't worry. He'll be repurposed in the sequel. Billy eventually shows up at the orphanage as predicted, and is gunned down in front of all the kids. That's two Santas that these orphans have seen get murdered in front of them on Christmas Day. I guess with all the orphans, we could have stocked dozens of Silent Night, Deadly Night sequels. Billy's last words are “Don't worry kids. Santa is gone.” The camera then pans over to his bloody fireaxe, then up the legs of a witnessing orphan. He looks meanly at the Mother Superior, and growls the word “Naughty!” The torch has been passed.
Silent Night, Deadly Night is an efficient enough little film, I suppose. It has all the creative kills and bare breasts that slasher films crave, and enough silly killer Santa imagery to at least seem somewhat original. It's not nearly as good as Black Christmas, but few slashers are. Watching it, I feel it has earned its current reputation in the horror fan community: Notable for its Christmas-themed content, but not really a great film. It's a footnote at best. It does, to its credit, have the best production values and actual forethought of the killer Santa movies I've encountered, and that's certainly something to be proud of.
Even though Billy is dead, you'll recall he had an infant brother. Well, it's this character that we'll see in the rest of these films. Let's meet Ricky in…
NEXT: What…?! Meet Ricky in WHAT?!
SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT, PART 2 (1987)
Directed by: Lee Harry
This second film commits the cardinal sin of all television and film production: The Clip Show. Yes, a good 30-35 minutes of this film's scant 88 is devoted to recapping the action from the first film. The framing device is that of Ricky, Billy's little brother, recounting his memories of the events to a psychiatrist (James L. Newman) in a mental hospital. Ricky is not a weepy and fearful man, but a wicked, wide-eyed killer. He is played by Eric Freeman, who has the same barrel chest and fetishistic gay physique of his older brother. Watching this handsome, well-toned kid cackled and vamp like Joan Crawford after a fifth of vodka is enough to warm the heart of any earnest camp-lover. Indeed, much of the pleasures of Silent Night, Deadly Night, Part 2 come from Freeman's delicious overacting.
Ricky tells the story of the first film in its entirety. We see all the kills from the first film, and most of the nudity. Maybe the filmmakers hadn't cemented their own special effects and bare breast budgets yet, so they thought they'd hedge their bets by showing everything from the first. Since the first film is told mostly in flashback, we also get a few scenes where we see some original footage of the young Ricky in flashback as well. Ricky, like his brother, was traumatized by witnessing all the Santa-related violence, and also has a few “triggers” of his own. For one, he, like a cartoon bull, goes nutty when he sees the color red. He's less afraid of sex and Santa, but has a thing against nuns. Can't imagine why.
In flashbacks, we also see how Ricky came to be in the institution. He, evidently, is also stuck on the “nice” and “naughty” thing, and has killed a few people. Ricky witnessed a man borderline-raping his girlfriend out in a field, and kills him by running him over with his own jeep. A few times, too. Like he actually backs up and runs over him again. The would-be rape victim actually thanks him. Ricky is also seen shaking down a low-level gangster in an alleyway, and kills him with an umbrella. He stabs the umbrella all the way through the gangster's abdomen, and then opens it, spraying blood everywhere. Ricky cackles.
Most significantly, we also see an entire subplot involving Ricky's pretty blonde girlfriend Jennifer (played by Elizabeth Cayton from myriad B-movies including Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity, Assault of the Killer Bimbos, Friday the 13th VII, Roller Blade Warriors: Taken By Force, and four of the six Vice Academy movies). Ricky and Jennifer have a tender and loving relationship, and she introduces him to healthy sex. Neither of them are very good actors, but they're both good-looking enough to keep the film afloat. However, when Jennifer is approached by a douchey ex-boyfriend, Ricky kills him in broad daylight by hooking up his tongue to a car battery. You read that correctly.
Then comes the most notable scene in the film, and the one you may have seen on YouTube. Ricky, pilfering a gun from a cop, shoots Jennifer, the cop, and proceeds to march down the street, killing anyone any everyone he sees in the gentle suburb. He laughs and cackles. “Garbage Day!” he yells. There’s a bit where he gets a car to flip over, and it explodes. If movies have taught me anything, it's that all cars spectacularly explode when they're turned upside down. This car, however, doesn't seem to explode from under the hood, but from inside the passenger's compartment. I like to think the driver was transporting nitroglycerine or something.
When we finally catch up to the present, we see that Ricky has killed his shrink with a length of magnetic tape (which must have been a difficult task), and has plans to find his old Mother Superior to kill her. Oh no! He breaks out of prison, kills a Santa (played by the film's cinematographer), steals his Santa suit (natch), and finds where the nun lives. Mother Superior's street number is actually 666. Sigh. Mother Superior is still in a wheelchair, and is still cranky, but is now played by Jean Miller. The climax of the film, where Ricky is chasing the Mother Superior around her house with an ax, shirking and laughing, is surely fun to watch, if not completely illogical; there's a scene where he chases her down a hallway, and she falls down a staircase. Wait. Why would a wheelchair bound nun buy a house with a second story? And how did she get up there? But never mind. She falls down the staircase. Ricky also manages to actually kill her. That's three-to-four Santas, a priest, and a nun this series has offed. Oh wait. Never mind the priest. In this film, Ricky explains that it was not a priest, but a janitor that got killed in the first film. I'm not sure if they wanted to take the edge off of priest murder, or just forgot, but they changed that detail. My guess is they forgot.
Ricky is shot in the head by a cop at the last minute, and his reign is over. Merry Christmas.
Like I said, the parts of this movie that are original are kind of fun, thanks to Eric Freeman's effeminate camping. You might do well to fast-forward though the first half hour of the film, though, as it's all clips, and doesn't necessarily play too much into Ricky's story. Ricky will be back in this story, but, in order to keep things straight in my mind, I'm going to be assigning him some really strange backstory myself. Hang on tight for the weird stuff, my lovelies, and the third part gets supernatural.
SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT III: BETTER WATCH OUT! (1989)
Directed by: Monte Hellman
I hate when long-running movie series switch back and forth between Roman numerals and Arabic numerals, don't you? Am I the only one bothered by this?
Wait… Monte Hellman? Like the guy who did The Shooting, Cockfighter, and Two-Lane Blacktop? Yes, indeed. That Monte Hellman. This film was, evidently, done in the middle of a period of Hellman's non-productivity. He hadn't made many films since 1979, and wouldn't direct a feature film for another 17 years after this. I'm not sure if I can spot the Hellman mark.
This film follows the merry adventures of a pretty young blind woman named Laura (Samantha Scully) who, according to a researcher (Richard Beymer), might actually have some latent psychic powers. She's been taking part in a series of experiments, where she is hooked up to the mind of a comatose man, and they seem to share dreams. The dream sequences and hospital scenes take up a lot of screen time. In the dream sequences, she often sees Santa Claus with knives, and actually watches a scene from SN,DN, Part 2 on a TV. Yes, in her dreams, she can see. The man she is hooked up to, by the way, is none other than Ricky from the last film! Ricky is now played by Bill Moseley (another hugely prolific genre actor), and it's been explained that his brain was surgically reconstructed after the last film, but not well enough to keep him out of a coma. His brain, by the way, is visible through a glass dome he wears on his head. He'll have this exposed brain dome throughout the film, and it will always have red fluid sloshing around inside it.
Since he looks different, and doesn't behave at all the same as the last film, I'd like to postulate that Ricky's brain was implanted in another body. This would also explain why the brain is exposed: Maybe the donor body had the right blood type, but the wrong skull size.
Laura's psychic powers somehow link her to Ricky, and, when she leaves on vacation, somehow manage to rouse Ricky from his coma. Ricky goes in pursuit of Laura. Laura, meanwhile, has united with her douchey brother Chris (Eric DaRe, sporting the most horrible hairdo I have ever seen), and his spicy Latina girlfriend Jerri (Laura Harring, later Laura Elena Harring from Mulholland Drive) to visit their grandmother our in Piru, CA. A real city, by the way. It's in Ventura County. Laura and Chris's parents, by the way, died when they were young.
Laura begins having flashes of the previous films, and a sense that Ricky is following them. Her psychic link is strong. Ricky manages to beat them to their cabin and kills gramma. Shoot. A guy with a big scar on his face and a visible brain would, you would think, be easy to spot from a distance, but never mind. Kill he must. He doesn't wear a Santa suit at all in this film, and by Part III we begin to sense the Christmas-themed kills are going to drift ever further away. Indeed, by Part 4, I don't think we see many Santas at all. Part III has drifted into “horror film set at Christmas time” rather than “Christmas-themed horror film.” I guess just putting a guy in a Santa suit and having him commit murder was no longer in vogue by 1989, and psychics were. So we have a psychic movie. Aside from the few brief clips at the film's beginning, this film could have stood on its own as a non-Christmas movie.
Anyway, Chris and Jerri take a bath together, and Laura Herring gets her boobs out. God bless the woman. Laura, blind, feels her way around the house, and finds things moved or missing. She knows that Ricky is out there. She senses him. Eventually, in true slasher fashion, our heroes split up, where they can be killed off one by one. Too bad.
Back in town, the psychic doctor has teamed up with the local police (represented by Robert Culp from I, Spy and hundreds of other notable things) to track down Ricky. Robert Culp is the most insufferable kind of d*ckhead, who berates the doctor, doesn't believe anyone, and who has a car phone. Anyone who had a car phone in 1989, by the way, was at the forefront of yuppie douchery. The doctor must eventually steal Robert Culp's car to get the job done himself. The doctor arrives at Laura's grandmother's house just in time to be stabbed. D'oh.
Eventually, Laura kills Ricky, although she is ambivalent about it, as she shared a psychic bond with him. I was hoping someone would shatter his glass skull, but nothing doing. The film, after a brief 90 minutes, came to an end, vaguely entertaining us, and making little mark on the series at large. It has a few kills, a few boobs (thank you Laura), and I guess some Christmas stuff. I'm sorry I can't be more explicit, as the film leaves us with nothing. You'd think Monte Hellman would include some sort of roadside shootout, or a tough brawl or something. Not a forgettable horror sequel.
For the next film, a new director will take up the reigns, and deliver a film that was not only the best in the series, but actually managed to scare me. But we'll have to leave it here for now, Christmas kidlets. There's a lot to say about the final two films, and we'll be sure to cover them next week in the second part of The Series Project: Silent Night, Deadly Night. Until then, be sure to tell Santa what you want. And be sure to gear up for a five-foot cockroach.