You said what ?! is a bi-weekly column exploring the ups and downs of film criticism through history. How did critics feel about a particular film back then, and do we see it differently now? In this post, Chris Coffel examines the original critical reception of the controversial Christmas slasher Silent Night, Deadly Night.
In November 1984, TriStar Pictures and director Charles E. Sellier Jr. caused a stir with the release of Silent night, deadly night. The film follows Billy (Robert Brian Wilson), an 18-year-old recently released from the orphanage where he grew up. As a young child, Billy witnessed the brutal murder of his parents by a man in a Santa suit. As a result, Billy suffers from trauma associated with Christmas and the funny fat man.
The film had an impressive opening week at the box office, but it caused a stir among critics and audiences alike. The taboo premise of a killer Santa Claus led to negative reviews and protests, which ultimately justified the film before fleeing. Despite grossing nearly $ 1.5 million, roughly double the movie’s budget, it was quickly removed from theaters. For critics, the murderous St. Nick was a cheap ploy to get attention at best and an offensive misstep at worst. For the audience, it was a direct attack on the holiness of Christmas. The time was much friendlier for this wonderful piece of festive camp. Not only has modern audiences tuned into the idea of a Santa Slasher, but the film has been lauded for its attempt to combat trauma, which was overlooked in 1984.
“You guys have nothing to be proud of” Gene Siskel exclaimed on an episode of At the Movies and spoke directly to those responsible for Silent Night, Deadly Night. During the short section, Siskel publicly shamed the writers, directors, and production studios by names for tarnishing Santa’s good name and flawless reputation. “Your winnings are really blood money.”
Siskel’s longtime co-moderator, Roger Ebertagreed and added that he would like to hear her [the filmmakers] Explain to your children and grandchildren that it is only a movie. “
Ken Tucker from The Daily Dispatch called Silent Night, Deadly Night “another garbage movie” that “drew more commercials than your usual garbage hitter movie”. Tucker wrote that setting up a murderous Santa Claus was a “really disturbing picture” to make a movie. Worse, the filmmakers couldn’t even do much with it, producing “an abomination that pious self-righteousness has made boring”.
“The film offers something that anger and offend almost everyone.” Keith Roysdon wrote in his review for the Muncie Evening Press. The concept is tasteless, according to Roysdon, and if that bad taste were visible it would be “as visible from space as the Great Wall of China”. For Roysdon, Silent Night, Deadly Night doesn’t even manage to come across as shocking exploitation because it’s “so boring and so poorly done, with terribly acting, fake-looking makeup and ineptly directed by Charles Sellier.”
For Herald & Review, Gary Minich called on the Legion of Decency to save us from the terrible silent night, the deadly night. Minich felt the film was just a iteration of earlier genre endeavors and called it a “low-budget quickie that borrows almost every scene from its predecessors.” Most of all, Minich was annoyed to check it out for fear that some poor souls would be encouraged to see it, regardless of its harsh words.
Similar to Minich, Charles Oestreich of The Argus wasn’t happy to advertise Silent Night, Deadly Night. Oestreich described the film as “junk” and called it a type of film that is usually played in front of a group of people for a week or two and then quickly disappears. “His only claim to fame, his exploitation of a sacrosanct icon – Santa Claus – is reprehensible,” wrote Oestreich. This exploitation, combined with the movie’s controversial advertising campaign, gave the movie more notoriety than your standard, low-quality slasher. And Oestreich feared that this would open the world of horror to other things that we consider sacred, like motherhood, flags and apple pie.
Poughkeepsie Journal Mike Hughes was one of the few critics in 1984 who appreciated what the makers of Silent Night, Deadly Night, wanted to achieve. Hughes wrote that it was only a matter of time before Christmas became a horror staple, admitting that “the idea of a killer in a Santa suit is potential”. Once Billy puts on the red suit and starts chopping off those he thinks are naughty, “it works pretty well.” It’s the setup to get to this point that didn’t work for Hughes, who wrote him off as “agonizing” and sometimes “sick”.
I’ll be the first to admit that Silent Night, Deadly Night is not without its flaws. It’s a bit of a derivative, and if it weren’t for the Christmas aspect, it would probably be another forgotten slasher. But that’s also why it’s brilliant and works so well. It takes something we’ve seen before and packages it in a way that makes it stand out from the crowd. Silent Night, Deadly Night followed in the footsteps of Christmas Evil – a much better Killer Santa movie released four years earlier – adding in the shabbiest parts of the Friday 13th franchise and a marketing campaign that did not shrink from what it was. While punished for this when the film was released, it started a series of four sequels and one remake, and paved the way for countless Killer Santa films.
There is also something to be said about the filmmakers’ efforts to grapple with the psyche of Billy. He does a lot of terrible things throughout the movie, like beheading a poor boy who is trying to have fun sledding but he really wants to be good. The problem is, he never had the right support system. Billy had a terrible event at a young age and was then simply thrown into an orphanage. When he turned eighteen, he was released alone who was expected to be fine. As silly as the movie may be, it’s a pretty accurate comment on how America deals with mental health problems.
Henry Stewart commented on the very same subject when writing about a midnight showing of the film for Brooklyn Magazine. Stewart notes that if Billy isn’t allowed to deal with his psychological problems, it triggers a psychotic hiatus and sends him on a Christmas stroll. In Billy’s attempts to punish the immoral, “he embodies the conservatism of the Reagan era, which is at its height, and mocks the rigorous discipline of compassionate reactionaries who advocate law and order and moral police.” As Stewart puts it, “the country’s commentators were not ready for such cruel treatment of a sacred cow as Christmas,” which gave the film an unfair reputation.
In a recent Blu-ray review of Silent Night, Deadly Night for Little White Lies, Anton Bitel writes that the film is undoubtedly a bloody slasher, but has more in common with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho than Friday the 13th or Halloween. Bitel argues that Billy isn’t just a pointless killer. He is a worried young man in need of help. “He’s both an unfortunate victim and a ticking time bomb, and if his eventual explosion provides all the numbers and figures expected from the slasher subgenre,” writes Bitel, “it is his personal psychodrama.” This preoccupies us with a tragedy as human as it is a series of sensational thrills. “
Bitel also points out the irony surrounding the parents who protested the film and helped get it out of theaters. “If parents were concerned about the negative impact the film might have on their children’s perceptions of Christmas, the film itself is precisely that.”
Matt Donato placed the film in a piece for slash film in third place among its five best Christmas horror films. Donato writes that the film works and has achieved cult status “because the slasher elements play surprisingly well”. And they play well because Billy isn’t just a random killer. He is a “mentally caught orphan boy poisoned by the memory of his parents’ death,” and the only way to deal with the holidays is to kill those he thinks are naughty.
Horror at all, Adrian Torres declared Silent Night, Deadly Night, one of his three favorite Christmas horror films, with a strong argument for the top spot. “The film is just so sensitive and surprisingly realistic,” writes Torres, attributing the film’s immersion in Billy’s extreme childhood trauma. Of course, it’s still a horror film, so Torres also references the film’s iconic death scenes, including a “naked chick impaled on antlers”.
Deadent Night, Deadly Night, is not only becoming an annual favorite in horror circles with regular screenings in December, but also routinely on top Christmas horror lists. At FSR we placed the film with nineteen in our ranking of more than a hundred Christmas horror films. And if it were up to me, it would be much higher.
Slashfilm added Silent Night, Deadly Night to their Christmas horror ranking at twenty-four, calling it “a snowy slasher who does a lot right”. Kristin Hunt Put the film third on a list of “Must-See Holiday Horror Movies” for Mental Floss, citing the film’s ability to overcome critics and become a “bonafide franchise”. For Uproxx Matt Prigge The film was ranked the fourth best Christmas horror entry and dubbed “sloppier and slimmer than Bad Santa”.
It’s hard not to laugh at the story of the film. The indignation of those who wanted to destroy the Silent Night, the Deadly Night, probably added to its long-term value. People flock to controversy and it is no different. The film still has its naysayers, but there’s no denying that it’s a staple of vacation horror, and that doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon.