Thursday, December 25, 2014

Census Bloodbath: All Is Calm, All Is Fright

Year: 1984
Director: Charles E. Sellier, Jr.
Cast: Robert Brian Wilson, Gilmer McCormick, Toni Nero
Run Time: 1 hour 19 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Merry Christmas, everybody! If you celebrate the holiday, I hope you have a great time ignoring your family to read this review. If you don't, hopefully a festive slasher feels enough like counter-programming that you'll stick around anyway. I oh so adore holiday horror, and the Christmas season is rife with gaudy gruesome flicks filled with puns like Santa's Slay, Black Christmas, Satan Claus, Santa Claws, The Gingerdead Man, and so many others that you would require a small nation's entire output of boxes and wrapping paper to slip them under the tree.

One of the most notorious of these titles is Silent Night, Deadly Night, the poster for which caused a national uproar as anxious mothers picketed and petitioned against its depiction of Santa Claus as an axe murderer. The upset was so thorough that Siskel and Ebert (who never shied away from declaiming splatter movies like a pair of tetchy schoolmarms) publicly shamed the crew by name on their show. After only two weeks, the film was pulled from theaters and thus a legend was born.

Obviously, those of us in the horror community will vehemently seek out any film decried in the public media, pushing implacably forward like the Terminator until we finally have a chance to view it. The thing about Silent Night, Deadly Night that sets it apart from many other shamed fright flicks is that it's actually pretty decent. It's by no means the best slasher ever made. It's not even the best slasher released on that day. But it's a gruesome holiday treat that, while it can be a tad mean-spirited from time to time, embraces the humor and fun present in the scenario and mixes it with some surprisingly affecting shocks.

Also the angry moms let the psycho santa flicks To All a Goodnight and Christmas Evil slip right by them four years previously, so let us never say that angry reactionaries are accurate and rational human beings.

The tale of Silent Night, Deadly Night begins with an extended, bifurcate prologue depicting the development of a young boy named Billy (played by Jonathon Best at Age 5, Danny Wagner at Age 8, and Robert Brian Wilson for the remainder of the film) and his fear of Christmas. After an ominous warning from his comatose grandfather (Will Hare) on Christmas Eve, Billy watches as his parents are brutally murdered by a robber dressed as Santa Claus. He and his little brother Ricky (Alex Burton) are then sent to an orphanage run by nuns, where Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin) teaches Billy all about the consequences of premarital sex and the value of punishment.

Billy thus grows up believing Santa Claus to be some sort of avenging angel, punishing the naughty with swift and brutal death. When he turns 18, the kindly Sister Margaret (Gilmer McCormick) helps him get a job as a stock boy at a toy store run by Mr. Sims (Britt Leach) and Mrs. Randall (Nancy Borgenicht of Halloween 4). He nurses a crush on pretty cashier Pamela (Toni Nero) and reluctantly works alongside the foulmouthed, penis-peddling Andy (Randy Stumpf). When the guy they hired to be Santa during the Christmas season calls in sick, Billy is chosen to don the outfit on Christmas Eve and after a couple drinks and a little provocation in the form of Andy nearly raping Pamela in the back room, Billy finds his personality completely subsumed by Santa's and goes on a merry killing spree.

As he wanders around the town murdering the naughty, Sister Margaret and Officer Barnes (Max Robinson of Halloween 5) attempt to track him down and protect Mother Superior and the kids at the orphanage. That's quite a lot to chew on for a 79-minute film, so for that reason the whole thing adopts a brisk pace that never lets up, save for the very end.

How is it possible to be bored with so many bosoms and axes afoot?

There's only one resolutely Christmasy death (Andy is hung with a string of lights), but in every set the halls are decked with holiday cheer, providing an ironic twinkling backdrop for the fairly decent slasher mayhem. At least in the unrated cut, there's plenty of drippy blood and unnecessary topless scenes to keep the slasher engine running well into the night until not a creature is stirring.

The cheesy music (although all the songs are Christmas-themed, the 80's can't resist poking its head in and the arrangements sound anywhere between the Cheers theme song and what can only be described as reggae electrosynth caroling) and the flop-sweaty exploitation (there's more boobs in this film than wreaths, and we're delivered this cheerily inane line as a couple makes out on a pool table: "2 ball in corner pocket.") are enough to keep spirits high, but it must be said that some scenes are a little tough to stomach.

Although thankfully no rape occurs during the course of the film, there are several protracted scenes that, if allowed to continue, would have gone all the way. Plotwise, this is ostensibly to trigger Billy's buried memories, but moviewise, it leaves a layer of grime caked over the whole thing that isn't entirely eradicable. But there are enough gritty or tense moments that play in that register and succeed (the robber Santa, for one, and the grandfather's stern admonition) that it evens out the rougher ones and allows Silent Night, Deadly Night to tend to be more frightening than the average slasher flick.

And who doesn't love creepy nuns?

The mostly smooth pacing gets a little wonky when the third act culminates in a race-to-save-the-day police thriller atmosphere, but it's still got plenty of camp involved that keeps interest up. One of Billy's favorite activities is to leap out of nowhere and scream "PUNISH!" while brandishing an axe, and if that's not the funnest thing to watch even 45 minutes later, maybe this film isn't for you.

Silent Night, Deadly Night is unique because of its in-depth look into the mind of a slasher villain, justifying his fervent opposition to promiscuity (because, let's face it, Jason and Michael might as well be the Virginity Police) and even grounding the campy Santa costume in some semblance of psychological reality. This is the most thoroughly thought-out holiday horror vehicle of the decade, and the fact that it is capable of giving the jitters is just one huge stocking stuffer.

There's no traditional Final Girl, mask, or filmic structure, but Silent Night, Deadly Night is a slasher for the ages. Its nastiness and uneven quality prevents me from unconditionally loving the thing, but when you're penning your letter to Old Saint Nick, it might do you well to include this DVD on your list if you're so inclined.

Killer: Billy Chapman (Robert Brian Wilson)
Final Girl: Sister Margaret (Gilmer McCormick)
Best Kill: Classic Scream Queen Linnea Quigley is impaled on one of those wall-mounted deer heads. Topless, because that's how the 80's worked.
Sign of the Times: Young Billy is punished with a truly unfortunate mullet.
Scariest Moment: Billy's catatonic grandfather bursts to life when they're alone together and warns him about the dangers of Santa Claus before laughing hysterically and slipping back into his stupor.
Weirdest Moment: When he meets a little girl who has done nothing naughty, Billy rewards her with a bloody box cutter.
Champion Dialogue: "Are you having a religious experience or did you pee your pants?"
Body Count: 13; not counting a snowman that gets decapitated.
  1. Convenience Store Clerk is shot to death.
  2. Jim Chapman is shot to death. 
  3. Ellie Chapman has her throat slit.
  4. Andy is hung with Christmas lights.
  5. Pamela is gutted with a box cutter.
  6. Sims is hit in the head with the back of a claw hammer.
  7. Mrs. Randall is shot in the back with a bow and arrow.
  8. Denise is impaled on deer antlers.
  9. Tommy is thrown through a window and impaled on the glass.
  10. Mac is beheaded with an axe while sledding.
  11. Father O'Brien is shot to death.
  12. Officer Barnes is axed in the chest.
  13. Billy is shot to death. 
TL;DR: Silent Night, Deadly Night is uneven and a little nasty, but it's a fun slasher with a heaping helping of Christmas cheer.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1403
Reviews In This Series
Silent Night, Deadly Night (Sellier Jr., 1984)
Silent Night (Miller, 2012)

1 comment:

  1. I will slice and dice and serve you up hot!