The Five Frights of Christmas: A Silent Night, Deadly Night Franchise Retrospective

By Michael Varrati

It’s certainly no secret that we here at Peaches Christ Headquarters like our Christmastime with a healthy side serving of evil. Whether it be Peaches herself taking to the internet to pontificate on the truly great Christmas monologue delivered by Phoebe Cates in Gremlins or the whole Midnight Mass family coming together to put on a show in honor of Lewis Jackson’s Christmas Evil (recapped by yours truly HERE), we have no shame in admitting that we like our holidays laced with a little blood and guts.

Because of this, in the days following the Christmas Evil show, I took some time to consider what other cinematic holiday horrors deserved some much needed attention. Although Lewis Jackson’s aforementioned film was initially released to little fanfare at the start of the 80s, the mark it would leave on cult cinema was ultimately a very significant one. Never before had audiences seen a film that treated the iconic figure of Santa Claus in such a menacing fashion. The once kind and benevolent figure of Christmas had been recast by Jackson into a far more critical and terrifying light…and in doing so, opened the flood gates to a plethora of Christmas horrors to come.

From the prototype of Jackson’s killer Santa tale sprung many holiday horrors following suit. However, none are likely more notorious or critically reviled than Christmas Evil’s ultimate bastard child: Silent Night, Deadly Night.

Released a mere four years after Christmas Evil and taking a decidedly more sleazy slasher approach, Silent Night, Deadly Night whipped up the media attention that its predecessor never quite could muster.

The film’s trailer alone caused outraged PTA groups to protest outside of theaters showing the film, Siskel and Ebert ran a special episode of their show admonishing the cast and crew for their involvement, and Hollywood icon Mickey Rooney wrote an open letter of protest about the movie, stating that the people who made it were “scum” who “sullied the sacredness of Christmas” (Hint: This will be important later).

In short, Silent Night, Deadly Night became notorious for its blood-soaked portrayal of the holiday season, and as such, became an instant cult classic that gore-hounds clamored to see. As is the case with any film the establishment cries for to be censored, Silent Night, Deadly Night was ensured its place in trash cinema history. More so, the movie’s notoriety caused it to spawn no less than four sequels…each attempting, in their way, to make Christmas just a little bit more terrifying.

Because of my deep fascination with holiday horror and my ever-present devotion to keeping cult cinema alive in the hearts of all children of the popcorn, I have decided to revisit each of the films in this oft-troubled franchise. In doing so, I hope to refresh or introduce to you all something that is truly worth celebrating in the days leading up to Christmas.

Take special note that while I do attempt to remain spoiler free, when discussing sequels, it’s not always entirely possible. So, rather than worry about what is revealed or not, just take this retrospective in the silly holiday spirit in which it was written.

So, without further adieu, let’s start at the top of the chimney and work our way on down.

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Silent Night, Deadly Night (dir. Charles E. Sellier Jr.)

The Christmas fright that started it all!  The original SNDN is the stuff of a horror fan’s wet dreams and earnestly deserves its spot in the pantheon of good cult cinema. When young Billy witnesses his parents murdered by a two-bit thug dressed as Santa Claus, his little Christmas dreams are forever altered into darkly disturbing nightmares. Adding to his trauma is the fact that Billy is forced to grow up in an orphanage run by a severe nun with an intense obsession with the separation of the naughty from the nice. With such extreme factors at play, it’s no doubt that Billy is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. Unfortunately for the festive at heart, Billy’s tipping point comes when he takes on his first adult job working at a toy store…and is forced to dress as Santa Claus for the customers. Reminded of the Christmas that ended his childhood, Billy flips his shit and goes on a murderous rampage as Santa, punishing all he deems naughty in the most depraved and visceral ways.

From Christmas light strangulation to death by reindeer antler, the film gleefully skips along, crushing every Christmas icon it can possibly get its mittens on, and creating a litany of cheer-worthy moments along the way. Billy is truly the most versatile of 80s slashers, deeming no weapon unworthy in his quest to punish the naughty. Billy (as played by Robert Brian Wilson) also has the distinction of being the single most attractive movie killer in history (like you didn’t notice). In an era where hockey masks, disfigured faces, and evil dolls reigned supreme…Billy stalked the chilled holiday night looking like an Aryan god, and as an associate of mine once pointed out, “looks like he’d be more comfortable in 70s porn than as a Santa killer.”

Now, before you raise an accusatory eyebrow over my discussion of Billy’s eye-candy status, take note that I do so because it’s all part of the film’s genius, and not merely a Tiger Beat-esque commentary. Like Christmas itself, Billy is presented as safe, approachable, and even a bit warm. Thus, when this boy-next-door snaps, it’s all the more alarming and fully fitting to the film’s motif. Kindness and caring is met with violence in Silent Night, Deadly Night and its perfect amount of sleaze and slaughter will make your blood run cold and your horror heart warm indeed.

In short, this film is an enduring classic and should be put in your holiday horror movie rotation IMMEDIATELY.  Also, for the true cult connoisseur, look for a cameo by 80s scream icon Linnea Quigley as one of Billy’s naughty victims…she’s a great stocking stuffer in this already wonderful filmic present.

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Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 (dir. Lee Harry)

Remember that episode of The Golden Girls where each of the ladies wakes in the dead of night and makes their way to the kitchen in their nightgown for a slice of cheesecake? Remember also how this episode turned into a clip-show, wherein the women just shared their favorite memories of times gone by, thus fooling the viewer into watching a bunch of scenes from other episodes instead of something new?

Such is Silent Night, Deadly Night 2.

Telling the tale of Billy’s institutionalized brother, Ricky, the film spends a good 45 minutes of its 80 minute runtime showing us clips from the first movie as Ricky recounts the sad, tragic tale of his more attractive brother. What the audience is left with is a movie that is essentially 40 minutes long and so absurdly overacted it can only be stared at in abject horror.

Of course, Ricky’s telling of Billy’s tale turns out to be just a Hannibal Lecter-type ploy to help him escape from the nuthouse and don the Santa suit, picking up where his sinister sibling left off. When one overlooks the horrendous waste of time the first half of the movie is, there certainly are some fantastic moments contained in SNDN 2. Eric Freeman, who plays Ricky, gives the character an intensely over-the-top zeal that could only be relished as a performance of the most deliciously terrible caliber. Freeman’s delivery of Ricky’s murder of an innocent man on garbage day is so outrageous; it’s become the stuff of internet meme legend.

In addition, the film is no slouch in its scream queen offerings, featuring an appearance from Vice Academy/Friday the 13th Part VII vixen Elizabeth Kaitan as Ricky’s unfortunate girlfriend.

Not as good as the original, this first of many sequels at least offers some hearty laughs, even if they are elicited for all the wrong reasons.

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Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! (dir. Monte Hellman)

I’ve found a strong fan reaction against the SNDN 3, many of whom seem to think the third installment is the absolute worst in the franchise. This leads me to question whether any of these people actually saw the second film.

Ricky’s back, this time played by genre legend Bill Moseley (you know him as Chop-Top from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 or Otis from The Devil’s Rejects), and is equipped with some sort of robot skull cap that is keeping his brain working (no, not kidding) in a coma induced-state. Thanks to a doctor with a penchant for arcane science and exploiting blind girls, our new heroine Laura (Samantha Scully) is psychically linked to Ricky, and though she can’t see in life…she can see into his mind. Of course, this gives the filmmakers license to flashback, once again, to scenes from the first film…ensuring that the imagery is forever beaten into our poor, feeble minds.

Generally freaked by being forced to look into the brain of a killer, Laura splits with her (strangely-reminiscent of Michael Bolton) brother and his girlfriend to go visit their granny on Christmas Eve. Of course, it being Christmas, this forces the medically brain dead Ricky to be revived and carve a bloody path of destruction to his psychic-mate.

Not the best of the franchise, but not the worst. The third flick tries its best to wrap up the tale of Ricky with as much dignity as possible. Of course, he’s got a brain robot on his head…so dignity is something of a moot point.

Moseley’s great and there’s plenty of blind humor, but the real stand out in part 3 is an unexpected by cameo by TV legend Robert Culp (I, Spy), who plays a wisecracking police officer hot on Ricky’s trail. Culp’s endlessly sarcastic quips save SNDN 3 from being dollar bin fodder and bring it back into cult glory.

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Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation (dir. Brian Yunza)

There’s a point in every horror franchise, if it carries on long enough, that the train jumps the track and it becomes something else entirely than it was when it all began. Ladies and gents, SNDN 4 is that film. Bearing ZERO connection to the killer Santa storyline of the first three and only a peripheral connection to Christmas (it’s set during the holiday season, and one character bitches about Hannukah), the fourth installment is something of its own beast, but it also is audacious enough to give the franchise its balls back.

Directed by vet horror filmmaker Brian Yunza (Bride of Reanimator, The Dentist), the film tells the story of Kim, an up-and-coming news reporter in Los Angeles who stumbles upon a coven of witches doing witchy things. Subjected to night attacks my sinister bugs and some horrid body horror befitting a Clive Barker novel, Kim’s holiday experience is a less than pleasant one. The visceral nature of the film’s approach comes as close as the franchise ever does to matching the dark intensity of the original, and ends up delivering something that is, at best, extremely entertaining late night cable fare.

If the return to sleaze doesn’t sell you however, perhaps you can be wooed by the fact that the film features Clint Howard as a creepy bum and has an enduring subplot about a woman who spontaneously combusts. If that doesn’t draw you in, then clearly you’re on the wrong website.

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Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (dir. Martin Kitrosser)

Remember way back at the beginning of the article when I said that Mickey Rooney’s indignation over the first Silent Night, Deadly Night film was going to be important later? The fifth installment is exactly when that little factual tidbit comes into play, because this final film in the franchise stars none other than Mr. Rooney himself.

In one of the greatest moments of cinematic eating of crow (I assume because those royalty checks from National Velvet stopped coming), Rooney plays an elderly toy maker who, along with his creepy son, crafts toys that are meant to kill the children who receive them.

Only vaguely connected to part 4 (some characters from the previous film show up in a rather auxiliary fashion), the concept of a deadly present under the tree does its damnedest to return the franchise to the Christmas terror of its origins. Exploiting the innocence of children’s playthings and a child’s anticipation of Christmas morning, the movie offers some truly wonderful moments for those seeking unnerving scares. Also, for the first time since the second film, a character dons a Santa costume to dole out some merry bloodshed, making The Toy Maker a jolly return to form.

Even mired in hypocrisy, Rooney plays a wonderful villain, and his character, Joe Petto (again, not kidding), walks that fine line of kindly Christmas figure and dark maniac to a perfect T, allowing the Silent Night, Deadly Night films to end on a cozy note that pays homage to where they began.

If anything, the film also features an awkward tandem sex scene that ends with Mickey Rooney creepily leering at naked teenagers while one of his evil toys seemingly attempts to work its way into ass-raping some guy. Clearly, that never happened during Miracle on 34th Street.

…but really, that’s the whole point of Silent Night, Deadly Night and its whole cadre of sequels: To give the audience a totally disturbed, unprecedented holiday experience. From classic to clusterfuck, this franchise really does have it all for the discerning horror fiend. Though I’ve watched these movies so you don’t have to, I certainly think there are worse things you could be doing with your cold, winter nights than cuddling up close with a killer Santa or two.

So, my dear children of the popcorn, consider this retrospective a primer on a veritable holiday buffet of terror-filled treats.  Whether you’ve been naughty or nice, I hope you have yourself a merry little Christmas and that your silent night is assuredly a deadly one.

Until next time.

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