Wednesday, December 14, 2011

An Old-Fashioned Slay Ride

The late 70's and early 80's were filled with all sorts of holiday-themed slasher flicks. With the success of the original Halloween, a whole host of imitators sprung up in its wake. Friday the 13th led the pack, and when that was also a smash hit, pretty much every holiday was fair game for its own slasher. Everything from April Fool's Day to Valentine's Day had a low-budget hack-and-slash. As I stated in a previous entry, Christmas actually has more than any other. While it wasn't the first, the most notorious of these is Silent Night, Deadly Night.

When ads first started to run for this film, the collective reaction from Middle-America was one of complete shock, disgust and revulsion. The PTA (Parent-Teacher Association) picketed the theaters, and organized boycotts. Why? Well, it might have something to do with the ad campain featuring someone who appears to be Jolly Ol' Saint Nick on a murderous rampage. Critics Gene Siskell & Roger Ebert even went so far as to list, on their syndicated TV program At The Movies, the names of the producers,director & studio, while intoning "shame". Naturally, all this controversy made Silent Night, Deadly Night a huge hit (before it was pulled by its distributor, it was actually out-grossing the then-newly released A Nightmare On Elm St). So, was it worth all the outrage? Of course not.

Now, make no mistake, this flick is just WRONG on so many levels, although most horror fans will enjoy that about it. The tradtional, iconic imagery of Christmas, usually associated with innocence and childlike wonder, is completely subverted in every way imaginable. In many ways it's a typical slasher, following the formula almost to a "T" (it even has Linnea Quigley and her breasts, frequent stars of 80's horror in their own right). Where it deviates, however, is what makes this one stand out from the pack.

The film opens with a little boy named Billy, on a trip with his family to see his grandfather. Turns out Grandpa is in a mental asylum (always a great place to take children). Grandpa, being a rather sick bastard, scares the bejeezus out of little Billy by telling him Santa will severely punish anyone who has been naughty on Christmas Eve. Naturally, this gives the youngster a bit of trepidation about the idea of meeting up with ol' Kris Kringle. As fate would have it, the family is carjacked later that a guy in a Santa suit. Billy sees the rape of his mother, and brutal slaying of both parents, by someone he believes to be Santa. Yeah, it warps him just a tad.

Billy and his brother wind up in an orphanage run by a nun who is pretty much the epitome of Catholic guilt. She teaches the kiddos that punishment is a good thing. Years later, he gets himself a job at a toy store. When the store's Santa is injured during the height of the Christmas rush, Billy is put in the Santa suit. I won't go any farther into the spoiler-zone here, but you can probably guess what happens at this point.

The very fact that Billy is given such a in-depth "origin" is one of the things that set this film apart from the typical slasher of the era. In fact, Billy is the focus of the narrative, and the audience feels a sort of pity for him. That isn't to say that we cheer his murderous spree on (with the exception of a couple of douche-bag characters that every slasher has to have), but we do feel some empathy for this guy. He's a complete product of his upbringing, a sort of "perfect storm" of madness. It is a bit far-fetched, but not by much. What makes this flick so disturbing is the fact that the images most of us associate with pleasant childhood memories are presented here as Billy's triggers. They bring terror to him, and set him on the path to a complete psychotic break.

Now, I'm not trying to claim that Silent Night, Deadly Night is some form of high art, or a brilliant film that examines the human psyche. In the end, it's just a slasher film. It's a low-budget affair, with middle-grade acting at best. Still, there is something oddly gripping about it. The story follows a logical progression, and delivers some truly good frights along the way. It is NOT something for the faint of heart, or for anyone looking for a "feel good" movie. It's a nasty little film, with a generous dose of sex, brutal violence and horrifying imagery. If this is your cup of egg nog, then I recommend giving it a watch!

And here, for your amusement, is the original trailer that stirred up so much controversy to begin with:

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