The Most Controversial Christmas Movie

A look back on the legacy of ‘Silent Night, Deadly Night.’
By  · Published on December 21st, 2018

From my early days of wandering Blockbuster’s horror section, a franchise that haunted my fascination was Silent Night, Deadly Night. The cover art of Santa’s red-gloved hands clutching an ax as he emerged from a dark chimney was alluring. The films felt tawdry, dangerous. As if I knew deep in my 6-year-old heart that I shouldn’t be watching this. But as I stood transfixed by the VHS of Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toymaker, the sinister glare of a teddy bear boring into my soul, I should have known I was hooked.

It would take almost 25 years for me to finally see this maligned little franchise. I hadn’t written the films off but rather was merely apathetic to the series. Killer Santa? Got it. But since Scream Factory’s brilliant restoration in 2017, finally being able to see the woods for the trees, the films have charmed me. But what is even more fascinating than our Killer Santa’s tragic backstory is the electrifying legacy of the films’ initial release. An account that is detailed in a video essay from Ryan Hollinger called Exploring The Most “Controversial” Christmas Horror Movie.

Silent Night, Deadly Night is Grade-A Christmas Horror. The slasher follows Billy Chapman (Robert Brian Wilson), who, thanks to a childhood filled with death and trauma, goes on a killing spree dressed as Santa. Like Billy’s last line “You’re safe now. Santa is gone,” the film is filled with every taboo-busting trick in the book, from a rapey Santa to an ax-beheading Santa, down to one Santa being gunned down in front of a group of orphans. While far from art, Silent Night, Deadly Night does ground itself with more nuance and emotional complexity than most slashers, offering the audience the option to wholly sympathize with Billy’s blood red plight. While not perfect, the film has enough meat to surprise anyone expecting a straightforward ’80s slasher.

But this film could have been so much bigger if it wasn’t for the outrage it received before it opened. From a scathing indictment on Siskel and Ebert’s At The Movies to massive protests by family groups in New York City, the film was kneecapped before it could make a splash.

And while I don’t agree that a Killer Santa somehow ruins the sanctity of this Pagan-cum-Christian holiday, I can’t help but wonder why the film’s distributor, TriStar, thought it was a good idea to air the first trailer during family-friendly television shows like Three’s Company and Little House on the Prairie. Even the most hardened cinephiles would be taken off guard seeing an ax-wielding St. Nick between moments of Don Knotts excoriating John Ritter and friends.

But the protests worked, in more ways than one. After a massive media blitz and letter writing campaign, where at least one Vermont school principal said, “It’s an invasion of children’s dreams…it’s a form of child abuse,” the controversial trailers were taken off the air. A week later, while the film was still in previews, it was pulled entirely.

The controversy would be weaponized just a year later on home video where distributors plastered advertisements for Silent Night, Deadly Night with hyperbolic statements claiming that “It’s the movie the government doesn’t want you to see!” And while the parent groups attempted to dismantle the film with yuletide jeer, they only emboldened the movies cult status, launching it into the Killer Santa franchise we know today. Well, almost.

Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 can be best summarized by its most popular line: “Garbage Day.” Now don’t get me wrong, the film has its power, primarily in the unrelenting dedication of its lead actor. But it is a rehash, peppered and padded with footage from its predecessor. The first sequel introduces us to our new slasher Santa Ricky Caldwell (Eric Freeman), the younger brother of the first film’s killer. In Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! Ricky, now played by Bill Moseley, wakes up from a coma with a clear dome around his brain and naturally the urge to kill.

Yet after Better Watch Out!, generally, this is where the Chapman/Caldwell Brothers story concludes. The fourth and fifth Silent Night films, The Initiation and The Toymaker, are anthological, telling Christmas-adjacent tales of Satanic worm cults and Mickey Rooney-made killer toys. But it’s Clint Howard’s co-starring roles in these later sequels that tie the series together into a perfect Christmas Horror bow.

In both films, Clint Howard plays a character named Ricky. Is it the Ricky Caldwell, who was last seen being impaled in the third film? Perhaps. But as the closing image of Better Watch Out! reminds us, Ricky could still be alive! In classic horror movie logic leaps, why can’t Clint Howard be the same Ricky that we just followed through the last two films? Maybe the cult of The Initiation fixed his domed brain in exchange for undying devotion! In a franchise that includes a sex-crazed life-sized toy robot, we’ve seen weirder.

Rather than dirty army fatigues, what would have driven the character’s throughline home in The Initiation is if Ricky had been costumed as a grimy Santa Claus. By having Clint Howard gallivant around Los Angeles as a Larry Drake-inspired Saint Nick, not only would the Christmas elements of the fourth film have been particularly highlighted, but it would have been a nod to the fans who earnestly enjoyed the killer Santa motif.

Most importantly, if Clint Howard is Ricky Caldwell, then in a bizarre twist of events his cameo in The Toymaker gives Ricky an optimistic conclusion. After all the murdering and the trauma, and the not having a skull for an entire film, Ricky has found solace in being an average joe working as a Mall Santa. He cracks jokes, laughs with his fellow Clauses, and most importantly: doesn’t lose his mind and kill someone. If Ricky Caldwell can find peace of mind in the holiday season, so can you.

Today, though, Slasher Santas aren’t particularly lurid. Thanks to the popularity of Krampus, the Anti-Claus that has captivated a slew of new films, we now expect a little sinister spirit with Jolly Old Saint Nick. But in 1984, under the moral thumb of the Reagan Administration, a blood-soaked homicidal Santa Claus was just a tad too much for the nation’s WASPish sensibilities. In the pantheon of horror that skews towards the red and the green, Silent, Night Deadly Night has the honor of being the first film that turned the world’s head. And the Christmas season is a little jollier for it.

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Jacob Trussell is a writer based in New York City. His editorial work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Rue Morgue Magazine, Film School Rejects, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the author of 'The Binge Watcher's Guide to The Twilight Zone' (Riverdale Avenue Books). Available to host your next spooky public access show. Find him on Twitter here: @JE_TRUSSELL (He/Him)