They Said What?! is a biweekly column in which we explore the highs and lows of film criticism through history. How did critics feel about a certain movie at the time, and do we see it differently now? In this entry, Chris Coffel explores the original critical reception of the controversial Christmas slasher Silent Night, Deadly Night.
In November of 1984, TriStar Pictures and director Charles E. Sellier Jr. created quite the 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 in which he was raised. As a small child, Billy witnessed his parents’ brutal murder at the hands of a man dressed in a Santa Claus suit. As a result, Billy suffers from trauma associated with Christmas and the jolly fat man.
The film had an impressive opening week at the box office but caused an uproar with critics and audiences alike. The taboo premise of a killer Santa Claus resulted in negative reviews and protests, ultimately grounding the film before taking flight. Despite pulling in nearly $1.5 million, roughly twice the film’s budget, it was quickly removed from theaters. For critics, the murderous St. Nick was at best a cheap ploy to gain attention and at worst an insulting misstep. For viewers, it was a direct attack on the sanctity of Christmas. Time has been far kinder to this delightful slice of festive camp. Not only have modern audiences warmed up to the idea of a Santa slasher, but the film has earned praise for its attempt at tackling trauma, something overlooked in 1984.
“You people have nothing to be proud of,” Gene Siskel exclaimed on an episode of At the Movies, speaking directly to those responsible for Silent Night, Deadly Night. During the brief segment, Siskel publicly shamed the writer, director, and production studios by name for soiling Santa’s good name and pristine reputation. “Your profits truly are blood money.”
Siskel’s longtime co-host, Roger Ebert, agreed, adding that he’d “like to hear them [the filmmakers] explain to their children and their grandchildren that it’s only a movie.”
Ken Tucker of The Daily Dispatch called Silent Night, Deadly Night “another garbage movie” that “attracted more publicity than your usual garbage slasher film.” Tucker wrote that the setup of a murderous Father Christmas was a “truly disturbing image” to base a movie. Worse yet, the filmmakers couldn’t even manage to do much with it, churning out “an abomination made dull with pious self-righteousness.”
“The film features something to infuriate and offend almost everyone,” Keith Roysdon wrote in his review for the Muncie Evening Press. The concept is one done in bad taste, 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 work as shocking exploitation because it’s “so dull and so badly made, with terrible acting, phony-looking makeup and inept direction by Charles Sellier.”
For Herald & Review, Gary Minich called on the Legion of Decency to save us from the appalling Silent Night, Deadly Night. Minich felt the film was merely a rehash of previous genre efforts, calling it a “low-budget quickie that borrows nearly every scene from predecessors.” Most of all, Minich was upset to be reviewing it, fearful that some poor souls would be encouraged to see it regardless of his harsh words.
Much like Minich, Charles Oestreich of The Argus wasn’t happy to be giving Silent Night, Deadly Night publicity. Oestreich described the movie as “junk,” calling it the sort of film that would typically play to a scattering of folks for a week or two and then quickly disappear. “Its only claim to fame, its exploitation of a sacrosanct icon — Santa Claus — is reprehensible,” Oestreich wrote. That exploitation, combined with the film’s controversial ad campaign, provided the movie with more notoriety than your standard low-grade slasher. And Oestreich feared this would open the world of horror to other things we hold as sacred, such as motherhood, flags, and apple pie.
Poughkeepsie Journal‘s Mike Hughes was one of the few critics in 1984 to appreciate what the creators of Silent Night, Deadly Night were hoping to achieve. Hughes wrote that it was only a matter of time before Christmas became a staple of horror and admitted to there being “potential to the idea of a killer in a Santa suit.” Once Billy dons the red suit and starts hacking away at those he deems naughty, “it works fairly well.” It’s the build-up to get to that point that didn’t work for Hughes, who wrote it off as “excruciating” and at times “sickening.”
I’ll be the first to admit that Silent Night, Deadly Night isn’t without its flaws. It’s a bit derivative, and if it weren’t for the Christmas aspect, it likely would 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 to make it stand out from the crowd. Silent Night, Deadly Night followed in the footsteps of Christmas Evil — a much better killer Santa film released four years prior — and added in the sleaziest parts from the Friday the 13th franchise and a marketing campaign that didn’t shy away from what it was. While the film was punished for it upon its release, it launched a series with four sequels and a remake while paving the way for countless killer Santa flicks to follow.
There’s also something to be said about the filmmakers’ efforts to delve into the psyche of Billy. He does many terrible things throughout the film, like decapitating a poor boy trying to have some sledding fun, but he truly wants to be good. The problem is he’s never had the proper support system. Billy experienced a horrific event at a young age and then was just tossed in an orphanage. Once he turned eighteen, he was released on his own, expected to be just fine. Silly as the film may be, it’s a pretty accurate commentary on how America handles mental disorders.
Henry Stewart commented on this very subject when writing about a midnight screening of the film for Brooklyn Magazine. Stewart notes that not allowing Billy to confront his psychological issues triggers a psychotic break and sends him on a yuletide killing spree. In Billy’s attempts to punish the immoral, “he embodies Reagan-era conservatism, then at its peak, mocking the strict discipline of compassionless, law-and-order, moral-policing reactionaries.” The way Stewart sees it, “the country’s commentators weren’t ready for such gruesome treatment of a sacred-cow like Christmas,” which saddled the film with an unfair reputation.
In a recent Blu-ray review of Silent Night, Deadly Night for Little White Lies, Anton Bitel writes that while the film is undoubtedly a gory slasher, it has more in common with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho than Friday the 13th or Halloween. Bitel argues that Billy isn’t just a mindless killer. He’s a troubled young man that needs help. “He is both an ill-fated victim and a ticking time bomb, and if his eventual explosion delivers all the by-numbers cat and mouse and multitool culling that is expected of the slasher subgenre,” Bitel writes, “it is his personal psychodrama which keeps us engaged with what is as much a human tragedy as a succession of sensational thrills.”
Bitel also wisely points out the irony surrounding the parents that protested the film and helped get it pulled from theaters. “If parents were concerned by the negative impact that the film might have on their children’s perception of Christmas, the film itself is preoccupied precisely with this issue.”
Matt Donato placed the film third amongst his top five Christmas horror films in a piece for Slashfilm. Donato writes that the film works and has earned its cult status “because the slasher elements play surprisingly well.” And they play well because Billy isn’t just a random killer. He’s a “psycho-snapped orphan boy poisoned by the memory of his parents’ death,” and the only way he can cope with the holidays is by killing those he deems naughty.
At All Horror, Adrian Torres declared Silent Night, Deadly Night to be amongst his three favorite Christmas horror movies, with a strong case for the top spot. “The movie is just so empathetic and surprisingly realistic,” Torres writes, crediting the film for diving into Billy’s extreme childhood trauma. Of course, it’s still a horror movie, so Torres also points to the film’s iconic death scenes, including a “naked chick being impaled on antlers.”
In addition to becoming a yearly favorite in horror circles with regular December screenings, Silent Night, Deadly Night routinely finds itself appearing on the best of Christmas horror lists. At FSR, we placed the film at nineteen in our ranking of more than a hundred Christmas horror movies. And if I had my way, it would be much higher.
Slashfilm slotted Silent Night, Deadly Night at twenty-four in their ranking of Christmas horror, calling it “a snow-covered slasher that 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 ranked the movie as the fourth-best Christmas horror entry, calling it “sleazier and slimier than Bad Santa.”
It’s hard not to laugh at the film’s history. The outrage from those that sought to destroy Silent Night, Deadly Night likely enhanced its long-term value. People flock to controversy, and this is no different. The film still has its naysayers, but there’s no denying that it’s a staple of holiday horror, and that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.