With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.
Attempting to apply the kind of slasher “rules” that fascinate horror fans to the Silent Night, Deadly Night movies is pointless. Only two of the five films in the series feature the same villain, and he’s a reanimated corpse in one of them. Two more consist of Halloween III-style unrelated stories with the Silent Night, Deadly Night name slapped onto them, and one of those has more in common with The Craft than the first film in the series. And tonally? These things are all over the place, spanning everything from the most mean-spirited grindhouse fare this side of The House At The Edge Of The Park to a killer toy movie so Full Moon Features-esque, it’s a shock to not see Charles Band’s name in the credits. The killer doesn’t even wear a Santa suit most of the time.
What does tie most (but not all) of these movies together, aside from the surface elements of twinkling lights and Christmas trees, is their insistence on repeatedly forcing children suffering from Christmas-related trauma to engage in Christmas-related activities. The first film, which documents the transformation of a young boy who witnesses his parents’ murder at the hands of a man dressed like Santa Claus into a murderer who dresses up like Santa Claus, in particular provides an effective argument for therapy: Perhaps, had young Billy gotten the mental health care he needed after his parents were brutally killed before his very eyes and not been punished for his PTSD by a sadistic nun, he wouldn’t have become the Santa Claus Killer. Maybe he could have channeled that pain into something productive, like a Yuletide version of Batman. We’ll never know.
This harsh reality is typical of the original Silent Night, Deadly Night, which was pulled from theaters after one week amid protests from parents’ groups and picket lines of angry moms outside movie theaters. Released in 1984, Silent Night, Deadly Night was not the first Christmas-themed slasher (that would be 1974’s Black Christmas), nor was it the first to feature a deranged Santa Claus killing people (see 1980’s Christmas Evil). Those other films didn’t have nationwide TV campaigns, however, and one commercial in particular seems to have sent the Moral Majority to its collective jewelry box to grab its clutching pearls.
Reviews from critics were similarly scathing. Gene Siskel called out members of the film’s crew and production team by name on At The Movies, chiding them, “shame on you,” and saying “you people have nothing to be proud of, even if you made a couple bucks off of all the negative publicity. Your profits truly are blood money.”
And that response was justified, actually. Silent Night, Deadly Night is a nasty piece of work, in its way as perverse as the grimiest roughie ever to grace 42nd Street. It looks like it was shot in the late ’70s, which, by the laws of B-movie relativity, means it was actually shot in Utah in the early ’80s. It’s also the kind of slasher movie where every woman who gets murdered has to have her shirt ripped open first, including 8-year-old Billy’s (Danny Wagner) mother, whose throat is cut by a fugitive Santa on the side of a lonely highway as slightly off-brand, non-copyrighted versions of classic Christmas carols play on the car radio. That’s early on, after another downbeat scene where Billy’s catatonic grandpa, staring into space in a seemingly empty nursing home, snaps back into consciousness long enough to warn him about the dangers of Santa Claus:
Next thing you know, a few years have passed and Billy’s living in a orphanage, where, save for one kindhearted nun, the adults in his life are remarkably unsympathetic. First, he draws a picture of his parents getting murdered—a real thing that actually happened to him—and he’s punished for it. Then he stumbles on some older kids having sex—something he’s still too young to understand—and he’s punished for it. “Punishment is necessary. Punishment is good,” the Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin) of the orphanage tells Billy, dispensing some old-fashioned Catholic corporal discipline.
In short, instead of healing, young Billy is spanked and tied to his bed and urged to suppress his feelings—this poor kid whose parents were murdered by a guy in a Santa suit is forced to sit on Santa’s lap with no warning whatsoever—until it all comes exploding out in homicidal bursts after an adult Billy is forced to play Santa Claus at the toy store where he works. Kindly Sister Margaret (Gilmer McCormick) tries to intervene, but she’s too late to stop Billy’s transformation into an (unnaturally strong) slasher villain. At the company Christmas party, Billy finally snaps and kills his co-workers, igniting a Christmas Eve killing spree that includes one of the movie’s most famous scenes, where a young, topless Linnea Quigley is lifted up bodily and impaled on a mounted deer’s head. (See? Unnaturally strong.) Eventually, Billy makes his way back to the orphanage to face off against the evil Mother Superior, but not before a bully gets decapitated on a sled, a deaf priest gets mowed down by police, and a little girl gets a gift of a bloody knife, all of which are played for morbid laughs. By the end, a whole new generation of kids has been traumatized, thus setting up the sequel.
One of those kids is Billy’s little brother Ricky, who barely has any lines in the first movie, let alone a personality. Ricky is a baby when the initial round of Christmas trauma goes down, but that doesn’t stop him from describing it in detail in the sequel, Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2. A significant chunk of Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 consists of footage from the first movie, peppered with sarcastic, affected, gloriously over-pronounced voice-over from the very intense, yet somehow very flat, Eric Freeman in the biggest role of his short movie career. So if the description above sounds a little too dark, good news! You can skip the first movie entirely and just watch this goofy sequel, most famous for its association with a viral clip from the early days of YouTube.
After Ricky (Freeman) finishes recounting his big brother’s killing spree—which, including interstitial scenes where Freeman wiggles his eyebrows while his fellow actors pretend to be intimidated, takes up about 40 minutes of the movie—he starts reminiscing about his own path from innocent boy to indiscriminate murder machine, beginning with his adoption by a nice Jewish family that moves him to sunny, snowless Southern California. But even in SoCal there are plenty of rapists, Mafia shakedowns, cocky ’80s yuppies, and even more recycled clips from the first movie to warp teenage Ricky’s mind beyond repair. (Not to mention that his girlfriend turns out to not be a virgin, a misogynistic reason to go on a killing spree if there ever was one.) This is all leading up to the not-quite-climactic, not-quite-Christmas rampage, as Ricky slaughters the residents of a suburban subdivision in a blue cable-knit sweater without a holiday decoration in sight:
Eventually, as with the first movie, we have a showdown between the Santa Claus monster and the nun that made him. Mother Superior is an odd choice for a final girl: She was the villain in the first movie, has only appeared in this one in flashback, and has latex boils all over her face, which according to this movie is what happens when you have a stroke. She’s a tough old bird, though, and puts up a good fight despite being in a wheelchair. Has she had military training, or is this just what a lifetime of spanking kids does to you? Again, we’ll never know.
As for the “climactic” part, unfortunately Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 works better in clip form, as its moments of accidental genius come sandwiched between thick, crusty slices of overwhelming tedium. With its multi-decade scope and flashback structure, it seems like the four-man screenwriting team (yes, it took four people to write this movie) and director Lee Harry were going for an “inside the mind of a killer” type of character study, but didn’t have the skill to pull it off. Basically, the pacing is terrible, and while individual scenes can be entertaining, strung together the movie is a slog.
The third Silent Night, Deadly Night movie, Better Watch Out! (1989), has the curious honor of being directed by ’70s independent auteur Monte Hellman, in what would be his last feature film until 2010’s Road To Nowhere. Hellman—who, to be fair, started his career working on exploitation cheapies for Roger Corman, so this was nothing new for him—also co-wrote the screenplay, which abandons his signature existential musing in favor of a story that’s one part David Cronenberg and one part real-time highway driving, with dashes of Halloween 4 and 5 and—recycled for the fourth time, for those of you keeping count—footage from the first movie added in.
As is to be expected from a Silent Night, Deadly Night movie, there’s a tonal shift from previous installments in the series, this one opening with a dream sequence set in a mental hospital straight out of A-Ha’s “Take On Me” video. In the dream, a young woman is being pursued down a blindingly bright white hallway by a guy with what looks like a plastic salad bowl full of fake blood on his head. Then Santa shows up.
The Heather Langenkamp type turns out to be Laura (Samantha Scully, another Silent Night, Deadly Night lead whose career never took off), who lost her eyesight and her parents but gained psychic powers in a plane crash. As a result, she’s got a chip on her shoulder—“You don’t have to be the world’s champion blind orphan,” her therapist tells her—that makes her unfriendly to most and downright rude to her brother’s girlfriend, Jerri, played by Laura Harring of Mulholland Drive fame. (Harring isn’t the only David Lynch veteran in the movie: The creepy mad scientist monitoring her dreams, Dr. Newbury, is played by Richard Beymer—a.k.a. Twin Peaks’ Benjamin Horne—and Laura’s brother Chris is played by Eric DaRe, also from Twin Peaks, unrecognizable under a luscious mane of curly blonde headbanger hair.)
The salad-bowl Frankenstein turns out to be Ricky (Bill Moseley, a.k.a. Chop Top from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), the killer from the previous film, reanimated by Newbury’s sinister experiments and linked to Laura via some sort of bullshit pseudo-mystical psychic connection. Once again driven to murder by a guy in a Santa Claus outfit, Ricky escapes the hospital and follows Laura, Jerri, and Chris to Laura and Chris’ grandma’s house, described as being in “the north end of the Valley.” Even though they’re three living adults and he’s one undead Santa Claus serial killer, Ricky manages to make it to Grandma’s for Christmas Eve before our heroes; there, the sweet old lady offers him a present wrapped up with a red bow, activating his seasonal kill reflex. (Grandma’s death occurs off camera, like most of the deaths in the movie, either as a matter of old-fashioned taste or a budgetary concern.)
The slow pace of the movie is exacerbated by the fact that most of it is spent waiting for the various characters, all traveling in different vehicles, to arrive at Grandma’s house and confront each other. And once they pull up—or amble over, in Ricky’s case—they wander around the property in the dark for while. The second half is a ploddingly slow blend of slasher and home invasion movie, too lacking in suspense for even its jump scares to land. Laura does learn not to be such a bitch, though, because you never know who might help you through a long and boring night of terror. Once the half-speed siege is over, Franken-Ricky appears on screen in a tux, his brain still exposed, wishing viewers a “happy new year.”
The next film in the series, Initiation: Silent Night, Deadly Night 4 (1990) was directed and co-written by Brian Yuzna, fresh off of Bride Of Re-Animator. This is the most tangentially holiday-themed of the series, with a handful of Christmas scenes that feel like they were written in to an existing script to justify the Silent Night, Deadly Night name. (Screenwriter Woody Keith did reportedly incorporate ideas he didn’t get to use in 1989’s Society, so that could very well be the case.) The main plot of the movie has nothing to do with Christmas whatsoever, revolving around an ambitious and young would-be reporter, Kim (Neith Hunter), who is determined to investigate the death of a young woman who bursts into flames and jumps off the side of an L.A. apartment building. Her sexist boss and the rest of the boys’ club at the paper where she works—including her colleague/boyfriend Hank (Tommy Hinkley)—dismiss her pitch with a request for fresh coffee, so Kim decides to do some digging on her own.
Kim’s investigation leads her to a used bookstore that turns out to be a front for a clique of goddess worshippers with an anti-male agenda and loyalty to the Egyptian goddess Isis. Their leader immediately takes a liking to Kim, who reminds her of her runaway daughter; being evil and all, she puts the coven’s houseboy, local homeless guy Ricky (the always-entertaining Clint Howard), on Kim’s tail. Ricky presents Kim with a giant, icky grub, and soon Kim is consumed with visions of spirals and giant insects, all presaging the “initiation” ritual of the title:
What all this Hong Kong-style gross-out body horror, misandry, occultism, bug-eating, and spontaneous human combustion has to do with Christmas is anyone’s guess. The effects live up to the standards previously set by Yuzna and effects artist Screaming Mad George, who got his start creating creature effects for Predator and the cockroach scene in A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, but the story is weak and doesn’t provide much of an incentive not to fast-forward to the weird parts. The film’s gender politics are similarly half baked: You could interpret the coven and their flippant disregard for male life as camp feminism, but the second our headstrong heroine gets into real trouble, who does she go running to for help? Her older boyfriend who doesn’t take her seriously as a writer, of course.
Thankfully, Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (1991) has nothing to say about politics. Instead, it’s a Puppet Master-style R-rated killer toys movie, made—unlike most R-rated killer toys movies from the early ’90s—without the participation of the Band brothers. (Richard Band did the music for the fourth movie, but didn’t return for the fifth.) Yuzna returns as writer and producer, however (note the kid in the Re-Animator shirt waiting to sit on Santa’s lap), as does Screaming Mad George, who gets a special “surrealistic visual design and effects” credit. Friday The 13th Part III screenwriter Martin Kitrosser, who lately has been making a living as Quentin Tarantino’s favorite script supervisor, takes over directing duties. And while the acting is still bad—albeit livelier than the last few installments in the series—and the dialogue cheesy, the last Silent Night, Deadly Night film (for now) oscillates between “imaginative” and “completely batshit crazy” without the excessive padding that ruins its predecessors, making it a more enjoyable viewing experience than the fifth direct-to-video sequel in a Christmas-themed horror series has any right to be.
We open with the obligatory mix of sex and childhood trauma, as a little boy walks in on his parents in bed, then immediately goes downstairs, finds a package on his front porch, and opens it to discover a toy that kind of looks like Futurama’s robot Santa Claus. Enhancing the resemblance is the little guy’s bloodlust, as it latches onto Derek’s (William Thorne, who played “Young Bill” in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey that same year) dad’s face shortly afterward, killing the postcoital paternal figure while the horrified blond moppet looks on. Fast forward to two weeks later, where Derek has been rendered mute by the shock of his father’s death. His mom Sarah Quinn (Jane Higginson) seems to be taking it okay though, probably because she’s got a good support system in her pal Kim (Neith Hunter), reprising her role from Initiation and also taking her brush with midwinter death in stride. (Clint Howard also briefly re-appears as Ricky, who seems to have quit the coven and taken up a new career as a mall Santa.)
Anyway, Sarah takes Ricky shopping for a new toy that won’t kill anyone he loves, but chooses poorly by patronizing struggling local toy store Petto’s, owned by eccentric Joe Petto (a down-and-out Mickey Rooney) and his son Pino (Brian Bremer from Pumpkinhead). Petto and Pino—as in Pinocchio, not the wine—used to live in the house where Sarah and Ricky now reside, but were forced to move into the basement of the toy store, presumably after Toys“R”Us came to town. Angst-ridden teen Pino is having trouble with the transition, and soon he’s creeping around the Quinn house when Sarah isn’t home, probably fondling her sweaters and going through her underwear drawer. At the same time, the neighborhood brats are being offed by killer toys, including one memorable scene where Yuzna’s real-life son is fake dispatched by exploding rollerblades.
It doesn’t take much of a narrative leap to figure out that these two story elements will come together at the end of the movie. How they come together, on the other hand, is wholly unpredictable. Combining fairy-tale imagery, androids, Oedipal urges, and Ken-doll crotches, the climax of The Toy Maker features what has to be one of the most bizarre attempted rape scenes in horror-movie history.
The irony of watching Rooney, who wrote a letter to the producers of the original Silent Night, Deadly Night calling them “scum” who “should be run out of town,” ham it up in a Santa Claus suit as the villain in The Toy Maker is overwhelming. And with the path to this cinematic moment littered with the dead careers of has-beens and never-weres alike, finally, after five movies, the true unifying theme of the Silent Night, Deadly Night franchise reveals itself: The things people will do for money.
1. Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker
2. Silent Night, Deadly Night
3. Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2
4. Initiation: Silent Night, Deadly Night 4
5. Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out!