This post contains spoilers!
The early 1980s were a great time for the movies, especially horror, specifically the slasher. The successes of Halloween and Friday the 13th opened the floodgates for independent filmmakers to make movies on the cheap with a guaranteed profit, especially if they supplied the audience with their growing appetite for on-screen splatter.
One of the more infamous slashers of that era was Charles E. Sellier Jr.’s cheerfully sleazy Silent Night, Deadly Night. Originally called Slayride, the flick opens on Christmas Eve, 1971, as a young mother (Tara Buckman) and father (Geoff Hanson) drive their small children to see crazy old Grandpa (Will Hare), who’s living at a remote mental health facility. It’s here that young Billy (Danny Wagner) is told by the old coot that Santa Claus punishes kids who are naughty, forming a distorted view of Santa in Billy’s mind. Hours later and Billy watches as Mom and Dad are murdered by a degenerate in a Santa costume.
Billy and his younger brother, Ricky, are sent to live at an orphanage ruled over by the strict Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin), who (naturally) reinforces the “punishment” method, sending Billy into an unhinged mental state throughout his childhood. By the age of 18, Billy (Robert Brian Wilson), now a hotbed of sexual anxiety and explosive violence, gets a job at a toy store and, come Christmas, is asked to step into a Santa outfit.
Billy’s mental state eventually collapses and, with axe in hand, he runs around on Christmas Eve night punishing the local residents. Those on Billy’s naughty list include a rapist, some street bullies, and two fornicating teenagers, one of whom (Linnea Quigley) gets impaled on the antlers of a mounted deer head in one of the movie’s most notorious gore scenes.
Released in November of 1984, SNDN was the target of angry parent protests. Thanks to its super effective marketing campaign – I still remember as a kid seeing the old VHS cover of the axe-wielding Santa sliding down a snow-covered chimney – SNDN was put in the spotlight for essentially doing a good job at (literally) scaring people. But, instead of parents telling their children it’s only a movie, they decided to protest the film over its depiction of a killer Santa. I guess they had never seen Tales from the Crypt (1972), or Christmas Evil (1980).
The protests were so successful that SNDN‘s distributors removed the movie from theaters before the Thanksgiving holiday, but not before it pulled in brisk box-office. Although re-released in the spring of 1985 after the panic had subsided, the movie didn’t find its audience until it hit video stores, and by 1987 its cult status garnered it a sequel. Grade: A–
Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 opens at an undisclosed location, in a plain, white room where an adult Ricky (Eric Freeman) is being interviewed by a psychiatrist (James L. Newman). A title card informs us that it’s Dec. 24, foreshadowing later events of Ricky killing the shrink, escaping the room, and seeking revenge on Mother Superior. But, I’m getting ahead of myself…
Ricky is being interview not only about his serial killer brother, Billy, but about Ricky’s own psychopathic personality. The whole plot of Part 2 is essentially told in flashbacks (with nearly 30 minutes of footage from the first movie!) as Ricky recounts not only Billy’s murder spree from Part 1, but his own hand in bloody murder in the years after Ricky left the orphanage.
SNDN Part 2 is not loved within the horror community. Many consider it the ultimate bad sequel. It suffers from a sluggish pacing (after Part 1’s flashbacks, nothing new actually happens until 40 minutes into the movie), inconsistent casting (Ricky at 17, played by Darrel Guilbeau, looks completely different, and actually older, than Ricky at 18), and its psychoanalysis of Ricky’s motives for killing comes off as sloppy and ham-fisted. Ricky kills simply because the script (by director Lee Harry and Joseph E. Earle) calls for him to do so, and in very OTT fashion. And despite Harry’s attempts at making the movie more lighthearted (as mentioned in the behind-the-scenes segment from Shout! Factory‘s Blu-ray release), Part 2 is more mean-spirited than the first movie ever was, although a few instances of black humor help.
Also, what happened to Mother Superior’s (Jean Miller) accent, and why does she have a gigantic, blistering scar on the side of her face?! Grade: C+
Better Watch Out!
Like many low-budget sequels in the late ’80s, Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out went directly to the video market in 1989. And like many horror films of that era, this one seems to have been somewhat influenced by the Nightmare on Elm Street series.
The film features a young woman named Laura (Samantha Scully), who’s blind and psychic, and who’s being used by a sinister doctor (Richard Beymer – who goes around muttering lines like, “There are no innocent people…”) to communicate with Ricky (Bill Moseley), now comatose six years after Part 2. Participating in these experiments gives Laura the ability to enter Ricky’s dreams, and we, the audience, get even more flashbacks to the first movie.
Clad in hospital gown and with a plastic dome covering his exposed brain, Ricky awakens from his coma and, now sharing a psychic link with Laura, follows her and her brother, Chris (Eric DaRe), to her grandmother’s on Christmas Eve. Much like Laura, Grannie (Elizabeth Hoffman) also has psychic abilities, but doesn’t seem to foresee Ricky’s arrival as dangerous, instead offering him food and shelter. He still kills her.
The mostly mute Ricky now seems to have some sort of supernatural, superhuman strength as he goes around punching through doors and overpowering anyone he comes into contact with. And much like Jason in his later years, Ricky can predict people’s whereabouts, a horror movie trope that eventually became massively overused.
Stiff direction by Monte Hellman and a dead-serious tone – most of the likable characters are needlessly killed off – make SNDN 3 a bummer. Grade: C
For the fourth entry in the series, the producers decided to drop the Ricky-killer Santa angle and made a stand-alone story. Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation offers a supernatural tale of witchcraft in modern day Los Angeles. The ambitious plot tackles lesbianism, self-empowerment, and women’s rights (or a lack thereof) within the male-dominated world of newspaper journalism.
Looking to make a break at the weekly newspaper she works for, struggling writer, Kim (Neith Hunter), investigates the bizarre suicide of a woman, whom her male coworkers dismiss as unimportant. Kim soon discovers the victim was part of an all-female secret society that worships the Biblical Adam’s first wife, Lilith. This cult is lead by feminist bookstore owner, Fima (two-time Bond girl Maude Adams), who immediately takes a liking to Kim (never a good sign!). It isn’t long until Fima sinks her fangs into Kim and eventually recruits her into their society of wine, slime, and giant bugs.
Directed by Brian Yuzna (Bride of Re-Animator), Initiation gets points for trying something different with the series and for its semi-serious look at new age feminism. But the screenplay (by Yuzna and four other writers) never truly makes sense and is, at times, a bit too cartoonish with its woman-as-hooker-or-mother metaphor. Character dynamics are also a bit muddled: Kim flip-flops too much between being a strong, vocally expressive character and a whimpering victim.
That said, Initiation is one the better of the SNDN sequels and features some terrifically gross Screaming Mad George (Nightmare on Elm Street 4) make-up FX and a scene that may make you think twice the next time you sit down to a plate of spaghetti. Grade: B
The Toy Maker
Written and directed by Martin Kitrosser (Friday the 13th Part III and Part V), Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (released direct-to-video in 1991) features a plot so obviously perfect for a Christmas-themed horror flick it’s surprising it hadn’t been done before.
Traumatized after witnessing his father’s death by a malevolent toy that was mysteriously delivered to his house, young Derek (William Thorne) follows in the footsteps of Halloween 5‘s Jamie Lloyd by losing his ability to speak. His mother, Sarah (Jane Higginson), is warned by her ex-lover (Noah Adams) that the local toy maker, named Joe Petto (Mickey Rooney), is making toys that kill their child owners. The switch is that it’s actually Joe’s robot son, Pino (Brian Bremer), who’s behind the evil creations, and if you haven’t figured out the Pinocchio references yet…
Co-written by Yuzna, The Toy Maker isn’t going to win any awards for writing or deep character development, but it’s probably the best of the SNDN sequels. It’s well-paced, features mostly likable characters, and is surprisingly self-aware – the character of Kim (Hunter) from Initiation lives next door to Sarah, and Sarah works for Live Entertainment, one of the distributors of SNDN 5. The movie also has a welcoming sense of humor after the dead serious tones of the previous few flicks in the franchise. Grade: B