In November of 1984, a low budget horror thriller saw a limited commercial release that ignited a firestorm of controversy which would eventually result in the canceling of the movie’s entire West Coast run — a nearly unprecedented act of acquiescence on the part of a major Hollywood studio. The film was Silent Night, Deadly Night, a slasher film loosely in the mold of or at least owing a debt to 1974’s Black Christmas and 1978’s Halloween, and based on a book, Sleigh Ride, optioned by producer Ira Barmak, who saw an opportunity to crack the low budget genre market for distributor Tri-Star.
By today’s standards, of course, the movie is fairly tame in its quotient of gore. It’s also just not really that good; it’s unevenly acted and full of the sort of staging you see in a middle school dinner theater play. Those demerits cancel out the rather respectable early pacing and efforts at back story, which would be mightily pared down in any sort of modern day remake, in favor of more strangulation by strands of festive light bulbs.
The story opens in 1971, on Christmas Eve. After visiting his crazy grandpa (Will Hare, delivering a nervy, one-scene cameo), little Billy sees his parents murdered by an escaped convict sporting a Santa Claus costume. The experience left indelible scars on his psyche, made all the worse by his subsequent years spent languishing in an orphanage, with his life made a living hell by the cruel and domineering Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin). Cut to 1984, when teenage Billy (Robert Brian Wilson, delivering a performance equal parts awkward and just awful), with the help of the sympathetic Sister Margaret (Gilmer McCormick), gets a job as a stock boy at a local toy store. When the store’s regular Santa Claus is injured, however, Billy is forced by his unwitting boss into donning the red suit, which summons up all sorts of tangled, nasty, homicidal thoughts. He snaps, and your standard, boilerplate psychotic rage ensues, ending up back at the orphanage where Billy grew up.
Housed in a standard plastic Amray case, Silent Night, Deadly Night comes with its original, striking video box cover — of Santa’s arm holding an axe, and disappearing down a chimney — and the brilliant tagline of, “Slashing through the snow, looking for his prey…” Navigating the static menu screens (above) will yield the movie’s trailer and a TV spot, and there’s also an interesting collection of outraged reaction quotes from everyone from Mickey Rooney (who calls the movie “scum”) and former Norwalk, Connecticut mayor Thomas O’Connor to concerned parent Paige Hurley, whose comments actually portend the existence of Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving trailer/mini-film, from Grindhouse.
The disc’s most notable supplemental feature, though, is a 36-minute audio interview with director Charles Sellier, Jr., who has conflicted feelings about the film, which he insistently calls a “show,” in industry lingo. While he says he “regrets having done a slasher movie because [his] perspective has changed,” Sellier rightly praises second unit director Mike Spence, who contributed a lot to the project’s scope (enough to really have earned a co-directing credit, it sounds like). He also talks about the film’s famous antler hanging scene being unscripted, and offers up other details and anecdotes from the 32-day, $750,000 production, lensed in high-country Utah, on the other side of the mountain from Park City.
Unfortunately, this release doesn’t do an amazing job with the video transfer; different film stocks were apparently used during shooting, resulting in a wide range of discoloration that isn’t addressed here. It wouldn’t be quite as bad except for the problems occurring within the same sequence, key scenes in the movie to boot. There’s also a fair bit of grain. All in all, certainly better than VHS, I guess, but still disappointing. D+ (Movie) C+ (Disc)