Charles E. Sellier Jr.
The furor over this typical (though entertaining) slasher flick began with a series of TV spots and print ads featuring a man dressed as Santa Claus brandishing an axe. A parent's group out of Milwaukee began protesting the film, picketed theaters and demanded the ads be removed from the air, the controversy rapidly spread and the film's bad reputation was solidified after it was blasted on an episode of "At the Movies." Gene Siskel referred to it as "sick and sleazy and mean-spirited," called out the distributors as well as the director, producer and writer by name to publicly shame them (claiming their profits were "blood money") and then went on record placing it alongside I Spit on Your Grave as "one of the two most contemptible films I have seen." Interestingly, at least three earlier films had also depicted a killer donning gay apparel; the "And All Through the House" segment of TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972) starring Joan Collins, CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980), which fellow Silent Night-hating-critic Leonard Maltin had awarded a 3 star rating to, and the seldom-watched TO ALL A GOODNIGHT (1980), which was the directorial debut of David "Krug" Hess. None of those films received quite the attention or the (over-the-top) chilly reception of SNDN. Regardless, all the hoopla, news coverage and free publicity ensured the film was profitable. It managed to gross more than double its budget in less than two weeks before TriStar finally caved in and yanked the film from theaters. After the firestorm calmed down a bit, it was re-released in 1986 by another company (Aquarius Films) and again raked in lots of money, which set the stage for numerous sequels.
Silent Night is basically your run-of-the-mill Psych 101 slasher flick that follows the familiar "childhood trauma = adult murderous impulses" trajectory. After a visit to a nuthouse to see his creepy grandpa (Will Hare), who snaps out of his faked catatonic state long enough to inform the boy that "Christmas Eve is the scariest damn night of the year!," five-year-old Billy witnessed his parents (Tara Buckman, Geoff Hansen) being butchered by a psycho (Charles Dierkop) dressed as Santa. He and his infant brother Ricky are promptly sent off to a Catholic orphanage where things don't improve much. The place is run by the sadistic Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin), a stern advocate of inflicting "punishment" on all the naughty boys and girls with a belt and whose remedy for a child's nightmare involves tying them down to the bed. Still troubled by seeing his parents being murdered, Billy draws bloody pictures and spies on some teenagers having sex, all of which lead to him getting a good beating. The compassionate Sister Margaret (Gilmer McCormick) does what she can to help soften the blow, but she too is pretty much at the mercy of the Alpha Nun.
After turning 18, Billy (hunky Robert Brian Wilson) is finally able to leave Saint Mary's Hellhole and goes to work in a toy store. Still troubled by his repressed childhood trauma and abusive treatment at the hands of Mother Superior over the years, Billy finally snaps when he's forced to don a Santa Claus costume around Christmastime and then catches the attempted rape of his female co-worker / crush Pamela (Toni Nero). He strangles the attacker to death with a string of Christmas lights, guts Pamela with a box cutter, sinks the clawed end of a hammer in his drunk boss' (Britt Leach) head and then shoots another woman with a arrow. After Billy leaves, Sister Margaret stops by for a visit, finds the bodies and then goes to the police, but by that point Billy's already mid-way through a vicious murder spree, which includes impaling a topless teenager (Linnea Quigley, you're wanted on the set!), decapitating sled-stealing bullies on their trip downhill and sending a cop down a flight of stairs after burying an axe in his chest. Billy eventually ends up back at the orphanage wanting revenge on the woman who'd made his life a living hell.
Aside from the novelty of the killer's costume, a couple of memorable murder scenes (most notably Ms. Quigley's) and a Grinch pinch of holiday mean-spiritedness (no less than two different Santa's are gunned down right in front of a bunch of children), this is all rather predictable and routinely written and directed. It's at its best during the opening half hour "build up" portion detailing Billy's tumultuous youth. The visit to the asylum and the family encountering a deranged Santa while traveling across a vacant country road at night are genuinely creepy, and the orphanage scenes are pretty nasty and somewhat harrowing; something the rest of the film fails to live up to. Still, there's enough blood and nudity to satisfy a slasher fans needs and it's reasonably well-made, with above average performances.
This reissue poster omitted the killer Santa angle, yet played up on the controversy surrounding it.
Billy's brother Ricky was the central character in the first two follow-ups; Lee Harry's unintentionally hilarious Silent Night Deadly Night Part 2 (1987) and Monte Hellman's bland Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! (1989). Brian Yuzna's Silent Night Deadly Night 4: Initiation (1990), which concerned an all-female cult of bug worshippers, and Martin Kitrosser's Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toymaker (1991), starring Mickey Rooney as a guy who makes killer toys, were completely unrelated to the first three; only sharing the Christmas setting. In 2012, a loose remake of the original (directed by Stephen C. Miller and titled simply Silent Night), was released.