Naughty or Nice: The Ups and Downs of the ‘Silent Night, Deadly Night’ Franchise

by Susan Ryant

The Silent Night, Deadly Night franchise is one of horror’s strangest and boldest. It is wildly uneven in tone and quality, whiplashing between deadly serious and high camp, dizzying heights and the lowest depths often within the same movie. But from its notorious original to its bonkers direct-to-video finale, the series is without a doubt one of the most unique in all of horror.

Though it begins with the relatively simple premise of a traumatized person snapping and going on a killing spree while dressed as Santa Claus, the series quickly flies off these rails into some of the most bizarre, imaginative, and entertaining territory of any holiday horror film ever created.

Naughty!

The original film was the latest in a long line of holiday-themed slashers initiated by Black Christmas and Halloween and followed up by the likes of Friday the 13th , My Bloody Valentine, New Year’s Evil, Mother’s Day, and more. Unlike many of these films, however, Silent Night, Deadly Night follows the killer rather than focusing on the victims. It defines Billy’s psychology by giving him a great deal of backstory, starting with one of the most disturbing kindertrauma scenes in horror: the visit with grandpa, memorably played by Will Hare. “Christmas Eve is the scariest damn night of the year,” he warns young Billy then adds, “if you see Santa Claus tonight, you better run, boy. You better run for your life,” before returning to his catatonic state.

This childhood trauma is compounded to an unbearable degree when he witnesses his parents brutally murdered by a criminal dressed as Santa. He and his little brother Ricky then face further torment when relegated to Saint Mary’s Home for Orphaned Children where Billy is routinely punished by the Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin). The edicts “punishment is absolute. Punishment is necessary. Punishment is good” are drilled into his mind over the course of years under her iron hand.

When he turns eighteen, Billy (Robert Brian Wilson) is given a job at a toy store. When forced by his boss to play Santa, however, all that childhood trauma and angst that has been repressed since early childhood explodes and he goes on one of the most vicious killing sprees of any slasher. Some of the more memorable kills include strangling a co-worker with Christmas lights, putting a claw hammer through his boss’s head, and decapitating a bully on a sled with an axe. The best-known kill is one of the most iconic in all of horror with a barely dressed Linnea Quigley impaled on a rack of antlers. The film also features not one, but two men in Santa suits shot in front of children and another punched in the face. It is wild, gory, vicious, and about as far over-the-top as 80s slashers get. It is also a great deal of fun, filled with unforgettable sequences, quotable lines, and pitch-black humor, all of which contributed to its infamous reputation.

Even more notorious than the film itself is the controversy that erupted surrounding it in November of 1984. Parents groups, religious organizations, celebrities like Mickey Rooney, and critics like Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert came out in full force against the film claiming it was damaging to children. Siskel called it (along with I Spit on Your Grave —1978) “one of the two most detestable films I have seen” and the profits “blood money.” There is no doubt that Silent Night, Deadly Night is one of the more mean-spirited slashers of the ’80s, but it was the marketing of the film that led most directly to the controversy. TV spots, featuring shots of the Santa with a gun and Billy in full gear wielding an axe, were run during football games and prime-time family viewing hours. Tri-Star eventually caved to pressure and pulled the film from theaters after two weeks, but by that time the film had already turned a profit, due in no small part to the controversy. When it was released on home video, it found its widest audience and began its ascent as a cult classic.

Garbage Day

Silent Night, Deadly Night came right at the end of the first wave of slashers and the protests surrounding it had apparently put the nail in the coffin of the subgenre. Fortunately for horror fans, an imaginative and sophisticated film released on the same day as SNDN would breathe new life into horror: Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. If not for Nightmare and its first two very successful sequels, there may never have been a return to this franchise or several others that received their first sequels in the late ’80s. Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 is a very strange entry in the series and contains some of its best and worst moments. It is notorious for being made up largely of footage from the first film and even much of the new footage treads similar ground to the original. That said, it does so with tongue firmly planted in cheek and a great deal of twinkle in its eye.

The film begins with Billy’s little brother Ricky (Eric Freeman) recounting the events from the first outing, even those he wasn’t there for or apparently remembers from infancy. When the story of the first film is exhausted and Ricky’s story takes over, the film truly takes off. We learn that the color red has a Manchurian Candidate-like effect on him, awakening his traumas and driving him to murder. The film features several imaginative kills in its second half including one with an umbrella and another involving a set of jumper cables. This leads to the movie’s most iconic sequence: Ricky’s memorable shooting rampage and delivery of the line “garbage day.” The last act of the film at the Mother Superior’s house (#666—an odd choice for a nun) is inspired insanity.

Eric Freeman as Ricky gives one of the most memorably over-the-top performances in horror history, leaving no scenery unchewed and delivering some top-notch eyebrow acting. The film takes itself far less seriously than many of the films in the franchise making it perhaps the most fun entry. It would be a stretch to call it “good,” but it is most certainly entertaining and my personal favorite of them all.

Jarhead

By the third installment, it was clear that the franchise was not particularly lucrative on the big screen, so the producers opted to bypass that phase (along with the horrible reviews the first two received) and go straight to video. It was the logical choice to take this route as it had always been where the SNDN films had thrived. By the late ’80s and early ’90s, direct-to-video titles were becoming more common in horror and finding quite a cult audience.

Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out is a strange mix of slasher, Frankenstein film, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Wait Until Dark. In it, Ricky now played by Bill Moseley, is awakened from a coma by his psychic link to a young blind woman named Laura (Samantha Scully). Ricky’s brain has been reconstructed by Dr. Newbury (Richard Beymer of the original West Side Story ) and is now visible beneath a glass dome encasing the top of his head. Ricky escapes and, thanks to a psychic connection between them, follows Laura, along with her brother and his girlfriend, to the secluded home of her grandmother. Dr. Newbury pursues Ricky with the help of police Lieutenant Connely, played by Robert Culp, who apparently has a side hustle selling cellular plans.

The film takes itself much more seriously than either of its predecessors, an odd choice considering the killer has a jar on his head. The one exception to this is Culp who completely understands the movie he is in and seems to be having the time of his life. All in all, the film is mostly a boilerplate slasher with a few surprises and gonzo creative touches along the way. The sheer audacity of turning Ricky into a cross between Michael Myers and the Frankenstein monster makes the film at least worth a look.

Of Bugs and Bond Girls

The fourth installment, Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation , is the Halloween III of the Silent Night, Deadly Night franchise. It really has nothing to do with the killers of the previous films and deals with ancient cults and witchcraft. To borrow a phrase from Tommy Lee Wallace, the director of Halloween III, this is very much a “pod” movie rather than a “knife” movie.

It stars Neith Hunter as Kim, an aspiring reporter for a small Los Angeles newspaper, who takes it upon herself to investigate a mysterious death, apparently by spontaneous combustion. As she searches, she meets a bookstore owner named Fima, played by The Man with the Golden Gun and Octopussy Bond girl Maud Adams. From there we are treated to pagan rituals, an Achilles heel biting, plenty of goopy practical effects courtesy of Screaming Mad George, and Clint Howard as a character named Ricky who is probably not (though could be) a continuation of the character from the previous movies.

Initiation is the most bonkers film of the series, with the possible exception of the last act of Part 2. The fact that it takes place at Christmas is fairly incidental to the story, giving the viewer the feeling that it was probably written as a stand-alone project and grafted into the franchise. Directed by Brian Yuzna on the heels of Society and Bride of Re-Animator , the film has a lot of big ideas and wild effects, but also a clearly smaller budget than either of those films. Despite its limitations, Initiation has some jaw-dropping moments and returns to some of the fun of earlier films.

Pinocchio

Maybe the biggest surprise of the original SNDN franchise is that it ends on such a high note with the fifth installment: Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker . Like Initiation, it is unrelated to any other entry in the franchise, but it does capture the holiday season more than any other in the series since the first. In fact, it is really the only film besides the original that has to take place at Christmas as an integral element of the story. Its regular references to Pinocchio make it something of a dark and twisted fairy tale, giving it a mythic quality even within its rather confined space and timeframe.

Young Derek (William Thorne) is awakened one night not long before Christmas to find a wrapped gift addressed to him left outside the front door of his house. He then witnesses his father killed by the toy Santa that was inside the box. A mere two weeks later, his mother seems to have already begun to move on, but Derek has not spoken a word since the traumatic incident. She takes the boy to Petto’s Toy Store in hopes to make him feel better. In one of horror’s great meme-able “how it started—how it’s going” moments, outspoken opponent of the original film Mickey Rooney plays Joe Petto, the titular toy maker. As the film goes on, several killer toys find their way to various victims and dispatch them in memorable ways. Filled with misdirects and red herrings, The Toy Maker is not only an entertaining holiday horror film, but a fairly effective whodunnit that culminates in a bizarre and memorable final reveal.

The film also has several in-jokes and callbacks to the previous film including three actors from it: Neith Hunter, Clint Howard, and Conan Yuzna all playing characters with the same name as Initiation but decidedly different in every other way. The toy “Larry the Larvae” is also a clear reference to the giant bug larvae in Initiation, and a little girl sitting on Santa’s lap asks him for “the tape of Bride of Re-Animator,” a reference to Brian Yuzna. These kinds of meta-details are something of a running joke throughout the franchise. Starting with Part 2, characters in each of the films are seen watching clips from the previous installment either on a movie screen or television. This is especially mind-bending in the second film where Ricky and his date Jennifer (Elizabeth Cayton) are apparently watching Silent Night, Deadly Night even though they are living in the direct sequel to that film.

It is quirks like this that make this strange franchise so endearing. It is at its best when it lets us in on the joke and allows us to have a good time. Over the years, all five films have continued to grow in cult status with the original generally regarded as an important slasher to the horror canon. Each film has its charms and its warts but all are essential holiday horror viewing. In a strange way, they remind me a little of the Christmas tree ornaments I made as a kid. Some turned out pretty great while others are a bit misshapen, but every year, they all end up on the tree. The Silent Night, Deadly Night films may not exactly be masterpieces, but they are certainly key fixtures of any holiday horror tradition.