Silent Night, Deadly Night

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Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), even by today’s standards, continues to live up to its controversial reputation. The circumstances surrounding the release and distribution of this classic slasher have passed on into the stuff of Hollywood lore. If one strips away the public and critical reactions to this film and examine it on its own merits, Silent Night, Deadly Night is remarkably like John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), just transposed to a different holiday.

It’s the differences between Halloween and Silent Night, Deadly Night that make the latter film so much more disturbing. That isn’t to say that filmmaker Charles Sellier and screenwriter Michael Hickey’s choice to set a horror film during Christmas isn’t subversive on its own, but it had been done before with films like Bob Clark’s classic Black Christmas (1974). The real power of Silent Night, Deadly Night comes from the choice to make the killer of the piece the sympathetic victim of the first and second acts of the film.

If one looks at Halloween one sees a film where the killer is given the most barebones motivation with the design of elevating this psychotic figure to the level of some horrific supernatural force. Unlike Michael Myers, Billy Chapman (Robert Brian Wilson) gets roughly half of the runtime of Silent Night, Deadly Night dedicated to examining the terrible traumas he experienced as a child that would set him off on a path of total murderous mayhem.

Chapman’s relationship with Sister Margaret (Gilmer McCormick) is also explored with much more depth and nuance than Dr. Loomis’ relationship with Michael Myers in Halloween. But like Halloween, the character of Sister Margaret functions in the same ways as Loomis both as a moral guide and quasi-audience surrogate.

The similarities between Silent Night, Deadly Night and Halloween are essentially superficial. After all each film is approaching the same genre with a very different agenda. For Charles Sellier the terror of Silent Night, Deadly Night is derived from raising the possibility that if the viewer had experienced the horrors that Billy Chapman endured as a child they too may have gone on a rampage. Silent Night, Deadly Night is a horror picture that asks the audience to look within themselves as conscious individuals rather than as creatures of pure instinct.

Silent Night, Deadly Night with all of its gore, nudity, sex and violence owes more to grindhouse films than it does to the traditionalism of a filmmaker like Alfred Hitchcock. It is a film that is totally at ease with all of the trappings of an exploitation film. This only adds to how subversive and unsettling a Christmas movie it is. It’s these stylistic paradoxes that have inspired the cult following around Silent Night, Deadly Night.