In November of 1984, a Christmas horror movie titled Silent Night, Deadly Night was released. It’s a cheesy little slasher flick about a young man named Billy whose parents were murdered by a criminal dressed like Santa Claus when he was a child. The traumatic memory, combined with an abusive upbringing in a Catholic orphanage, cause Billy to become unhinged and violent. As an adult, Billy viciously murders anyone he deems to be “naughty.”
The premise is unremarkable enough. The violent and sexual content of the film was on par with its slasher peers. Regardless, SNDN stirred up an enormous amount of controversy in a short while – mostly due to its marketing. The media was saturated with print and TV ads featuring Santa Claus brandishing an axe while creepily lowering himself down a chimney. Children were terrified. Parents were outraged. After a surprisingly successful opening weekend at the box office, the film was abruptly yanked by its distributor.
Despite the limited theatrical run, the film earned a rabid cult following and was quite successful on home video, and thus, a franchise was born. While the first three entries focus on Billy and his similarly-deranged brother, Ricky, the series took a drastic turn with part four. Taking a cue from the Halloween series, the SNDN series’ fourth and fifth entries are standalone anthology Christmas horror stories.
Let’s take a brief look at each entry individually.
Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
The first film in the series is memorable even without acknowledging the marketing controversy. The acting is manic and over-the-top, and there are some wonderfully absurd moments. The film is filled with trashy nudity and violence. However, my favorite moment happens early on, when Billy visits his catatonic grandfather with his parents. The second Billy’s parents leave the room, grandpa grabs Billy and threatens him with stories of how Santa punishes naughty children. When the parents return, grandpa pretends to be unresponsive again.
Billy is far from being a memorable slasher villain. Nonetheless, the image of a disheveled man in a Santa Claus outfit growling, “Punish!” as he murders his victims is pretty damn entertaining. The segments with Billy as a child being mistreated by the orphanage’s Mother Superior are just as fun to laugh at as his violent rampage. There are plenty of quotable lines throughout. As far as Christmas horror movies are concerned, 1974’s Black Christmas is objectively superior. However, Silent Night, Deadly Night is a very fun and cheesy alternative.
Verdict: Watch It!
Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 (1987)
My personal favorite movie in the series, and an all-time schlock classic, SNDN2. It is a veritable one-man show for actor Eric Freeman, who plays Billy’s younger brother, Ricky. The film begins with Ricky in a mental institution, detailing the events of his and his brother’s lives to a psychiatrist. Nearly half of the film’s running time is devoted to flashbacks of Billy. This makes much of it feel like a “greatest hits” clip reel of the previous film. It’s a nice, succinct way to digest the original movie, but some great moments (such as the aforementioned “grandpa” scene) are sadly never shown.
After Billy’s death (he was shot by police while attempting to murder Mother Superior at the end of the first film), Ricky discovered that he was consumed by a similar urge to kill “naughty” people. Unable to manage his psychosis, Ricky eventually snaps. He goes on a killing spree throughout a suburban neighborhood, resulting in one of the greatest lines in the history of cinema. After telling his tale, Ricky kills the psychiatrist and escapes, hoping to finish his brother’s work and kill Mother Superior himself.
The Christmas horror in SNDN2 (which mostly has a darkly comedic tinge) is entertaining enough. There are plenty of bloody practical effects, but Eric Freeman absolutely steals the show with his manic performance. Ricky snarls line after line of inane dialogue with plenty of conviction. Given the era in which the film was released, I would even go so far as to compare him to “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in terms of “heel” attitude and body language.
Eric also acts almost entirely with his eyebrows, which move about wildly during every single line delivery. Clearly, I’m not the only fan of Mr. Freeman’s eyebrow acting, as there are multiple eyebrow montages on YouTube. My personal favorite is the “triple eyebrow raise” as he says the word “superior.” According to IMDB.com, Ricky’s eyebrows move up and down a total of 130 times. It’s quite astonishing.
Verdict: Buy It!
Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! (1989)
Where do I even begin with this one? Set six years after the previous film, SNDN3 once again focuses on Ricky. He has been in a comatose state since being shot by police while attempting to kill Mother Superior. Ricky (played by Bill Moseley this time), who now dons a transparent dome over the top of his head due to his injuries, is being treated by a man named Dr. Newbury, who attempts to reach out to Ricky psychically with the help of a woman named Laura.
Ricky eventually awakens and goes on yet another killing spree. His psychic link with Laura causes Ricky to fixate on her. He spends the majority of the movie stalking and killing her friends and family. There’s… not a whole lot else to this movie. The first half is painfully slow-paced, and the second is your run-of-the-mill direct-to-video slasher flick. Moseley went on to become a bit of a horror icon. However, he literally and figuratively sleepwalks through most of this stinker.
It’s worth noting that a surprising number of cast and crew members later appeared in David Lynch-directed projects. Maybe he was a fan (probably not).
Verdict: Skip It!
Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation (1990)
After an unremarkable conclusion to Ricky’s saga, the series was given a fresh start with the fourth SNDN entry. A standalone horror film directed by Brian Yuzna (producer of Re-Animator). A truly bizarre film, Initiation tells the tale of a journalist named Kim who is investigating a mysterious death that has occult implications. Kim’s investigation leads her down a grimy rabbit hole filled with witchcraft, ritual sacrifice, and lots and lots of bugs. Oh, and this all takes place during the holiday season, of course!
Initiation is, in a word, repulsive. I’m rarely offended by horror, but this one got to me. The goopy practical effects (by Screaming Mad George) are as impressive as they are disgusting. However, I can only really recommend this to the most hardcore of gorehounds. The writers attempt to inject a bit of feminism into their body horror-filled tale, but it ultimately rings hollow, with far more effort put into shocking viewers. Even Clint Howard can’t make this a fun movie.
Verdict: Burn It!
Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (1991)
The first attempt at a Christmas-themed (but not really) anthology movie was a dud. However, Brian Yuzna returned to produce one final direct-to-video entry in the series with The Toy Maker. With cover art depicting a morose child surrounded by sinister-looking toys and the tagline, “He’s home… but he’s not alone,” you might think that this is a horror take on Home Alone. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead, the final SNDN movie draws its inspiration from the beloved story of Pinocchio.
The surprisingly convoluted plot revolves around a boy named Derek and his mother, Sarah. There lives are turned upside-down when Derek’s father is killed by a weaponized toy that is left on their doorstep. The toy was created by a man named Joe Petto, who runs a toy store with his very weird son, Pino (this movie is not subtle).
Petto lost his mind when his wife died in an airplane crash years earlier, and has since devoted himself to creating murderous toys to unleash upon unsuspecting victims and customers, though why anyone would purchase “Larry the Larvae” to begin with is beyond me. Derek and Sarah become entangled in Petto’s ambitions. They eventually try to stop him in what is one of the most baffling climactic sequences I can think of.
This movie has it all: Mickey Rooney! Horny automatons! Puppet hand butt stuff (you read that correctly)! It’s a shining example of what a Christmas horror movie should be, even if it’s more than a little derivative of the Puppet Master movies. Effects are top-notch for a low budget film. And there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments (“You stay away from that Petto man!”. One thing is for certain – you’ll never think of Pinocchio the same way again!
Verdict: Buy It!
That’s five, count ‘em, five Silent Night, Deadly Night Christmas horror movies to get you through the holiday season. Though you probably only want to watch three. What’s that? There’s a 2012 remake? I haven’t seen it yet myself, but if it’s any good, you can bet it’ll show up in Schlockoholics Anonymous eventually! Happy Holidays!