Friday, November 21, 2014


by Don Stradley

It sits unnoticed in a section of the VOD playlist this week in a category called "X-mas Horrors." But 30 years ago this month, Silent Night, Deadly Night was as notorious and controversial as a movie can be.

 My 3-year-old son saw the television commercial for Silent Night, Deadly Night last week and now refuses to sit on Santa's lap for our annual Christmas picture this year. How dare producer Ira Barmak rob my child and others like him of their fantasy. Make the splatter films, if you must, about adult subjects and leave our holidays alone. What next? A marauding turkey at Thanksgiving?
Paige Hurley
Brooklyn Center, Minn.

 So went a letter to People magazine published on Christmas Eve, 1984. The same tone was found in many newspaper editorials, as editors wailed and gnashed their teeth at the prospect of children being denied their image of a friendly Santa. Some cried about "lost innocence." The recurring theme from editors and angry parents seemed to be, Is nothing sacred? Barmak, the producer under fire for backing a movie where a man dressed as Santa murdered people with an ax,  defended his choice.

"The premise, God forgive me, struck me as funny," Barmak told People in response to the tempest.  "I thought it could really work with the right balance of humor and fright. Our target audience is teenagers over 17 and young adults who go to these pictures like they go on roller coasters. They aren't looking for a believable story; they go to be startled, to yell back at the screen."

Silent Night Deadly Night #1 - 16x20 Inches Photograph Master Print High QualityDuring its three month shooting schedule in Utah, the film was known as "Slayride" (the script by Michael Hickey,  purchased by Barmak after a single reading, was based on a novel of the same name by Paul Caimi). Tri-Star changed the movie's title at the last minute. Equipped with a new title, the movie opened on approximately 400 screens on the same weekend as A Nightmare on Elm Street. Thanks to the country's increasing appetite for splatter films and an all-out TV ad campaign, the killer Santa movie briefly out-grossed Freddy Krueger's debut by around $161,800 before the surprising backlash from concerned parental groups.

Critics hammered it, too. Most dismissed it as just Hollywood's latest attempt to yank dollars away from idiot teens. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel read the credits out loud on their television show saying, "shame, shame, shame" after each name. A Syracuse Herald critic asked, "Can any director sink lower?"

Silent Night Deadly Night was directed by Charles Sellier Jr., who'd previously been known for producing such mild fare as Grizzly Adams, Chariots of the Gods, and Mark Twain's America. In fact, Sellier was so uncomfortable with gore that he stepped aside to allow assistant director Michael Spence to handle the murder scenes.

"We're not sleazy, cigar-chewing profiteers," said Barmak, who admitted the TV adds were not supposed to run in the early evening, but were meant for radio stations and MTV. The 30-second ad that created the most controversy showed what was obviously a hand belonging to Santa, using an ax to break a door down, and then pulling a knife from his belt while a voice intoned 'The Night before Christmas.'

The ads ran for one week and were canceled before the movie's opening. Barmak was sorry that people were upset, but he didn't back down from defending the movie's subject matter.

"People have taken offense at Santa being used in a scary context," he argued. "Santa Claus is not a religious figure, he's a mythic character. I didn't deliberately ride roughshod over that sensitivity and I didn't anticipate the objection to it." Indeed, astute horror fans could've told pointed out that Santa's image had already been used in Tales from The Crypt (1974), and Christmas Evil (1980).

Barmak was a film industry veteran, having previously run corporate divisions at CBS, Filmways, and Columbia Pictures.  He'd approached Tri-Star in early 1983 with a pitch, promising that he could produce several low budget, money-making movies, one of which was a Christmas-themed horror feature.  Tri-Star, a new but fast rising company, was particularly interested in distributing some horror titles, especially after seeing the success  of Paramount's Friday the 13th series. Tri-Star president Gary Hendler approved of two Barmak projects, a romantic tear-jerker and the horror film. Barmak considered making the tear-jerker first, but something about blood in the snow must have been hard to resist.

The story begins on Christmas Eve. A small boy watches a drunken madman dressed as Santa Claus shoot his father, then slice his mother's throat with a switchblade. As the tale unfolds, the suddenly orphaned child is being raised in a grim Catholic orphanage by a sadistic Mother Superior. At age 18 he leaves the orphanage and gets a job in a toy store. When his boss asks him to play Santa on Christmas Eve, the tormented young man snaps. The remainder of the movie follows him as he slashes a bloody path on his way back to the orphanage.  He notches eight victims: one is strangled with a cord of blinking Christmas lights, another (scream queen Linnea Quigley)  is impaled on a pair of reindeer antlers. Perhaps the best scene involves an unsuspecting sap on a sled, who happens to ride by this ax-wielding Santa at the wrong time. With a swing that would make Barry Bonds proud, Santa scores a neat decapitation. The headless body continues downhill in a moment of splatter movie magic.

While the film was certainly violent enough, it was the gratuitous sex and nudity that earned the movie its R rating. Indeed, Sellier may have been uncomfortable with gore, but he didn't seem to mind nipples. In fact, there were enough boob shots in Silent Night Deadly Night to satisfy Russ Meyer. Despite the movie's sordid reputation, it's more watchable than you'd think. Sellier's direction is tight and fast moving. Also, the acting is slightly better than what we often saw in horror films of the period. 

Granted, the movie had some flaws. For one, Christmas just isn't scary. For another, Robert Brian Wilson looked too much like a Sears catalog model to make an especially compelling killer. Then there were the usual glitches found in low budget movies. One critic noted that Linnea Quigley "goes to the door topless, apparently insulated by love because she doesn't shiver once in the frigid cold."

Still, the movie has more pluses than minuses. From far away, in scenes where we see the demented Santa prowling through the darkened woods, the movie achieves a kind of offbeat weirdness. This is, after all, a Santa with an ax. The musical score by Perry Botkin is creepy and delicate, one of the better horror movie scores of the era. Journeyman cinematographer Henning Schellerup also did a tremendous job of capturing the frigid, empty atmosphere of Utah. Botkin and Schellerup are the unsung heroes of the film, but their great work wasn't enough to impress angry parents.

Milwaukee was one of the first cities to attack. Then Elyria, Ohio. Then various cities in Montana, and then all across the country. Civic leaders, parish priests, PTA groups, local politicians, and hundreds of volunteers unleashed their concern. With placards reading "Deck the Hall with Holly, Not Bodies!", they marched, signed petitions, and protested. The pressure tactics worked. One theater after another pulled Silent Night Deadly Night, much to the embarrassment of Tri-Star. During the fateful second week, as protesters picketed the film in cities across the nation, profits fell about 45%.  

The movie managed to turn a profit in its short release - it was budgeted at approximately 1-million dollars, and made twice that in it's first week - but it could have been one of the big hits of the season if it had been allowed to play. Some suspected that Tri-Star took shelved the film due to pressure from HBO, CBS, and Columbia,  the parent companies of Tri-Star with major figures from each organization sitting on the Tri-Star executive committee. The attitude may have been that themovie had made some money, so let's pull it rather than endure any more problems, or a possible boycott of our other programming.

The Silent Night Deadly Night controversy continued even after it was pulled.  Coca-Cola, known for its family friendly image, was under fire from family groups for investing in such unwholesome fare as adult-themed TV shows, and, you guessed it, Silent Night Deadly Night.  The Jaycees in Cheyenne, Wyo., voted to dismantle the "Santa Room" in a haunted house the club was operating as a charitable activity. The room was based on Silent Night Deadly Night.

Bloodied but unbowed, Barmak bought back the the film from Tri-Star, including all 400 prints, previews and negatives,  and brought it to Aquarius Film Releasing, the company that brought us such fare as Deep Throat, and  Faces of Death.  But not even veteran trash mongers like Aquarius could do much with Silent Night Deadly Night.  It played for a handful of weeks during the spring of 1985, was booked for three showings at the Cannes film festival that summer, and then vanished. An uncut version of the movie resurfaced in video stores later in the year. (The VHS  has been long out of print, but you might find it on E-Bay for 30 or 40s bucks.) Meanwhile, Barmak began work on a new project, a remake of Pride of the Marines.   He was tackling a more patriotic project "to show what a wonderful guy I am." It was never made.


Barmak remained  puzzled by the angry response to his little slasher movie. He wasn't a horror film buff, but he thought Silent Night Deadly Night was a harmless trifle compared to movies like The Omen or The Shining. He must have been shocked to learn that even the film's star told people to stay away.

"They pushed the story out the door and replaced it with gore," Wilson told People. "I told friends and family with kids not to go see it."

Wilson's career was limited to a handful of TV roles. He hasn't appeared in anything since a 1992 spot on 'Jake and the Fat Man'. Sellier stayed busy, producing documentaries. He died in 2011. Barmak passed away in 1993, the same year he produced an interesting Warner Herzog documentary called Bells from the Deep. Tri-Star dropped the hyphen, became TriStar, and has been swallowed up and regurgitated many times. It's currently part of Sony.

A 30th anniversary edition of Silent Night Deadly Night has just been released on Blu-Ray, and Botkin's intriguing soundtrack has just been released as a two record vinyl set by a company called Death Waltz.  The film is worth a watch, and a listen. 

Much has changed since 1984. In a world of terrorist attacks and public beheadings, the cartoonish mayhem of Silent Night Deadly Night seems hardly the stuff of nightmares. The children who grew up on such movies (and its four sequals) are now the parents, and if they're concerned about what they're own kids are watching, you wouldn't know it. Besides, the local cineplex isn't likely to show a low budget horror movie, not when most screens are occupied by bloated epics from the Marvel Universe, or Pixar, or Disney. I can't remember the last time a horror movie, or any movie, created such a furor. Those days seem far behind us. Oh, where have you gone, Linnea Quigley?

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