Thursday, January 7, 2016

Holiday Horror: Silent Night, Deadly Night

Billy Chapman has had a hard life. At first, he was a lovely little boy, but frightened of Santa because his supposedly invalid grandfather told him that Santa punishes the wicked. Later that very night, a man dressed as Santa stops him and his family on their way home. Of course his parents are willing to help out, but the man turns out to be a crazed murderer. He shoots Billy's father and then slits his mother's throat after sexually assaulting her while Billy hides in the bushes by the road, praying to be ignored. Billy is understandably traumatized about Santa Claus, but his new guardian who is a Catholic nun believes in tough love and punishment, including forcing Billy to confront his fears. All of this culminates when he's eighteen and working in a department store. Their Santa became injured just before he was needed, so Billy fills the role and has a psychotic break. Can anyone save Billy?

I've heard Silent Night, Deadly Night lauded as the best slasher in history many a time. I was eager to watch it because I enjoy a good slasher and it wasn't quite what I expected. It has many memorable qualities, the first and foremost being that the murderer is both human and the main character. A lot of slashers from the same era focus on killers that are inhuman forces of nature. Billy is quite human with a traumatic childhood. His story is truly heartbreaking and I felt sorry for him, which is unique in this era of horror films. Slashers also typically focus on the final girl who survives after watching all of her friends day usually thanks to her virtuous behavior, but this iconic character is absent here. The first half of the film focuses on Billy's traumatic upbringing from the murder of his parents to the present day where he's eighteen. Besides the original deranged Santa murderer, there is no villain for this part of the film. The orphanage scenes are the most poignant because he had the chance to heal, but due to the misguided efforts of the Mother Superior, he is harmed further. It would have been easy to make Mother Superior into a flat villain that hates children, but she actually believes that severely punishing him physically for relatively small infractions and forcing him to face his fears by making him sitting on Santa's lap is helping him get better. Although her actions are monstrous, her motivations are genuine. This part makes the film much more complex than the usual slasher. When he turns eighteen, Billy is full of possibilities and ready to go on to the next stage of his life. Things go horribly wrong and the past snatches his chance to move on from his past trauma.

The latter part of the film becomes a typical slasher. Billy snaps when he is asked to be a toy store Santa and starts murdering people as an extreme version of Mother Superior's punishment. He first punished his vile coworker for attempting to rape the girl he has a crush on, but he turns around and kills her too. Through his experiences, he associates any sort of sexuality with punishment, as slashers are wont to do. As Billy goes on his murderous rampage, I held on hope that he would be saved in some way, but I knew it was pretty much impossible. Another nun from the orphanage sees the trouble early and tries to help, but it's really too little too late. This part of the film is quite boring, just a blur of blood and breasts with the least amount of character introduction possible for new victims. The acting is pretty uniformly bad except for Mother Superior. The last half of the film just kills it for me. The murdered characters beyond his coworkers aren't even fleshed out enough to really care about like they are in the typical slasher. Any sort of sexuality or nude woman is swiftly punished, which is typically problematic of the time. It started out so well and I was disappointed to see it descend into mediocrity at the end. The ending is predictably left open for sequels, of which there are four.

Silent Night, Deadly Night is half brilliant and half boring. The first half is revolutionary for the time, where we sympathize with the future murderer and main character. The second half is a little worse than every other slasher film because the killed characters aren't established enough to even care about. The music does a lot to heighten the tension and set the mood, but it's the only bright spot in the latter part of the film. I would say it's worth a watch, but not for repeat viewings,

My rating: 3.5/5 fishmuffins

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