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Blogvent Day 14 – Silent Night Deadly Night (1984,USA)

14/12/2011

Director: Charles E. Sellier Jr.        Starring: Lilyan Chauvin, Gilmer McCormick, Robert Brian Wilson, Britt Leach

Day fourteen and we find ourselves back in homicidal Santa territory with this 1984 Christmas horror film that is more than a little reminiscent of 1980’s Christmas Evil although with a much more extreme feel and higher production values and probably about an equal cynical disdain for the commercialisation of the festive season.

When he is just five years old Billy witnesses his parents brutally murdered by a homicidal maniac who is attempting to make his escape from an armed robbery he committed disguised as Santa Claus. Although he represses the memory, Billy ends up fetishising his fear of Saint Nicholas who he sees as a punisher of the naughty and this is only heightened by the punishment doled out to him by the compassionless Mother Superior (Chauvin) of the orphanage he ends up in who refuses to accept there is anything wrong with him psychologically that some good old fashioned corporal punishment won’t fix. When Billy turns eighteen (played by the wholesome looking, all-American Robert Brian Wilson) and get’s a job at the local toy shop things come to a head and all the repressed fear and anger drive him to a psychotic, Santa suited rampage where he punishes the naughty with various sharp and some not so sharp implements.

There are a lot of good things about this film. Firstly, I really liked the way that Billy’s progression from sweet, innocent child to homicidal madman is charted, beginning with the trauma of his parents’ murder and progressing by way of his Christmas-phobic inability to toe the line in the orphanage which earns him brutal and undeserved punishment, reinforcing the psychological damage he has suffered and normalising the notion of violent punishment in his psyche. The efforts made by Sister Margaret (McCormick) to reach out to him and help him are quashed by the domineering Mother Superior who isn’t concerned with psychological nonsense and seems to only believe in a firm hand, ideally holding a leather belt, when it comes to addressing behavioural problems. The first half of the film is spent exploring these experiences in some detail and I think has been rather well thought out and executed.

Things go a bit wrong once Billy has flipped out though. Any complexity or depth established by his back story is essentially dispelled when he goes postal, with him being reduced to a guttural, single minded killer. As funny as his cries of “NAUGHTY!” and “PUNISHMENT!” often are, this sort of simplistic zombie-esque approach countermands everything that has been set up before it, effectively turning Billy into a caricature. This is a shame and if the filmmakers had exercised a little more restraint and subtlety it might have helped lift the second half of the film a little bit.

It is a lot of fun though. The non stabby bits are pretty funny. I especially like Britt Leach’s Mr Sims, proprietor of the toy shop and his veteran retailer’s approach to the season (closing his doors at seven pm on Christmas Eve he declares “They’re gone! It’s over! Time to get shit faced!”) and even a good proportion of the stabby bits manage to raise a laugh although efforts are made to maintain a sense of horror and tension from time to time, which are more or less successful. If I have a complaint about the killings it’s that a lot of the violence is quite sexualised and sometimes just a little more nasty than is really necessary. In on scene in particular a young girl answers the door inexplicably bare-chested just, or so it would appear, so that we can look at her boobs while she suffers something of a drawn out death at the hands of Mister Claus. While some of the nudity seems justifiable and relevant, that particular scene feels like it’s just been thrown in to snare a demographic rather than to make a dramatic point. I’ve nothing against gratuitous nudity per se, I just found it a bit much in a couple of the scenes here when coupled with the brutality of Billy’s rampage.

I was actually surprised by the social themes on show in this film, I actually expected it to be a much less thoughtful piece of work, a mindless slasher flick with little or no substance. In the end it turned out to be something better, a film that considers the concepts of nature versus nurture, of the effects of child abuse of the lies parents tell their children at an impressionable age and the echoes of them that go on to affect people in their later lives. The only problem is that once it’s considered them it throws them out and gets on with some mindless killing (is it really too much to ask to have a thoughtful lunatic in this sort of film?) and creative death scenes. It’s definitely worth checking out for some festive merriment if you are a genre fan but the grimness of some of the violence keeps it from being of much interest to more mainstream audiences.

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