Home » Nine Reasons Silent Night Deadly Night Defines ‘80s Horror

Nine Reasons Silent Night Deadly Night Defines ‘80s Horror

Silent Night, Deadly Night

Everybody’s got their favorite holiday movies. For some folks, it’s A Christmas Story, for others, It’s A Wonderful Life or Christmas Vacation. But in my household, there’s just one movie that we rightly call a Christmas classic. And that movie is, of course, Silent Night Deadly Night.

You might think I’m pulling your leg, but the same way lots of normal families watched Frosty and Rudolph, my mother and I would put on a VHS cassette of SNDN to get ourselves in the holiday spirit. So many fuzzy memories, sitting there by the fireplace, drinking hot cocoa (mom’s had vodka in it, but that’s kind of an aside) and just soaking up the Yuletide mirth of watching little Billy go from a model toy store employee to a bona fide nutcase strangling people with Christmas lights. Sigh–it almost brings a nostalgic tear to this old soul’s eyes. 

Of course, SNDN wasn’t the first movie to feature a psycho murderer dressed up like Saint Nick running around, swinging a fire axe at people. The original Tales From the Crypt anthology did that all the way back in 1972. Nor was SNDN the first movie to give us a pseudo-psychological profile of a killer Kris Kringle. Christmas Evil (a.k.a., You Better Watch Out) came out a couple years before Silent Night did. But what SNDN did do was give us the best of both worlds–a movie that worked just as well as an introspective thriller as it did a straight up, holiday-themed teenager shish-ka-bob slasher. Simply put, SNDN is one of the best slasher movies from an era that gave us a deluge of outstanding genre movies, and in many ways, the flick encapsulates everything that made 1980s stab-a-thons such exquisite degenerate cinema. 

And with Shout Factory’s snazzy new double disc Blu-ray re-release of the movie (complete with a killer Santa action figure!) coming out in early December, what better time to reflect on everything that made SNDN such an unforgettable product of its time? Get those chestnuts on the grill and be sure to hide the cutlery–it’s my pleasure to show you why SNDN embodies everything outrageous, outlandish and awesome about the heyday of slasher cinema.

The Creepy Grandpa!

Now here’s a trope that’s all but been abandoned. Back in the day, slasher movies were pretty much required by genre law to feature at least one crazy old coot who tried to warn the kids they were about to get their guts yanked out by a guy wearing a kabuki mask (think, Crazy Ralph from Friday the 13th). And SNDN gives us one of the eeriest prophets in the history of horror movies.  You see, before one half of the Chapman family gets offed by a psycho Santa, they first visit their allegedly catatonic gramps in the old folks home, and when it’s just Grandpa and Billy in the room, all of a sudden Gramps starts going off on a rant about Christmas Eve being “the scariest damned night of the year”. Even weirder–the zany senior citizen was played by Will Hare, who just a year later portrayed Otis Peabody in Back to the Future

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Forget the killer Santa – this mofo is the spookiest thing about the whole flick!

Evil Nuns!

One of the things I really love about this movie is that, for all intents and purposes, the real villain of the movie ain’t Santa, but the Catholics. Indeed, the movie pretty much comes out and tells us that little Billy’s abusive upbringing in an orphanage–where Mother Superior convinced him that premarital sex was unnatural and anybody doing the nasty outside of wedlock deserved to have their brains beat out–did just as much psychological harm to our protagonist as watching his parents get murdered by a crook dressed up like Father Christmas. Unsurprisingly, one of the most vocal groups opposed to the movie getting a national release back in ‘84 just so happened to be The Catholic Conference. Gee, you think they might have had a personal vendetta against this one? 

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The best part is when she does a kazoo solo. No, that actually happens, for real.

An Authentic 1980s Toy Store!

If you’re hankering for a plastic nostalgia overdose, you’ll love this movie–especially the scenes set inside Ira’s toy shop. There’s quite an eyeful of retro action figures all over the place to gawk at and geek out over, including a plethora of vintage, in-box Star Wars and He-Man figurines and play sets. Hell, there’s even a buncha G.I. Joe Halloween costumes sneaking their way into a few shots, for no discernible reason whatsoever. And speaking of Ira, the bowtie bedecked operator of said toy store, he easily has the movie’s best line: “Seven o’clock. It’s over. Time to get shit-faced!” 

The Most Amazingly Crappy Christmas Song of All-Time!

The mid-1980s were ground zero for folksy, heartland wuss rock (it gave us John Cougar Mellencamp, didn’t it?) and SNDN contains one of the absolute WORST Christmas songs you’ll ever hear. In fact, it’s so terrible it literally wraps around the fabric of time and space  and actually turns awesome and catchy as hell after a couple of listens. In case you’re wondering, the track is “Warm Side of the Door” by Morgan Ames. Be warned, however: this song will get stuck in your head, and nothing short of a deranged maniac in a Sears Santa suit decapitating you will get it out of there.

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Finally, Some Pragmatic Mass Murder!

One of my biggest pet peeves about late 1980s slasher movies is how preposterous the kills get. For whatever reason, sometime around the eighth season of Diff’rent Strokes, filmmakers decided just stabbinpeople to death wasn’t good enough any more, so we started seeing all these absurd, over-the-top kills like that woman in Elm Street 4 getting turned into a cockroach and the guy who played Bernie in Weekend at Bernie’s getting tree-trimmered to death by Jason in Friday 7. What I love about SNDN is how practical all the kills are. Billy isn’t going out of his way to make some sort of symbolic statement, he grabs the nearest strangling or skewering device next to him, be it a box cutter or some rolled up Christmas lights and he just plain makes it work. Come to think of it, Billy might just be the last of the truly great D.I.Y. slashers. Let us never forget his sensible slaughtering ways. 

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Now that’s one psycho murderer who knows how to be resourceful!

Even The Children’ Aren’t Safe!

I’ve long believed in the sanctity of Joe Bob Briggs’ numbero uno rule for all great horror flicks: Anybody can die, at any time. And SNDN definitely adheres to that time-tested formula, with our leading man Billy refusing to discriminate against his victims based on criteria like race, gender or age. As a matter of fact, Billy’s especially keen on treating children the same way he treats adults – which means there may or may not be one or more scenes in the movie involving teenagers getting their heads knocked clean off their shoulders while bobsledding. 

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Like I said … there may or may not be at least one preteen decapitation.

Linnea Quigley! 

Sorry, Jamie Curtis and Linda Blair, Linnea Quigley was unquestionably the Scream Queen of the 1980s. Sure, Linnea wowed us in Night of the Demons and Return of the Living Dead (she was the gal who danced nekkid atop the tombstone and then turned zombie and ate half of Kentucky) but her role in SNDN might just be her crowning performance of the eighties. Of course, she’s only in the movie for about five minutes, but that’s still enough time for her to pop her top off and get impaled on a pair of moose antlers. And no, I don’t know why she got snubbed for Best Supporting Actress that year, either.  

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This is pretty much the only work-safe scene featuring Linnea Quigley from the whole dang movie.

The Killer’s Catchphrase!

As a general rule, anytime you make a slasher too talky, it’s to the detriment of the film as a whole (as evident by the long line of Freddy Krueger ripoffs that have come down the pipes over the last few decades.) Alas, SNDN subverts this by making Billy a guy who only flaps his lips when it’s absolutely necessary. And once he goes on his Yuletide rampage, he adopts one of the most brilliant horror movie mottos of all-time: the bisyllabic war cry “PUNISH!”, which he most notably shouts right before sinking a fire axe into the abdomen of a policeman who really should’ve double checked to make sure there wasn’t a 6-foot-tall, 200-pound dude in a Papa Noel costume waiting for him to emerge from the cellar the whole dang time.

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It Knows How To Do A Sequel Hook Right!

Alright, there’s no way to wrap this thing up without spoiling the ending, but seeing as how you’ve had 33 years to get around to watching the damn thing, I reckon I shouldn’t feel any guilt about it. First off, we’ve got this great fake out denouement where you see a Santa Claus slowly slinking his way towards the orphanage, so of course the po-po open fire on him and turn him into Swiss cheese. Only thing is, it wasn’t the real killer, it was a deaf priest who couldn’t hear the cops telling him “put the bag down or else we ventilate you into next Tuesday.” Then, when everybody’s got their guards down, the real Santa killer creeps his way in there and he’s *yay* close to turning the head nun that tortured him as a young ‘un into a pile of Lincoln Logs. But right before he chops her into toothpicks, the cops run in and fill him full of more holes than the script for Revenge of the Sith. But the best part is the very, very end of the movie, where Ricky (Billy’s little brother) climbs over his sibling’s bullet-riddled corpse and starts tugging on Mother Superior’s habit, calling her “naughty” over and over again. It’s the absolute perfect way to end the movie and leave the door open for a follow-up, which, unfortunately, gave us Silent Night Deadly Night 2, which can rightfully be called not just one of the worst horror sequels ever, but one of the worst things ever that starts with the letter “S”. It probably ranks somewhere between scurvy and Scott Stapp’s solo career. 

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Look like she should’ve AXED Santa for a different present!

So what are you waiting for? If you haven’t seen Silent Night for whatever stupid reason, it’s the peak time of year to give it a screening. And if it’s been a few years since you last checked it out, I say it’s definitely worthy of a repeat viewing. It’s seriously one of the scariest, most nuanced, and most entertaining slasher movies from the era. And if you’re real good this year, Santa might even drop that new Scream Factory Blu-ray in your stocking. But if you’ve been bad? As SNDN tried to warn you, don’t be surprised if Kris Kringle climbs down your chimney on Dec. 25 and shoots you in the cornea with a junior bow and arrow set first thing in the morning.  

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Written by James Swift
James Swift is an Atlanta-area writer, reporter, documentary filmmaker, author and on-and-off marketing and P.R. point-man whose award winning work on subjects such as classism, mental health services, juvenile justice and gentrification has been featured in dozens of publications, including The Center for Public Integrity, Youth Today, The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, The Alpharetta Neighbor and Thought Catalog. His 2013 series “Rural America: After the Recession” drew national praise from the Community Action Partnershipand The University of Maryland’s Journalism Center on Children & Familiesand garnered him the Atlanta Press Club’s Rising Star Award for best work produced by a journalist under the age of 30. He has written for Taste of Cinema, Bloody Disgusting, and many other film sites. (Fun fact: Wikipedia lists him as an expert on both “prison rape” and “discontinued Taco Bell products,” for some reason.)
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