Charles Dickens’s 1843 novella A Christmas Carol is as familiar as the holiday itself. As a quintessential story of redemption, it’s hard to imagine a world before Ebenezer Scrooge. Roughly a hundred years later, director Frank Capra delivered a similar redemptive tale with the Jimmy Stewart classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
Both stories had elements of darkness within their exploration of humanity, but neither delved into the murder and mayhem of the Christmas slasher films that followed. It was only a matter of time before Santa Clause became a serial killer, which audiences would get their first glimpse of on screen in the brief “And All Through the House” segment in the 1972 film Tales From the Crypt.
The1970s and 80s introduced a decidedly macabre take on the holiday genre. Nonetheless, these films exhibited a certain charm amid their profitable nihilism. It was a special time and place, where young filmmakers thrived in merging horror tropes with the holidays, long before Tim Burton arrived on the scene. One of the earliest examples of this twisted trend began with the aptly titled Black Christmas, a horror film that remains frightening to this day.
Black Christmas (1974)
Director Bob Clark played a pivotal role in launching the slasher genre with this tense, atmospheric film that entirely lives up to its reputation. Initially dismissed by critics, the movie has since gained a deeper appreciation for its artful cinematography, serious themes, and stark horror. Clark helped shape the prototype slasher film with a level of quality not often associated with the genre. There have been two worthless “name only” remakes, largely unrelated to the original plot.
The story involves a group of sorority girls being harassed by an unseen psycho who may or may not be known by them. Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, and Kier Dullea round out the talented cast, with some other familiar faces in the mix. As the murders continue unabated, we never learn the identity of the killer, which was something rarely, if ever, seen before. Black Christmas heavily inspired John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), which led to the slasher boom of the 80s. Not content with one genre, Bob Clark later went on to direct the cherished holiday classic, A Christmas Story (1983).
Ralphie’s childhood quest for a Red Ryder BB gun is quite different than anything seen in Black Christmas, and it’s a testament to Clark’s versatility. Writer Jean Shepherd’s humorous, semi-fictional accounts of growing up in the 1950s is about as far from a slasher film one could get. Both films, in my opinion, can be appreciated on different levels. Clark cemented two equally enjoyable holiday classics for generations to come.
Silent Night, Deadly Night (Part I-V)
The abundance of slasher films throughout the 80s weren’t without controversy. Bloody, elaborate special effects were often removed, following a merciless MPAA crackdown. In short, fans were left with tedious buildups to off-screen kills, amid other frustrations.
These films were seen as an affront to decency by parents and religious leaders alike, and maybe they were right. But nothing angers gore-loving teenagers more than censorship. I can attest to that. One movie, Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), earned special derision from critic Roger Ebert, who called the profits from the film “blood money” in his heated review. He may have had a point as well. Horror movies, in general, are driven by profit. Violence sells, especially when it’s holiday themed.
Silent Night, Deadly Night continued the psychological tropes first introduced in Christmas Evil (1980). In both cases, traumatized, disturbed men unleashed their fury on society, dressed as Santa Clause. I’m still amazed that Silent Night, Deadly Night garnered five sequels, rendered unrecognizable by the fifth installment. The first film remains the best one, and the lengths they went to extend the series are a riot.
The initial outing tells the story of Billy Chapman (Robert Brian Wilson), who witnessed his parents’ murder at the hands of a Santa Clause-costumed killer. Chapman’s subsequent attempts at a “normal life” are derailed when he takes a job as a mall Santa and predictably snaps. It’s a straight-forward slasher that contains a certain depth to its portrayal of an orphaned child, doomed to the failures of the system.
The movie was pulled from theaters, following an outrage campaign in response to its commercials portraying an ax-wielding maniac dressed as Santa Clause. Simpler times, indeed. The shameless sequel presents forty minutes of footage from the original film through flashbacks recited by the brother of the original killer.
Ricky Caldwell (Eric Freeman), our demented lead, supposedly remembers everything about his brother’s descent, even though he was an infant at the time. All of this was intentional. Due to the first movie being pulled so quickly from theaters, the producers didn’t think anyone would notice if they “reassembled” the first film into a sequel. In the end, we were given an enjoyably bizarre suburban rampage, containing the brief but immortal “Garbage Day” segment. The movie is trash, but earnestly tries to breathe life into a pointless endeavor.
Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out (1989) is an anemic straight-to-video concoction, featuring a girl with psychic powers inexplicably linked to the killer, ala Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988). Back then, plenty of films shamelessly stole from the Brian De Palma’s masterful Stephen King adaptation Carrie (1976). It’s a movie so dull and boring, that it completely earns Ebert’s ire from the first installment.
The best thing that could be said about Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation (1990) is that it tries to be something completely different, even while copying Rosemary’s Baby (1969). It’s a cult movie, directed by the talented Brian Yuzna and starring the legendary Clint Howard. A young, ambitious reporter gets intertwined with a deadly witch cult. There’s plenty of mystery and intrigue that’s as enjoyable as a fourth entry can be. I appreciate their attempts to change things up, even if it has nothing to do with the original. It does take place during Christmas, allowing the cynical holiday tie-in to continue.
They weren’t even trying for consistency by the time Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (1991) rolled around. This bizarre entry features a deranged toy maker, as promised, portrayed by Mickey Rooney. My explanation of the plot wouldn’t do it justice, but it’s worth seeing out of morbid curiosity. In retrospect, I give it even more credit for shifting away from the source material. It’s the most ridiculous Christmas-themed movie you could see outside of Santa Clause Conquers the Martians (1964). One thing is for certain, Silent Night, Deadly Night films are less disturbing than the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special, which still ranks as the most traumatic viewing experience of all time.
Since then, there has been an explosion of sorts of modern Christmas horror films, including a loose Silent Night, Deadly Night remake simply titled Silent Night (2012), as well as Krampus (2015), A Christmas Horror Story (2015), and Red Christmas (2016), among others. Each of these tried to put their own unique spins on the holiday horror genre, and all with varying results. But the above-named earlier films will always remain the go-to’s for anyone searching for true fright during the Christmas season.