Santa Showdown: “SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT” VS. “BLACK CHRISTMAS” (1974)
Jingle the Bells! Hit the lights! In celebration of FANGORIA’s re-release of the remastered original SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT, we present to you SANTA SHOWDOWN, a battle between the more gruesome ghosts from Christmas Past. So sit down by the fire, enjoy some eggnog and pray neither of these Christmas killers make their way down your chimney…
ROUND ONE: SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT VS. BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)
There’s been much said about what the “definitive” Christmas horror film might be, but horror fans will normally point in two directions: Bob Clark’s slasher progenitor BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) and Charles Sellier’s SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984). Although a decade separated one another, both studio-released films rode the waves of controversy and negative, knee-jerk critical reactions to almost instantaneous cult status. Obviously the Holiday Season releases of both, as well as the subject matter and setting, upset both religious and parents groups but in turn, guaranteed financial success.
To that point, however, is where most of the similarities end between the films. BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) is more suspense-driven, with a surprising amount of violence happening off-screen and the killer’s motives being mostly mysterious. SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT was a splatterfest, devoting the entire narrative to the killer’s modus operandi and graphically defiling the image of Santa Claus throughout. In fact, even the name of the killer, “Billy”, is left ambiguous in the former film, leaving that bridge between the films rocky at best.
BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) is generally considered the forefather of the modern slasher, but considering that term hadn’t become somewhat of a dirty word, the film was still able to pull in formidable talent in front of and behind the camera, and the result is shockingly elegant and creepy. Director Bob Clark and cinematographer Reginald Morris (who would both go on to one of the most iconic Christmas films of all time, A CHRISTMAS STORY) came from different backgrounds, benefiting the film greatly. Clark had established himself as an imaginative and actor-friendly director of unconventional horror, whereas Morris had an extensive documentary background, which helped stage the film’s voyeuristic moments with unnerving realism.
Furthermore, BLACK CHRISTMAS had an impressive assembly of on-screen talent, featuring an array of young performers and proven character players. For the more experienced actors, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY’s Keir Dullea, ENTER THE DRAGON’s John Saxon and Canadian stage veteran Marian Waldman lent the film their considerable gravitas. Meanwhile, ROMEO AND JULIET star Olivia Hussey, SISTERS’ Margot Kidder and a pre-BROOD Art Hindle gave it their all, offering surprisingly down-to-earth performances.
SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT is a product of the time and environment. Sleazy, no-budget horror films were on the rise and since the massive success of John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN, holiday-themed horror was also in vogue, with every day of celebration finding their eerie equivalent at the box office. SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT was the first Christmas-themed horror to make Santa Claus an icon of terror, which became a central point in its now-infamous marketing campaign. Protests, pickets and boycotts became synonymous with the film’s release, as the image of an axe-wielding Santa marred the minds of children across the nation in one of the most ironic cases of life imitating art. The controversy worked, however, causing the film to beat A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET on their respective opening weekend (although not by much, in double the theaters) and becoming a cash-cow for the producers.
However, SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT was not just product, fashioned simply to make a buck (unlike the following sequels). The film itself is surprisingly effective, relying on many conventions of the saturated slasher genre and often times getting into trashy territory, but almost endearingly so. In fact, the film feels like a brutal work of inspired horror, working off of Christmas iconography but always remaining entertaining and thrilling throughout. Controversial? Sure. Reprehensible? Maybe. Dismissible? No way in hell.
SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT couldn’t compare to the the cast and crew department of BLACK CHRISTMAS, which almost speaks to its strengths considering how fascinatingly on-point the film often is. Director Charles Sellier was mostly known for his television work, often producing family fare such as THE LIFE AND TIMES OF GRIZZLY ADAMS, which suited his often his ardent relationship to religion. The cast were mostly unknowns, including pre-RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD Linnea Quigley. But nevertheless, the film did have one wonderful ace in its sleeve: SFX maestro Rick Josephsen, fresh off of his work in the inimitable CUJO.
So who wins in the battle of holiday horror? While BLACK CHRISTMAS is a more restrained and terrifying venture, it’s hard to argue that SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT is a more fun experience. BLACK CHRISTMAS dares to destroy the date, while SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT takes aim at everything considered holly and/or jolly. So I guess, once again, your favorite relies exactly on what kind of present you want to find under the blood-soaked tree.
ROUND ONE: DRAW.
For more information on Fangoria and Screenvisions rerelease of SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT, including theater listings, please visit FANGORIA On Screen.