By JA Kerswell
Protesting Elves, a killer Santa and the shadowy potential role of a soft drink behemoth in the downfall of the most controversial holiday horror film ever made in this sometimes surreal true-life tale of festive fear ...
Everyone loves a moral panic – well, perhaps apart from horror fans and people with half a brain cell. In the early 1980s Britain was in the grips of the mother of all moral panics with the 'video nasty' debacle. However, around the same time the United States was also under the spell of a slower burning but still righteous fever; which was to culminate with the festive shocker that was quite literally the straw that broke the reindeer's back ...
Oh, little town of … Salt Lake City
It all started out so innocently. SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT was filmed in Salt Lake City and Heber City, Utah in the winter of 1983 under the title SLAYRIDE for a budget of around $750,000.
The film started out as a project for executive producers Dennis Whitehead and Scott J. Schneid in 1981 (who, as the film was released, were prepping THE PHANTON OF THE MALL – which they optimistically described as a cross between FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH and FRIDAY THE 13TH – and was finally was released in 1989).
SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT was shot by a director who had ironically cut-his-teeth as a producer on family fare such as THE LIFE & TIMES OF GRIZZLY ADAMS. The film was a Tri-Star production, which was something of an oddity as major studios (as they were then) tended to pick up and distribute independent slasher features. Unashamedly, it was an effort to squeeze some dollars out the quickly dying subgenre and the official promotional brochure describes it as: “A Christmas stalking from Tri-Star”.
Although SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT was filmed with tongue-definitely-in-cheek, some found that its black comedy elements went right over their heads ...
The night before Christmas ...
In New York on December 10th, the Catholic Conference met to discuss pre-Christmas movies. Most – like A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and CRIMES OF PASSION – they declared as of the 'O' category. In this instance 'O' didn't stand for 'oral', but for 'morally offensive'. However, SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT was given the special honour of topping the list and being described as an “a little abomination of the slash and bash genre”.
Admittedly, the depiction of the mother superior must have caused a flurry of kissed rosaries in the viewing room – if they actually watched it, of course. However, the Catholic Conference hardly had its finger on the pulse – as the film had been largely pulled from theatres a fortnight beforehand. Incidentally, director John Waters always took the recommendations of the Catholic Conference – in exactly the opposite way they intended – so I imagine SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT was high up on his must-see list of holiday movies that year!
In Britain, stringent censorship had kept the bloody excesses of Italian and American horror off screens, so when unregulated video brought them into the living rooms of millions it was something new and previously forbidden. However, in the United States uncensored horror was commonplace and even hard-core porno played some places that had previously peddled Disney. However, middle America was a very different proposition from, say, Times Square. Although presumably FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) – the film that arguably brought the Grindhouse to small town America – played there also.
It is worth remembering that SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT was awarded an 'R' rating by the MPAA – the body that had cracked down on violence in slasher movies since the controversy over FRIDAY THE 13TH. It is not as if Santa was killed teens with a flick-knife attached to a giant phallus wrapped in tinsel, but the fact that Santa was perceived (albeit wrongly) to be the villain at all was too much to bear for some. The cry (long before THE SIMPSONS) of “Won't someone think of the children!” went out across middle-America.
One Christmas Evil
It is also worth remembering that this wasn't the first time Santa had wielded an axe. Back in 1972 a psycho Santa had terrorised Joan Collins in Amicus' anthology TALES FROM THE CRYPT. 1980 saw both CHRISTMAS EVIL and the David Hess directed TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT, where another killer Kris Kringle hacked up teens at a boarding school. The difference being, in the case of TO ALL A GOODNIGHT, that the film bypassed theatres straight to video – although the irony, of course, was the tape was probably freely available to rent in Mom & Pop stores in the very places that chased SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT out of town. SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT (1972) and BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) also appeared to go under the radar of the moral majority.
Moral tub-thumper and battle-axe for Jesus, Mary Whitehouse, led the rally against 'video nasties' in the United Kingdom in the early 1980s – yet she famously declared she had never actually seen one. It is likely that most of the soccer moms and pillars of the community campaigning to banish SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT from their little towns had also not seen the film. You have to wonder what they would have made of it if they had?
The ultimate downfall of SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT was most likely that the old adage that all-publicity-is-good-publicity didn't ring true for this film. Another parallel with the 'video nasty' debacle in the United Kingdom was that some of those releasing horror movies to tape at the time actually did all they could to drum up moral outrage as a way of generating sales. They went too far when they posed as an outraged citizen and wrote to Mary Whitehouse in the hope of shaking her and her followers up like a jar full of wasps – the backfiring of which was deafening.Tri-Star didn’t even need to do that …
“Not at Christmas!”
When Variety reviewed SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT on the 7 November (after a somewhat appropriate viewing on the night before Halloween), they got the joke – describing it as the “Santa slasher, for those who hate Christmas”.
However, they also perceptively identified the controversy to come whilst also acknowledging the film's cheesiness saying: “[it is] … a nasty bit of business turning the arrival of Santa Claus into a red Christmas. Pic commits the blasphemy of turning America's best loved institution into a slasher. Results are quite (unintentionally) hilarious and for those few who hate Christmas, this could be their favorite film of the season.” Variety praised the photography and production design, but otherwise paradoxically dismissed the film as looking “bargain basement”. They did however – again with a playful irony – point out that Tri-Star was prepping a family Christmas movie (SANTA CLAUS – THE MOVIE) for 1985. Something which might help explain the studio's later actions.
As you might expect, SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT did not get a ringing endorsement from other critics. It is easy to forget how slasher movies were often thought as so awful at the time as to be barely a step up from pornography in the eyes of many. Such was the hatred of slasher movies by 1984, many local critics simply refused to review them.
John Schorg of the Kokomo Tribune didn't mince his words: “Used to be all you had to do to shut a kid up was tell him that Santa won't bring him any presents on Christmas if he kept being naughty. Thanks to the makers of "SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT," parents now have a new weapon of fear In their arsenal. If Junior doesn't stop being so ornery, they can tell him Santa will bury the claw end of a hammer into his skull. Such is the wisdom proffered by this disgusting display of cinematic sludge. It's been a while since there was an all-out assault on movie going senses of this type. As opposed to last year, when It seemed audiences got to visit Ax City every week, 1984 has been noticeable by its lack of horror films.” He added: “And, even though I've seen other horror movies in which the killer dressed up as Santa Claus, there seems something particularly ugly in the way these men use the Christmas theme to gloat over the agony they put the people in this film through.”
Unsurprisingly, Dann Gire – of the Daily Herald – loathed the film (as he done of pretty much every other slasher movie that came before it): “… it’s no wonder parents and Santa boosters have blasted the exploitative TV commercials of “Silent Night, Deadly Night.” In 30 seconds, they effectively turn jolly old Saint Nick into a bearded, bloodthirsty boogeyman.” He continued: “Ordinarily, this Nick-the Ripper movie might have been dismissed as more worthless mad-slasher trash, the same sort of disgusting anti-humanist film fodder that has flooded theaters the past four years.” Joan E. Vadebencoeur – of the Syracuse Herald-Journal – wasn’t much kinder: “The last “stalk and slash” movie is even more relentless than a jackhammer or dentist’s drill. …. The movie gives a bad name to Santa Claus, grandfathers and nuns. … Can the director sink any lower?”
Lou Gaul – of the Montgomery County Herald – lamented: “After a recent Halloween holiday filled with horror stories about lunatics who put metal slivers in candy and apples, the last thing we need is a horrid film about Santa Claus who rapes, robs and murders.” He continued that the film was “… made by people who have as much respect for life as Jack the Ripper.” In his review he also goes on to dismiss Bob Clark’s BLACK CHRISTMAS as “dreadful”. So what did he know?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, those old foes of the slasher movie, Siskel and Ebert read the credits out loud on their television show saying, "shame, shame, shame" after each name. Siskely melodramatically wailed: "Your profits are truly blood money!" The film's producer later accused the duo of picking on violent films as a way of boosting their TV ratings, and there might be some truth in that.
“DECK THE HALLS WITH HOLLY – NOT BODIES!”
SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT opened regionally – to what Variety described as a “rising chorus of protests” - on Friday 16 November in 400 theaters in Tri-Star's eastern and central divisions, extending to some key midwest cities including Chicago and Milwaukee. The intention seemed to be that the release would be rolled out to the West Coast and other territories if it was a success. Presumably, Tri-Star were hoping that the protest would make the film a cause-celebre and boost box office. It didn't quite work out like that ...
The crux of the protests centred on two things: the perceived criticism of religion (specifically Catholicism), but mostly the concern that the makers of SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT were ruining Christmas for children. They were sparked by a series of TV adverts that protestors said were scaring kids.
One TV blunder saw the controversial ads accidentally air between THREE’S COMPANY and LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, which only added to the fire. One woman said her 8 year old had been crying for two days, she worried: “My daughter believes everything she sees on television” – which may say more about her parenting skills than anything else. Another child told his mother: “Why is Santa Claus trying to kill someone?” The fault was the TV station’s – not the film's. Of course. However, it didn’t stop stations cancelling their contracts to show the trailer, with at least three stations in Midwest states doing so.
Variety explained: “Most protests were generated by the feeling that the depiction of a killer in a Santa Claus suit would traumatize children and undermine their traditional trust in Santa Claus.” However, Ira Richard Barmack, the film's producer countered by saying that children would not have their vision of Christmas challenged because it was an R-rated picture – unless, of course, parents took them to see the film.
It seems that the groundswell of opinion started in Milwaukee, when a group called 'Citizens Against Movie Madness' picketed the movie – which eventually sparked wider protests in New York and New Jersey. Bizarrely, a spokeswoman for the group said she did not believe they were practicing censorship, but would picket films of a similar nature in the future.
The protests often took a surreal turn. In Elyria, the mayor encouraged protests by the group specially formed to fight the perceived evil of SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT: 'The committee to Save Santa Claus'. Lorrain City Councilman Angel Arryo dressed up as Santa and was joined by someone dressed as an elf to hand in a petition signed by 2,000 townspeople. In the end, their protests were in vain as the film ran its two week course to be replaced with THE MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN (as Jason would a few years later).
Uppity citizens in Frederick, Maryland weren't so lucky when they turned up at Cinemas III at Francis Scott Key Mall. The County Sheriff's deputies were on hand to arrest them for trespassing leading one protestor to say that it looked like a “stakeout”. To add insult to injury, the theatre manager sat in his office reading the newspaper and ignoring them.
One of the protesters said: “[I do] … not think children should be led to believe Santa Claus is the type to "ax-down" people. We don't want children to run away from Santa Claus in a mall because they are frightened.” Betty Fellers of Braddock Heights was also one of the 20, or so, protestors: “"It's an invasion of a child's right to believe in God, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny," claimed Mrs. Fellers who has three children and five grandchildren. "Now it's to the point that they saw this ad and my grandson said he does not want to sit on Santa's lap because he is scared."”
Another protestor, Lorraine Spacil, said: “[she had a …] difficult time convincing her children to sit on Santa's lap because "he is so big to them and he's wearing a costume. I don't need him (her son) seeing Santa Claus on TV with an ax."” Protestors were also worried that children were getting into R-rated movies. Seven-year-old Corrie Brown of Walkersville, who was at the mall but was not in line to see the movie, said her girlfriend saw the film and "she said it was gross!". Presumably little Corrie was going to see A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET instead.
The Chronicle-Telegram reported that a straw poll of local residents had voted 15-1 to chase SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT out of town. Comments included: “It's disgusting, immoral and distorted. A bunch of filth!” said one 60 year old. Another spluttered: “The degenerates that make these movies should be exterminated!” One of the few voices of reason presented the other side: “Once the wheel of censorship starts rolling, no one can know when it will end.” Indeed.
Will Santa Claus come back from the dead?
Initially at least, Tri-Star tried to defend the picture, saying quite reasonably that “[there] well-established market for pictures in the genre'” and that the public has the right to choose what they want to see. Variety also reported them saying that also said that: “[the film] was not intended for children and that it was more or less tongue-in-cheek horror in which the culprit is not Santa Claus, but a maniac dressed up as Santa Claus.” Variety signed off by musing: “One argument advanced was that it was no different than if a killer had dressed as an Easter bunny. Those making the parallel questioned that such a portrayal would be considered an assault on children's belief in the Easter bunny.” However, American film critic had no such qualms: “What's next? The Easter bunny as a child molester?”
Firstly, Tri-Star pulled the controversial TV ads that seemed to be at the crux of the protest (as a failed attempt to try and defuse the protests). Variety said: “No actual violence was inflicted in the yanked blurb, although it depicted people screaming, as if about to be attacked, and showed a man in a Santa Claus outfit striking a door with an axe, and pulling a gun out of his Santa Claus pocket. Face of Santa Claus was not shown. At one point, a voiceover intoned, "He only looks like Santa Claus You've lived through Halloween. Now try and survive Christmas."” However, when the protests didn't die down and a good number of theatres pulled the film because of localised campaigns by 'concerned citizens' the studio pulled the film from release in Late November 1984.
Variety also reported: “Tri-Star advertising v.p. David Rosenfeld said 95% of those who contacted him were news people, not members of the public. "We were very surprised by the reaction, and by the sincerity of the reaction. I think we're sensitive to it, and we're responding to it. I will further say we were not alone in be-ing surprised." He pointed out that the blurb was not questioned by a single radio station that carried it, although some routinely require that spots for R-rated films be carried after 9 or 10 pm.
A spokeswoman from 'Citizens Against Movie Madness' in Milwaukee, said of Tri-Star's decision: “Wow. I think it's great. I've heard of some people who wanted to know how to organize like we did. I guess in the end, all of my griping did some good.” She went on to say, “The way the movie ended, it looked there would be a Part Two. We told the producer if there is, we'll see him again next year.” I wonder if she was still outraged in 1987 when the sequel did actually appear?
Tri-Star tried to save face by saying that the film had not been pulled because of protests, but because it had been a box office disappointment. This fact is debatable. In 10 days, SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT grossed $2,491,469 and out-grossed future sleeper hit A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET in its first weekend. Tri-Star said that despite this the picture scarcely broke even, counting the cost of prints and the ad campaign, on the first weekend box office. It also said that takings had dipped 45% in the second week. However, a large second week drop-off was commonplace for slasher movies at the time – and the film would have undoubtedly made more money and easily gone into profit had it been rolled out elsewhere (and to areas, such as the West Coast, that were perhaps slightly more jaded and less likely to have people march up and down outside movie theatres waving placards). Perhaps more tellingly, Variety reported that: “It is understood that there is considerable concern in Tri-Star's higher echelons that first amendment organizations in the community at large and the industry in particular did not launch a counter campaign against implicit censorship in the move to drive the picture out of circulation.”
Curiously, when Tri-Star pulled the film from distribution they essentially buried it – despite attracting losses on their investment. Ira Richard Barmark offered to buy back the rights so he could arrange for someone else to distribute it, as he could plainly see that the film was making money – and could make more. However, Tri-Star refused. Even more curious, you would have thought the film would be fast-tracked to video instead, but RCA/Columbia (the home video outlet of Tri-Star) said they would not be handling it. Home Box Office are also thought to have cold shouldered the film.
So why was SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT dropped like a hot chestnut? Charles Seller, the film's director, said that Tri-Star had a Stock offering weeks after the movie opened and were worried that negative publicity might affect that.
Also, somewhat bizarrely, the answer might have something to do with a soft drink giant. Variety reported: “Tri-Stars'] … reluctance to give up distribution right adds credence to speculation that Coca-Cola a parent company of Tri-Star partner, Columbia Pictures has sent out the word to deep-six the feature about a berserk youth who goes on an ax-killing spree while wearing a Santa Claus outfit..” It continued: “Coca-Cola is understood to be extremely sensitive to protests that the feature undermines the trust of children in Santa Claus despite the fact that its R rating does not permit it to be viewed by youngsters still impressionable enough to believe in Santa Claus.” This also, ahem, came hot-on-the-heels of another embarrassment after it was revealed that a Columbia executive had been outed as performer and producer of a hard core porno in the 1970s.
Barmark said: “[No one] … could have foreseen the "hullabaloo”. He was hugely frustrated and could see the film's financial potential fading as it sat on the shelf. He somewhat bizarrely added: “I still think there are a lot of people who are curious to see this movie and make up their own minds if it's terrible or a travesty.”
Eventually, Barmark got his wish when he licenced the film to Aquarius releasing for another cinematic go-around in May 1985. Although the advertising materials were considerably toned down (omitting the killer Santa for a start). Obviously, Aquarius didn't have the same qualms about the film that Tri-Star did. They had, after all, released CANNIBAL FEROX in 1981!
The film was eventually released on video on the IVE label in May 1986 with the original controversial artwork reinstated. Funnily enough the world didn't end.