By the time 1984 rolled around, the sanctity of Jesus’ birth had already been more than tarnished in horror cinema, movies like 1972’s Tales from the Crypt and 1980’s Christmas Evil bringing killers dressed as Santa Claus to the big screen, and 1974’s Black Christmas showcasing the brutal Christmastime murders of a sorority house full of sexy ladies.
Nevertheless, it was a series of TV commercials depicting a killer Santa wielding an axe that outraged parents in 1984, a promotional campaign for a new holiday slasher flick that would quickly become one of the most controversial horror films of all time. That film was of course the late Charles E. Sellier Jr.’s Silent Night, Deadly Night, which was released into nearly 400 theaters on November 9th of 1984 – the very same day that Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street made its big screen debut.
Filmed on a budget of a mere $750,000, Silent Night, Deadly Night came in eighth place at the box office that weekend and pulled in $1,432,800, a number that was a few hundred thousand dollars higher than the number Freddy Krueger scared up in his inaugural outing – it must be noted, however, that Nightmare on Elm Street was released into half as many theaters.
How much the film made at the box office is of little relevance though, because it was ironically enough people who didn’t even pay to see it that solidified Silent Night, Deadly Night’s status as a hugely successful and incredibly iconic piece of 80s slasher cinema.
Amidst copious amounts of complaints from parents who saw nothing but the lurid TV advertisements for the film, so convinced that it was going to forever ruin the magic and joy of the holiday season that they headed out and picketed their local theaters, TriStar Pictures got cold feet and promptly pulled those ads from television and then altogether removed the film from theatres – mere weeks after it made its way down the proverbial chimney. In an instant, Silent Night, Deadly Night transformed from just another slasher film to a veritable cult classic, the very people who sought to banish it from existence serving to make it one of the most must-see horror films of the entire decade. Isn’t it ironic, don’t ya think?
But let’s backtrack a bit. Before Silent Night, Deadly Night slashed its way into theaters, leaving behind a pile of criticism as high as the pile of bodies, the film began as all films do; with a simple idea - one that none of the key players in this tale ever dreamed would result in so much controversy or infamy.
Though the story circulating around the internet is that Silent Night, Deadly Night was based on a novel called Slayride, written by Paul Caimi, a search for that book will yield absolutely no results. You won’t find it in your local library, you won’t find it on Amazon and you won’t even find a single shred of its existence on the entire internet. Why not? Because the book doesn’t exist.
The true story behind the creation of Silent Night, Deadly Night is that Paul Caimi had written a screenplay called He Sees You When You’re Sleeping, which caught the attention of Scott Schneid, who at the time was working for the William Morris Agency in Beverly Hills. Caimi was an undergraduate at Harvard University, Schneid’s alma mater, and he wrote the screenplay for one of his classes, which he sent over to Scott – who took the idea and ran with it.
“I loved the idea of a Santa-slasher, thought it had incredible commercial potential given what was going on in the horror genre at the time,” Schneid recalls. “So we made a deal with Paul and optioned his script, which is why he ended up with a story credit. However, other than the one sentence idea of a killer Santa, there was nothing in Paul's script that I wanted to use.”
And so, looking to capitalize on the slasher trend of the time, and inspired by Caimi’s idea of a killer in a Santa suit, Schneid, his producing partner Dennis Whitehead and hired writer Michael Hickey got to work on a completely original 30-page treatment called Slayride.
Rather than simply copying the tried and true slasher movie formula, the trio instead decided to take a bit of a different direction with their movie, a unique way of presenting the gory slayings that sets Silent Night, Deadly Night apart from the pack. “We agreed that the most interesting and fun way to do it would be to examine the sequence of events that lead, like dominoes falling, to Billy-as-Santa's ultimate Christmas eve killing spree,” says Hickey, “rather than following the usual approach of focusing on the victims.”
Based on the treatment they worked up, Schneid and Whitehead were able to raise the funds needed to hire Hickey to write the full screenplay, telling the story of a young boy who is shaped into a killer before our very eyes - forced by various events in his life to carry out Santa’s duties; reward the nice, and punish the naughty… severely.
Enter Ira Barmak – the Ira in Ira’s Toys. The script in the can, Schneid and Whitehead signed over the ownership rights of the property to Barmak, who formed a company called Slayride Inc., in order to make the movie. It was at this point that Barmak completely took over the reins of the sleigh, leaving the two men who conceived the idea in the dust – in fact, Schneid says, he and Dennis weren’t even invited to the cast & crew screening.
Barmak at the time had a deal with TriStar pictures to make low-budget films, the company realizing the potential for horror movies to turn small piles of money into much bigger piles of money – thanks to films like Halloween and Friday the 13th pulling in huge numbers at the box office. When Barmak brought Hickey’s violent screenplay to their attention, TriStar found precisely what they were looking for, inking a deal to make Slayride their first foray into low-budget horror territory.
Fresh off a string of big-budget films, TriStar soon became uncomfortable about venturing into the brave new world they were at first eager to head into, and it was then-President Jeff Sagansky who convinced his friend Charles E. Sellier Jr. to come on board the ship. A veteran of film and television, Sellier had previously created the popular TV series The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, and Sagansky felt that bringing Sellier into the project would ensure that they weren’t getting in over their heads. While not a fan of horror movies, Sellier agreed to do the film as a personal favor to his friend. “Jeff Sagansky had given me a lot of work in the past and I did not want to let him down,” said Sellier, in a candid interview with Calum Waddell for Arrow Video’s UK DVD release of the film.
Filming took place in the winter of 1983, in the Utah towns of Salt Lake City and Haber City. Directorial duties during the 32 days of the shoot were shared by Sellier and Michael Spence, Spence being credited on the project as editor and 2nd unit director. In truth, Spence directed a large portion of the film, brought in by Sellier to tackle the more action-oriented sequences and handle the tough night shoots. Spence had worked as an editor for Sellier in the past and had just come off of doing 2nd unit work on another film with him, and he jumped at the idea of helping to direct portions of Silent Night, Deadly Night. Spence was involved in location scouting, arranging shot lists and even casting, and when it came time for the cameras to roll, he found himself with a lot more on his plate than he was used to, as a 2nd unit director. “Because of the tight schedule,” Spence says, “Charles gave me a lot to do.”
In addition to filming the usual establishing shots and filler material that 2nd unit directors are tasked with, including insert shots of the creepy nutcrackers and clown faces seen in Ira’s Toys, Spence also helped out with several scenes that Sellier just didn’t have time to get around to, including the toy store murders, the demise of the unlucky sleigh-rider, and the decapitation of the snowman. As Sellier mentioned in an audio interview included on Anchor Bay’s ‘Christmas Survival Double Feature’ DVD set, he admittedly didn’t want to deal with filming outdoors and at night, which he suggests is one of the reasons he gave Spence so much to do.
Spence, who looks back on the film as a great learning experience, was more than happy taking on the increased workload, and was allowed the freedom to flex his own creative muscles. Though a few of his ideas made it into the film, including the white flashes used during the flashback sequences, he does recall one Evil Dead-inspired moment that ended up on the cutting room floor. Remember the female clerk in Ira’s Toys, who Billy kills with a bow and arrow? Spence got a little bit more creative than Sellier wanted with the scene. “I had seen Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead and loved some of the moving camera stuff he did,” recalls Spence. “So we attached an arrow just below the lens and dollied in very fast creating an arrow tracking shot as the arrow flew to the victim. But Chuck thought it was just a little too over the top, so it was not used.”
Aside from undergoing a title change during post-production - Slayride becoming Silent Night, Deadly Night after a movie with the same title sprung up around the same time (…and never ended up getting made) – the movie that Sellier and Spence shot remained incredibly faithful to Hickey’s Slayride screenplay, with only one minor addition that Hickey feels the movie would’ve been better off without.
Towards the climactic finale of the film, a cop explores an underground room near the orphanage, hunting for Billy Claus, a scene that Hickey says was improvised on location – and which was, in fact, filmed by Michael Spence. “The fact that no such scene was written is the reason nothing happens in it,” says Hickey, “and I think it slows down the proceedings when they should be accelerating. I wish I could cut it. But overall, of course, I was grateful that the director followed my script so faithfully.”
One of the most iconic scenes in the movie is Scream Queen Linnea Quigley’s topless swan song, wherein Billy hangs her up on a set of deer antlers. Though Sellier had in the years prior to his death in 2011 claimed that the scene was not in the shooting script, at one time saying that he himself had come up with the idea and at another giving credit to a young special effects artist on set, Hickey says that the memorable death scene was never written any other way. “Mr. Sellier simply made up the idea that he came up with the antler killing,” he told me. “The scene was in the script, exactly as it appears on-screen, long before Mr. Sellier came to be involved with the project.”
Regardless of whose idea it was, it was gruesome scenes like that one that made Silent Night, Deadly Night the target of such vitriol and criticism, and it wasn’t just protective parents who found the film to be a particularly evil entry in the slasher movement. Critics and Hollywood stars alike hopped on their soap boxes and spoke out about the film, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert famously tearing into the movie and everyone involved in its creation. Their coverage of the film during a 1984 segment of At The Movies was less of a review and more of an attack, Siskel calling it “sick, sleazy and mean-spirited,” and then going on to publicly call out Michael Hickey, Charles Sellier and Ira Barmak, their names followed by a stern “shame on you.” He continued, “Your profits truly are blood money.”
Much like the parental outrage over promotional TV ads, before the film even hit theaters, the extremely negative critical reception did nothing but help the cause, proving that all press is indeed good press. “Roger Ebert really ensured the film’s success by creating such a stir,” says star Linnea Quigley, hitting the nail right on the head. “Had they left it alone it probably would've faded into simple cult status. So thanks Roger and Gene!”
Though keeping Silent Night, Deadly Night in theaters amidst all the controversy probably would’ve been the wisest movie, from a monetary standpoint, TriStar couldn’t stand the heat and so they got the hell out of the kitchen. They cited poor box office numbers as the reason for pulling the film from theaters, though such an explanation makes little sense given the fact that it only took a couple days for audiences to spend more money on tickets than the entire movie cost to make. According to the late Sellier, the real reason was that TriStar was at the time getting ready to make a new public offering of stock, and they simply didn’t want the negative publicity to impact their business dealings.
Nearly a year after TriStar pulled the film, producer Ira Barmak took it to independent distributor Aquarius Releasing, who gave Silent Night, Deadly Night a brief theatrical revival, beginning in the spring of 1985. The company smartly took advantage of the controversy, replacing the iconic original poster with one that played up all the negative publicity (below). The following year, the film hit VHS courtesy of LIVE Entertainment, a company that went on to play an integral part in the future of the Silent Night, Deadly Night franchise. But more on that in parts 2 and 3 of the retrospective.
Looking back, now nearly 30 years later, the consensus from everyone involved in the creation of this twisted little Christmas tale is more or less the same; though they all say they probably should’ve expected the controversy, none of them ever in a million years dreamed that the movie would become what it became, and what it continues to be all these years later. “We were taken aback by the reactions of parental groups and the media,” says Scott Schneid. “It became quite the circus and all we could do is sit back and watch. Needless to say, it was a heckuva ‘welcoming,’ given that this was Dennis, Michael and my first movie. What a way to lose your filmic virginity!”
“However,” Schneid continued, “Silent Night, Deadly Night came in the middle of an avalanche of teen slasher films that many parents found reprehensible, so it's not surprising that a Santa-slasher was the straw the broke the proverbial camel's back... sent them all over the edge!”
Writer Michael Hickey echoes Schneid’s sentiments, though he admits he’s still a little confused as to why his movie caused such an uproar, while the other horror films coming out at the time got away scot-free. “Personally, I never thought the protestors had a valid point,” he told me. “The film was rated "R," requiring anyone under 17 to be accompanied by a parent. Most people 17 and older don't regard Santa Claus as anything but a commercial spokesperson, which is what he is -- hardly a sacred figure. I thought at the time that if people were going to get seriously upset about anything in the movie, it would have been the fairly unflattering depiction of a Catholic orphanage. But of course the protesters hadn't seen the movie, so they didn't know about that.”
In Silent Night, Deadly Night, it was a twisted grandpa, a killer dressed as Santa, a traumatic upbringing in an orphanage and a fateful holiday gig in a toy store that turned an ordinary child into a full-grown monster. Behind the scenes, it was a perfect storm of proper timing, a unique concept and an alluring string of controversy that itself resulted in the creation of a monster - a simple B-movie slasher flick unexpectedly growing up to become something so much more. “It still has a following after all these years,” says Michael Hickey, “so I guess that’s the last word.”
Indeed it is.
Check out Part 2 of FEARnet’s Silent Night, Deadly Night retrospective, where we talk all things Garbage Day - including an exclusive interview with none other than Eric Freeman!