Tuesday 19 December 2023

The Silent Night, Deadly Night Franchise - Naughty or Nice?

I love seasonal horror films, particularly those set at Christmas. Ever since, as an 11 year old, I saw Joan Collins being menaced by Oliver MacGreevy (as an escaped lunatic in a Father Christmas outfit) on TV - in the 'And All Through the House' segment of Freddie Francis's 1972 movie Tales from the Crypt -  I've had a soft spot for darker cinematic holiday offerings.

In the same year - 1984 - that English actor Edmund Purdom unleashed his sole directorial offering, the splendid, grubby Don't Open Till Christmas, to a generally indifferent UK public, over on the other side of the pond a Santa slasher that caused more of a rumpus was hitting cinemas, attracting big audiences, and courting some controversy. Here's a look at all five movies in this increasingly bonkers 'franchise'.

Silent Night, Deadly Night (USA 1984: Dir Charles E. Sellier Jr) The genesis of the film was a script which fell into the hands of producer Scott Schneid; written by Paul Caimi, 'He Sees You When You're Sleeping' saw a killer jn a Santa Claus outfit on the loose in a small town. This was the heyday of the slasher movie and Schneid saw some potential. Dennis Whitehead, co-producer, thought the script was pretty bad but that a Santa killer idea could be developed. Dennis knew Michael Hickey, a Stanley Kubrick obsessed screenwriter who knew nothing about slasher movies but who nevertheless took the work, writing a screenplay under the name 'Slayride' (which subsequently couldn't be used because other projects of the same title were in the pipeline at the time). Hickey's advantage in not being intimate with the genre - and one of the strengths of the first SN, DN - was the creation of an extensive backstory for the Santa killer, Billy.

Billy is a character who is, in his early years - to quote Shakespeare - "more sinned against than sinning". As a child he witnesses the rape and murder of his mother and the death of his father following a roadside holdup; the family stop to help a stranded guy in a Santa Claus outfit who promptly pulls a gun on them. The only survivors of the attack are Billy and his baby brother Ricky. As if that trauma isn't bad enough, the family have just travelled back from visiting Billy's grandfather (Will Hare): G-dad is seemingly comatose and confined to a wheelchair, but when he's alone with the young boy he suddenly springs to life and delivers a fabulous (and Tarantino endorsed) monologue concluding with the devastating outburst that "Christmas Eve is the scariest damn night of the year!"

Protesters at an early SN, DN screening

Billy (and Ricky - of which much more later) is farmed out to an orphanage run by a fierce Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin). While there he's subject to more ill treatment which builds on his trauma and cements his conflation of being naughty (via voyeurism) with direct punishment. 

As an 18 year old, a now strapping Billy, played by Robert Brian Wilson, is released from the 'care' of the nuns, landing himself a job in a department store, which is preparing for Christmas. After store closure the booze comes out and the workers get a bit frisky. Billy, ill advisedly kitted out in a Santa Claus outfit,  becomes triggered by the sight of one worker coming on to a female assistant, sees red (literally) and starts his reign of terror and revenge, declaring his victims to be "naughty"; his trail of death takes in a youthful Linnea Quigley, who ends up impaled on the antlers of a mounted deer's head. His killing spree culminates in a trip back to the orphanage and a face off with the evil Mother. After his death, shot by the police, the camera travels to little Ricky, who has witnessed everything, and whose utterance of the word 'Naughty' suggests a likely sequel to the murder and mayhem.

On a budget of about $750,000 this is a slasher movie made by a first time feature director who didn't really like the genre and whose previous production CV included a wealth of family friendly fare, including 1981's The Boogens. Therefore it's perhaps surprising that SN, DN is such a nasty film, full of mean characters, sleazy gore and the ultimate no no, a killer Santa Claus. What's equally unusual, for a slasher movie anyway, is the time taken to establish both the character and reason for the psychosis; Billy is seen at three different ages; a little boy of 5 (Jonathan Best), a youth of 8 (Danny Wagner), and his late teenage incarnation.

This was Wilson's first role; he wasn't thinking of being an actor until someone noticed him in a restaurant. Apparently at audition the actor impressed because he didn't portray the role as a crazed killer, but instead played him as a vulnerable and confused young adult. And this is one of the great aspects of the movie; Billy wants to be good, despite being exposed to events which confuse concepts of good and evil within his psyche.

But whatever the intentions of the filmmakers (presumably to make a throwaway drive in movie which would make a reasonable profit for all involved) things took an odd turn when, shortly after the release of the film, the protests started. A group calling themselves Mothers Against Movie Madness took issue with the corruption of Santa Claus, protesting with placards containing slogans like 'Santa Ain't No Hit Man!'; their cause was taken up by others who, like the MAMM members, probably hadn't seen the movie, but were riled up by promoters running the movie's trailer during daytime TV. The result: two weeks after opening the film was pulled from cinemas (another story runs that Coca Cola, who owned Columbia, who in turn owned the movie's distributors Tri-Star, didn't like the approach to Santa, a character closely associated with their product, and asked for it to be removed from distribution).

Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (USA 1987: Dir Lee Harry) The early removal of SN, DN from cinemas presented the production companies with a problem; it had a very lucrative first two weeks (apparently it grossed more than A Nightmare on Elm Street which opened on the same weekend). So a couple of years later the suggestion was made to revisit the film, now that the fuss had died down, and recut it, possibly in a different order, retitled, with new music...and a different director. The producer behind this genius idea was Lawrence Applebaum.

According to Sellier Jr he was approached to do the sequel but, perhaps unsurprisingly, turned it down. There was very little money available for the project, so the person chosen to direct was the little known Lee Harry, who had previously worked with Applebaum rescuing one of the producer's previous offerings.

Harry's brief meant that he was obliged to recut and tighten up the original movie; this resulted in over 40 minutes of SN, DNP2 comprising footage from the first film. The sequel's director was also not a fan of slasher movies (but the regular wage was an attraction); so after editing, when he realised that he needed another 45 minutes of footage to turn the project into a proper feature, he developed the character of Billy's younger brother Ricky into a killer with a similar MO to his bro. Harry also sought to lighten the mood of the sequel, feeling that the original was too mean; this results in a movie of two halves, interwoven rather strangely. It's a hoot.

When we first meet Ricky as a grown up (Eric Freeman) he's in a long stay hospital, being interviewed by a psychiatrist (James Newman) who encourages Ricky to recount his story. This is the cue to re-run the digest version of SN, DN with a couple of new scenes added to establish Ricky's presence in the story. If this footage is meant to represent Billy's brother's recollections, it fails in that half the footage depicts events that Ricky could not have known about. 

After his eventual discharge from the orphanage a 10 year old Billy (Brian Michael Henley) is housed with a Jewish household; a safety move as they don't celebrate Christmas. But he's a problem kid alright, and the sight of nuns - and the colour red - is still triggering for him. 

Some years later Ricky, now 15 (Darrel Guilbeau), mourning the death of his stepfather, spies a couple getting fresh in the middle of a field. The woman however is not keen to put out, which upsets the guy who turns nasty; the scene is witnessed by Ricky who has a flashback to the killing of his own mother (remember in the first film Ricky was only a few months old and would not have been able to remember this trauma) and the switch is activated; Ricky, like his brother - singling out his victims and sealing their fate with the word "Naughty!" - mows the guy down in his own car (the grateful woman thanks him for this!) and then, after liberating a gun from a cop, proceeds to walk to the nearest town and embark on a shooting spree. 

Adult Ricky (Eric Freeman) wreaking havoc in SN, DN 2

After Ricky is arrested at the scene of the crime - or crimes - he's incarcerated in the facility we saw at the film's opening. But the lad has only been feigning sanity to the psychiatrist, who he kills. He then makes his escape, donning a Santa Claus suit along the way and heading to the home address of the now confusingly scarred Mother Superior (Jean Miller) to avenge his brother's treatment. He's shot by the police only after he beheads the Mother Superior, but in the last scene Ricky's eyes open. He's not dead then!

Harry is as good as his word, in that a lot of his shot scenes include a certain levity within the violence: on his shooting spree, Ricky spies a guy taking out the trash and shouts "Garbage day!" (a line which has helped propel this movie to cult status via social media outlets) before firing his gun; in another scene the lad kills a mean mob bloke by ramming him through with an umbrella, and then opening it once the thing has exited the dude's body. Oh and Ricky gets his revenge on a cocky young 'un, Chip (Kenneth Brian James) who was a previous lover of his girlfriend Jennifer (Elizabeth Cayton), by ramming a battery charger into his mouth, turning the dials to max and making his eyes explode. He also kills Jennifer for the crime of having sex with a previous partner after Jennifer tells Ricky she hates him for killing her former beau.

And the bizarre scenes continue. Ricky and Jennifer go to the cinema, a scene which is mainly put together so that our hero can take out a rowdy customer throwing popcorn in the back row. Jennifer is slightly amazed as Ricky soaks up the violent trailers he sees on screen (surely this is Harry's comment on then current concerns about the influence of violent films). But what triggers Ricky inside the cinema? Why it's the film on screen; it's actually SN, DN, a meta moment if ever there was one. 

Ricky is played by Eric Freeman, who wasn't the first choice for the role; he'd originally auditioned for a bit part. The director chose him because, like Robert Brian Wilson before him, he wasn't a typical psychopath. He isn't a conventional actor either; he sort of gurns through the role and does a lot of emoting using his eyebrows.

With its bright LA setting (Sierra Madre, specifically, also a favourite with John Carpenter; Harry had neither the time nor inclination to shoot at the previous movie's locations) there's little that's Christmassy about this first sequel (to compensate Ricky's triggers are expanded to nuns and the colour red - Harry's Marnie moment possibly) apart from the scenes lifted from the first film. Contrary what the director intended (and Appelbaum wanted) SN, DN 2 remains a film of two halves. It's enjoyable in its daftness; a very watchable misfire, aided by some terrific stunt work by Spiro Rizotas and F/X and makeup by the very talented Chris Biggs.

Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! (USA 1989 (video): Dir Monte Hellman) Yes, that is the same Monte Hellman - of Beast from Haunted Cave (1959) and Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) fame - on the credits of this second SN, DN sequel.

SN, DN3 was the first in house production project from IVE (later LIVE Entertainment) who had previously only distributed movies, but were keen to cash in on the burgeoning direct to video film market: Better Watch Out! is the first of the franchise not to have had a theatrical release. Richard Gladstein from LIVE (who cameos in this and all subsequent SN, DN films) made the wise decision to pay for the franchise rights rather than license them, which would bear fruit in terms of the narrative direction of subsequent entries. 

At the end of SN, DN2 although Ricky had been taken down in a hail of gunfire after beheading the Mother Superior, he survived the attack (Bill Moseley); his body was taken back to a research facility where, after surgery, he was kept alive in a vegetative state, a transparent dome fixed to his head, exposing his brain. 

Dr. Newbury (Richard Beymer) has managed to establish a neural link between Ricky and a psychically gifted outpatient, Laura (Samantha Scully), blind as the result of a plane crash which also killed her parents. Laura's gifts include the ability to predict the future - a narrative idea only briefly explored - and in experiments Laura gets to experience Ricky's memories; a rather dangerous undertaking in that she is also undergoing therapy to deal with her blindness and grief issues.

Bill Moseley is Ricky in SN, DN 3
An understandably taciturn Laura is off to spend Christmas at her grandmother's (Elizabeth Hoffman) along with brother Chris (Eric Da Re) and his new girlfriend, perky Jerri (Laura Harring, birth name Laura Elena Gräfin von Bismarck-Schönhausen, trivia fans). However Ricky has managed to 'hear' where Laura is going, and after killing a hospital Santa, a receptionist (wearing a large red poinsettia, natch), a truck driver and a gas station owner he makes his way to granny's house; he's obviously got there first, as when Chris, Jerri and Laura arrive there's no trace of their relative. Following up on the string of murders is Lt. Connely (Robert Culp, the movie's big star) who, aided by Dr Newbury, realises that he has a very specific brand of criminal on his hands.

Apparently Hellman had to be asked a few times to take on the project, only acquiescing when he needed the money; he also junked the first script for the film (which, sources say, became  the initial draft of the story for SN, DN4). There is a dark humour to Better Watch Out! which critics at the time misread. The 'comedy' is largely in the setup; a killer wearing a hospital gown with a half fishbowl on his head searches for a blind woman with whom he has formed a connection. With very little to establish the Christmas atmosphere - the film was shot in California, not known for its snowy holiday season - and a very tenuous connection with the previous two films, the cast nevertheless give it their all and Moseley, an intelligent and quirky actor, manages to convey pathos rather than fear as Ricky.

Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation (USA 1990 (video); Dir Brian Yuzna) LIVE made a wise to choice to appoint maverick director Yuzna - fresh from Bride of Re-Animator the same year - if their intention was to take a sharp left turn in the continuation of the Ricky/Billy story contained - albeit increasingly loosely - within the previous three SN, DN movies.

By this time LIVE boss Richard Gladstein had decided that the only common link between all the SN, DN films would be 'murders at Christmas'. Narratively this pretty much left the field open; and Yuzna's story for Initiation was very 'open' indeed.

Frustrated magazine staffer Kim Levitt (a very game Neith Hunter, an ex model and actress who had done a little TV and film, but for whom this was a first lead role) has just seen footage of a woman jumping to her death on the news; the corpse shows signs of spontaneous combustion. Kim wants to cover the story but her boyfriend, writer at the same organ, reminds her that she runs the classifieds and as such isn't likely to get to write the copy.

Kim decides to investigate the death herself, travelling to the site of the supposed suicide where she encounters the mysterious Fima (Maud Adams, the 'name' ticket on the movie), owner of a bookshop and leader of a very small cult dedicated to the worship of Lilith, together with her creepy slave Ricky (the as ever excellent Clint Howard) and her serving maidens. Kim is drawn into the cult, who initially provide a refreshing change to the day to day sexism she experiences via her work and her boyfriend, only to find that Fima is equally controlling and has an ulterior use for the wannabe journalist; well her womb at least.

Maud Adams as Fima in SN, DN 4

"Sometimes I take a look at the movies I made, and I'm kinda shocked" confessed Yuzna on the director's commentary for the Blu Ray of this film, and Initiation is, in current parlance, 'a lot'. At its heart the movie is a fairly standard tale of witchcraft in downtown LA, but Yuzna's choice to employ F/X genius Screaming Mad George (aka Japanese legend Jôji Tani), who he'd used on his previous features BoR and Society) took his film to a different, and far more surreal level. 

Mr George had previously devised the cockroach death sequence in Renny Harlin's fourth instalment of the 'A Nightmare on Elm Street' franchise, and these beasts are very prevalent in Initiation, whether in their natural form (the movie needed the help of a roach wrangler) or as outsize models, c/o SMG (the plot has something to do with curse of Lilith taking the form of a reborn roach type beast). They guy's outrageous creations give rise to a series of nightmarish scenes which were probably added into the script just because everybody thought they'd be cool, rather than for narrative cohesion; this has the effect of putting Hunter through the wringer in turns of gloop and having to vomit out George created roach creatures. She also has several scenes of frankly gratuitous nudity because Yuzna (and presumably Gladstein) wanted to spice things up for the home rental crowd; Initiation went straight to video and, like its franchise predecessors, did very well in this format. In fact well enough to fund a fifth movie.

Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (USA 1991: Dir Martin Kitrosser) SN, DN 5 marked Kitrosser's debut as a director and is also, sadly, the weakest of the franchise's five entries.

Yuzna, who co-produced this along with Gladstein, has gone on record as regretting the lack of Christmassy elements to Initiation. The Toy Maker certainly makes up for this. 

Little Derek (William Thorne) is stunned into selective mutism after witnessing the death of his father, after dad opens a killer Christmas present intended for his son. Said gift is a cylinder with tentacles which reach out to strangle him.

Derek's mum Sarah (Jane Higginson) despairs at her son's condition, and tries to cheer him up by taking him to his favourite toy shop, Petto's, run by kindly old Joe (Mickey Rooney) and his weird son Pino (Brian Bremner). A shifty guy called Noah (Tracy Fraim) shows a keen interest in Derek and Sarah, and also in buying lots of Joe's toys, including one, Larry the Larvae, that comes to life and kills a motel owner. Another anonymous gift meant for Derek  - but which is chucked out before he can open it - is a pair of rocket powered roller blades which, when worn, cause the wearer to lose control and end up dead. What is going on?

Well the weird upshot of all this is that Noah is actually an old flame of Sarah's and the real father of Derek; he quit the scene before realising his girlfriend was pregnant. He's also been keeping tabs on Petto's, buying the toys as a way of checking up on the proprietor. Joe may seem like just a kindly old store owner but he also happens to have a side trade as a crazy inventor; and his creations include his own son Pino, in what is this whole franchise's weirdest reveal.

Pino (Brian Bremner) in SN, DN 5: The Toy Maker

With its scenes of advancing toys and mechanics gone wrong, it's clear that Kitrosser may have seen the first two films in the 'Puppet Master' franchise. After the sex and gore excesses of Initiation, The Toy Maker is much tamer stuff. Screaming Mad George is back on F/X duties but he seems to have had his wings clipped here, certainly compared with the last movie; a disembodied robot hand acting as an assistant in a couple's lovemaking and Larry the Larvae entering a guy's mouth and exiting from his eye socket are the closest he gets to his former weirdness. Rooney, still a jobbing actor at the end of the 20th century, gives the material more class than it deserves (and as everybody notes his casting is a bit rich as he was one of the voices calling out against the first SN, DN movie but hey, everyone has to eat). Neith Hunter is in this one, clothes definitely on this time, as a mum friend of Susan's, and there are also cameos from Clint Howard, Gladstein and Brian's Yuzna's son Conan. All in all not a great end to the franchise.

I should mention that I have not included the US movie Silent Night, released in 2012 and directed by Stephen C Miller, in this article. While the film makes some references to the franchise it's not a remake as such.

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