DISMEMBERCEMBER: Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jennifer Upton is an American (non-werewolf) writer/editor in London. She currently works as a freelance ghostwriter of personal memoirs and writes for several blogs on topics as diverse as film history, punk rock, women’s issues, and international politics. For links to her work, please visit https://www.jennuptonwriter.com or send her a Tweet @Jennxldn

We’ve all read about the controversy surrounding the release of Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984.) We’ve all seen VHS news footage of angry moms protesting the film’s original release and re-release in 1985. 

Re-watching the film in 2022 – a world in which we are all free to watch hours of YouTube videos made by mental health professionals – re-frames the film as something quite different. Yes, it’s still an exploitation film filled with boobs, blood and violence. Yes, it’s set on a holiday just like Halloween (1978.) But, at its heart, the film is about the creation of a serial killer. 

A child named Billy who might have had a normal life had he only received the PTSD therapy he so desperately needed following the brutal murder of his parents on Christmas eve in 1971. Instead, the poor kid gets thrown into an orphanage. Worst of all, it’s a Catholic orphanage run by an old-school battle axe of a mother superior who believes that beating Billy’s trauma from his psyche and tying him to his bed is the correct course of action. 

Billy is in no way a bad kid. At 8, he’s polite and respectful. Billy is a kid who, no matter how hard he tries to do good, is perceived as “bad” by the hierarchical establishment who summarily dismiss the concerns of his one ally Sister Margaret. He commits his first murder at age 18 while trying to save his female co-worker from sexual assault. Rather than thanking him, she calls him crazy. That’s the moment Billy’s barely there last frayed mental thread snaps. To quote Hannibal Lecter’s musings, “Our Billy wasn’t born a criminal, Clarice. He was made one through years of systematic abuse.” The sacred is the profane.

Given what we know now about the Catholic Church, I’d say this movie was pretty darned accurate in its depiction of cruelty towards children. In fact, I’d argue the freeze frame of Billy’s terrified face at the end of the 1974 sequence is emblematic of thousands of kids who grew up under the sick and cruel tutelage of Catholicism. Writer/director Charles Sellier was (no surprise) raised Catholic and spent his career producing both secular and faith-based material while bouncing between Catholicism, Mormonism and Evangelical Christianity in his personal life. Knowing these facts, I couldn’t help but feel Sellier was exorcising a few personal demons in the making of this film. 

When Siskel and Ebert named and shamed Sellier on their show back in 1984, they literally doubled down on the “punishment” theme and brought it into the real world. Despite their reputations for being academic-minded film critics, they did so seemingly with no self-awareness, believing their virtuousness to be equal to or greater than the mother superior in the film. Viewed in this light, the film takes on an altogether more important function in the history of exploitation cinema. One whose conception arose from abuse and who mere existence triggered more of the same. It’s a perfect example of how even the sleaziest art can both reflect and influence life. Also, it’s got Linnea Quigley topless in short shorts in cold weather. Merry Christmas! 

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