Released in November 1984 in time for the big day, Silent Night, Deadly Night is, without question, a video-nasty. Coming in at only 79 minutes, with at least half of that being taken up by flamboyant gore or sexploitation, one would be quick to question what makes this film Christmassy.
The purpose of Silent Night, Deadly Night, like most video-nasties, is to deliberately antagonise censorship laws with outrageous pictures, which would ultimately create more intrigue amongst the sheltered youths of the US (hence the bold proclamation by many films of how many states they’d been banned in, which was unabashedly used to bring in audiences). However, for me, this deliberate subversion of what most Hallmark Christmas films purport to be the essence of Christmas—a smooth-brained, nuclear-family portrait of festivity—is a reminder of the individualism that makes Christmas beautiful (even if this ‘beauty’ involves the jolliest man alive wielding an axe).
I should probably first explain what I mean by this ‘individualism’. When I ask my friends how they’ll celebrate the season, their answers always drastically differ from each other, as much as they do from mine. Because Christmas is a very traditional celebration for a lot of people, the most outlandish practices can carry Proustian sentiment for certain folks at Christmas time, purely because it’s what they’ve done their entire life. Thus, the almost apotheotic image of Christmas that is created by Hallmark films takes away all this familial personality that the festive season is all about for most people.
What’s more, this idea of a perfect, “white” Christmas (I know it refers to snow, but there’s obvious ulterior meaning here) has roots in commercial intent; one must, in most cases, spend money to have this sort of pristine Christmas, which is arguably not what Christmas should be about (let alone the number of less fortunate people it excludes). Silent Night, Deadly Night deliberately subverts this, in classic video-nasty fashion, by taking something pristine and “white” and tarnishing it with gore, sex, and all the primality of humans that this festive, capitalist haven tries to forget.
However, what must be noted in this debate is the obvious adage, coincidentally used a lot by the video-nasty culture: “it’s just a film”. It might be slightly melodramatic of me to posit that Hallmark Christmas films are wholly responsible for this dilution of Christmas spirit. As I sit here writing this on a train through the West Country, admiring newly fallen snow, there is something admittedly, and appealingly, quite angelic about Christmas. This, of course, has nothing to do with commercial intent. Most people only watch Christmas films to get in the spirit, and therefore they probably tap into this more subtle inclination for an apotheotic Christmas that makes this season special for those that celebrate it. This is something that Silent Night, Deadly Night doesn’t do, reducing the film to its original intention: ruining Christmas (‘you’ve made it through Halloween, now try and survive Christmas’).
But the same logic can also be applied to Silent Night, Deadly Night. Like most video-nasties, this film is extremely camp. Camp is, according to Christopher Isherwood in his book The World of an Evening (1954), ‘not making fun of something, but making fun out of it. You're expressing what’s basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance.’ As much as I’ve been arguing that this film is a better reflection of the reality of Christmas than most other festive flicks, there is definitely a sense through this campness that the world created in the film is one different to ours, where such an outrageous plot is actually plausible (not to mention terrible acting, terrible special effects, and a whole host of other terribly unrealistic aspects common in video-nasties). So, in this way, the merit of Silent Night, Deadly Night is not how much it literally gets us into the Christmas spirit, but how it reminds us that Christmas means different things to different people, with any restriction or direction of what Christmas means being literally massacred in front of our eyes.
This is what makes Silent Night, Deadly Night a Christmas film as valid as any, despite its origins on the fringe. What Christmas has turned into—without lamenting too much—is a capitalist exercise where the more money you spend means you have a better time. Not only is this vehemently exclusionary to those less prosperous, but it loses the real family value of Christmas which, much like family, is as weird and wonderful as it gets. Silent Night, Deadly Night as a production is a symbol of this: made for a mere $750k (and making a fair $2.5m at the box office) the film is proof, in its production as well as its camp and outrageous plot, that money isn’t and shouldn’t be the root of festive cheer at Christmas time.
Edited by Barney Nuttall, Film and TV Deputy Editor