A Once Controversial Release, “Silent Night, Deadly Night” Gains Another Chance to Terrorize

Oh what a difference some time can make. It’s been twenty-nine years since the horror classic Silent Night, Deadly Night was unleashed upon the world to eager teenagers, horrified mothers and angry film critics.  The story of a mentally disturbed man who, filled with rage around the holiday season, dresses up as Santa Claus to punish those who are naughty, this equally maligned and celebrated film has developed quite the cult following over the past few decades, either in spite of or perhaps because of its reputation; its humorously dark tone and warped sensibilities has helped keep it going strong. The film even played at the Film Society of Lincoln Center last year as part of our Midnight Movies series. Now Screenvision, in partnership with Fangoria and Brainstorm Media, is re-releasing the film in theaters across America in time for the Christmas season. FilmLinc Daily recently spoke with Michael Hickey, the film’s screenwriter, Michael Spence, editor and second unit director, and producer Scott Schneid to discuss issues of how the film came to be, its highly publicized theatrical release in 1984 and its legacy today.

In poster and in concept, the film’s origins came down to, as it turns out, a simple but worthwhile idea: a psycho Santa. “I was an agent trainee at the William Morris office in Beverly Hills and had seen an amateur screenplay written by an alumnus of my university back East who had taken a screenwriting course,” Scott Schneid remembered, “It was pretty awful. But there was a one sentence idea buried in that screenplay which was a ‘psycho Santa,’ which I responded to. There was nothing else in the screenplay that interested me. No characters, no plot, nothing but this concept of a psycho Santa.  I partnered with Dennis Whitehead at the time. Dennis was acquainted with Michael (Hickey) who was a young writer and in fact he had written some really cool, spec horror/thriller scripts that I liked a lot. We then hired Michael. We brought this concept of a psycho Santa to Michael and hired Michael to do a treatment, a very detailed thirty page treatment, and pay him as well to do a feature screenplay off of the treatment.

Right from the beginning, Dennis and I said, this was the time of the original Friday the 13th and Halloween, and this concept just struck Dennis and I as being potentially incredibly visual and franchisable, franchisable [meaning] it lead itself to spawning potential sequels ala the Friday the 13th series and Halloween series. The idea of us taking the Santa character and inverting or subverting it, whatever you want to say, seemed to us that it would appeal tremendously to the teenage demographic out there – the most rebellious creatures on the planet are teenagers – and  felt they would just love the idea of blood on the snow and the psycho Santa. That’s how it all came about. We did intend it to be, right from the beginning, a seasonal slasher film that could be released at Christmas time and then future sequels could be released at subsequent Christmases.”

What many viewers undoubtedly found most disturbing about the film was its backstory. The film begins with a lengthy prologue in which little Billy sees his family murdered on Christmas Eve by a lunatic dressed as Santa. As one would expect, Billy is thus traumatized by all things Christmas and, as he grows older, develops a murderous tendency of his own while everyone else is out celebrating the holiday festivities.

“There would have been nothing interesting to me to write," screenwriter Michael Hickey explained, "if it was just a series of killings done by somebody who more less happens to be dressed as Santa Claus. The concept that Scott and Dennis brought to me posed an inevitable question and a challenge, which is, how does this happen? How does a person end up in a Santa suit with an ax in his hand, gleefully killing people on Christmas Eve? And I guess other horror films or slasher films might have given that short shrift, brief reference or backstory, but to us that was the story. That’s what was interesting. That’s what you could write about that would make a character, a structure and a story. That was always our intention, to deal with the character as to how he ended up in this horrible predicament in life and to treat it seriously. That’s how the structure was arrived at, the attempt to answer the question 'how did this guy get here?'”

Shot in Utah due to it being a Right To Work state and thus non-union (and filled with an abundance of snow), the film’s locations, most notably a toy store and an orphanage run by a group of nuns, are central to the plot.  “The toy store was actually an empty store,” Michael Spence, the film’s editor and second-unit director noted,  “a real store, that just happened to be empty at the time. We completely dressed it out to be a toy store. I shot a lot of stuff in there myself and had a lot of fun with the nutcracker close-ups and all of that stuff. Seemed like fun stuff to be doing. The orphanage was an old school. Utah has a lot of these old stone-built schools that were built probably a hundred years ago. I think that building has actually fallen down now. It was a really cool location because it wreaked ‘old orphanage,’ I think. We pretty much had the run of the place, so it worked out really well. “

Today, Silent Night, Deadly Night is best known for the controversy it caused upon its release. Concerned parents were  outraged by the idea of a killer Santa Claus and the subsequent marketing materials the film produced; it remains unclear if those vocal detractors ever took the time to view the film in question. “Not for one second during the conception, development, or leading up to the release of the film,” Scott Schneid confessed, “did I think for one second that there was going to be any kind of backlash against this project. It came out of that early to mid-eighties plethora of genre/slasher movies. I just thought it was going to be another one intended for the R-rated teenage audience.

Little did I know or think that Mothers Against Movie Madness in the Midwest were going to… I guess because there were so many slasher movies at the time coming out and so many people found the genre reprehensible, particularly adults. Mothers of children, of teenagers, probably couldn’t stand that these kids were going to see these horrible movies in their mind. So when we developed a script and it ends up coming out and it’s Santa Claus combined with some religious background (with the nuns and the orphanage and Catholicism), it was just the straw that broke the camel’s back, I think for a lot of parents, and it gave them a cause. Mothers Against Movie Madness lead the charge out of Milwaukee or something like that. “

Hickey was just as shocked by the film’s vitriolic response, although not altogether unpleased. “I don’t think anybody predicted it. When we were working on it, it was just our little movie. We knew it was going to be a little movie, we knew it was going to be produced inexpensively if it was produced at all, and I never imagined that it would get noticed or that it would have such a high profile. But of course the controversy itself created the high profile, so the thing sort of fed on itself. I didn’t anticipate it, but when it happened I was kind of delighted. The movie was getting noticed and written about and covered. The CBS Evening News led off one night with a story about it. The coverage and the notoriety was amazing and I thought very funny, very good. I loved it.”

In a very memorable segment on a holiday episode of Siskel and Ebert, Siskel famously called out the filmmakers by name, attempting to publicly antagonize and shame them. Hickey was one of the men who heard his voice condemned. “ Mr. Siskel and Mr. Ebert seemed to have failed to notice that the movie was not made for middle-age cultural elitists,” Hickey recalled. “I have nothing against middle-age cultural elitists; I’m one now.  The movie was made for a particular audience and that audience loved it. They showed up when it was released, they’ve been showing up on video ever since.  So if you say, well, this movie should never have been made – which was Siskel and Ebert’s main critical point – then it’s tantamount to say no entertainment should ever be made for this audience, and it’s silly.”

Spence saw this over-the-top attack as having a personal precedence, however. “Having worked with [Charles] Sellier [the film’s director] for a long time, “ Spence noted, “the Siskel and Ebert thing went back a long way, all the way back to Hangar 18, which I think was made in 1980.  They really were kind of out for it. It stemmed out of the fact it was basically a four-walling company that did its own advertising and there were a lot of nasty reviews that went back to a lot of Chuck’s earlier pictures, so I think they had their knives sharpened.”

Given its long-lasting presence in the horror film community, it goes without saying that the critical negativity did not keep audiences away. Even so, many are curious as to how this December massive re-release came about. “I think it was 2006 or 2007, at Christmas time,“ Schneid recalled, “Michael Spence was there and we introduced Silent Night, Deadly Night at a revival theater in Los Angeles. It was being shown at Christmas time to a packed, sold out audience. I guess it was somebody at Fangoria magazine that remembered that or was there and said ‘contact Scott Schneid because he introduced the movie’ or something like that. They were trying to find out who owned the rights to the film presently. I was contacted by Meyer Schwarzstein, from Brainstorm Media in Beverly Hills, which is a distribution company. He said, ‘look, there’s an entity called Screenvision and of course I’m sure you know about Fangoria, the horror magazine.’ [Screenvision] put on a screening a year or so ago of Halloween and had a lot of success with it. They brought it out around October/Halloween time. They had a limited theatrical run across the United States and they’re interested in doing the same thing, I was contacted over the summer of this year, for Silent Night Night, Deadly Night, except obviously around Christmas time.  [They were interested in] ‘a limited theatrical run throughout the United States in a few hundred theaters, and would [we] be interested in this?’’And I said ‘yes, of course we’d be interested in this.’” If the response so far has been any indication, horror fans are too.

Silent Night, Deadly Night runs throughout the country for the remainder of December. For a complete lists of locations, dates and showtimes, you can visit ScreenVision's official webpage here.

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