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The Silent Night, Deadly Night Power Rankings

by Alex Kirschenbaum Dec 25, 2020

Let’s face it: a killer Santa is never not going to look kind of funny. Every entry of the Silent Night, Deadly Night saga knows this (although indignant protestors in 1984 apparently did not). And each opts to deal with this fundamental visual quandary in a markedly different way.

In the original 1984 film, the Santa costume is subverted into a symbol of intrinsic evil, as seen through the eyes of poor Billy Chapman (Robert Brian Wilson). Billy, who looks more like a Patriots linebacker than he does Burl Ives, eventually dons the Santa suit and is subsumed by his own dark thoughts. Try as it might to paint him as a sinister figure by making him muscular and shrouding him in shadow, though, he still looks patently absurd. By Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 3: Better Watch Out! (1989), the homicidal maniac of the second installment, Billy’s little brother Ricky, renamed Ricky Caldwell (Bill Moseley), tacitly avoids several opportunities to dress up like Santa, going so far as to not wear the ugly Christmas sweater of a man whose car he commandeers or the Santa hat of the unfortunate gas station attendant he beheads. Come to think of it, his first kill in the movie is a guy in a full-blown Santa suit, and Ricky opts to remain in his hospital gown! Keep in mind, for Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (1987), Ricky (expert eyebrow emoter Eric Freeman) cheerfully donned the ol’ red and white while trying (and failing) to murder a wheelchair-bound nun. That said, Better Watch Out! pays tribute to the killer Santa concept by having a dream-sequence Santa brandish a bloody knife at our heroine for about 2.5 seconds. But that’s all we get.

In Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 4: Initiation (1990), the killer Santa trope is gone entirely, supplanted by a psychotic man-hating cult and a bunch of disgusting insects. The most recent franchise entry, Silent Night (2012), tries to tackle the Santa problem by normalizing the presence of a Santa Claus with a “Santa contest.” The nature of the stakes or qualifications is never made even remotely clear, but the result is dozens upon dozens of middle-aged and old men dressed as Santa Claus (plus a few gorgeous women dressed as Mrs. Claus). The ubiquity of the Santas in this world suggests a town where, on Christmas Eve, there are fewer men not dressed like Santa than there are rabid Santa cosplayers. The movie tries desperately to make them more scary than silly, and surprisingly almost gets there.

You can probably guess that the Mickey Rooney Robot Killer Santa of Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 5: The Toy Maker (1991) is not really being played for scares.

Try as they might, none of these movies can evade the cold, harsh reality of a killer Santa’s ultimate silliness. The most successful entries lean into this with a self-aware wink, while the least successful installments shamefully strive to brush it under the rug entirely. Really, the Santa costume question is a pretty good litmus test for the quality of each flick. The Silent Night franchise is only consistent in its inconsistency, veering from the slasher stories of two troubled brothers to wacky body horror to a festive spin on Puppet Master to a grimy modern whodunnit gore-fest. This Christmas, we’re going to separate the wheat from the chaff as we dissect one of the more unique and wide-ranging modern horror franchises.

6. Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 4: Initiation (1990)

After basking in mainstream theatrical success for about two weekends, the Silent Night, Deadly Night saga found itself relegated to the home video market by the time of this middle chapter. The lack of scrutiny afforded these movies was really a creative opportunity, but it would take another year for Silent Night, Deadly Night to really capitalize on the storytelling front. To its credit, Initiation does opt to veer boldly off course for the most decidedly non-canonical tale in the series today.

Aspiring investigative journalist Kim (Neith Hunter) is currently slumming it as an editor for classified ads and the calendar for alternative LA newspaper The Eye. When a woman apparently spontaneously combusts and leaps to her death, Kim and coworker/on-again-off-again lover Hank are on the case. Soon, Kim has befriended Fima (Maud Adams), proprietor of the bookstore at the base of the building that served as the site of the dead woman’s fatal leap. Fima forcefully brings Kim into her inner circle, a cult of women who claim they want to sever their reliance on men. Through a series of disgusting body horror rituals, the cult places a curse upon Kim that essentially puts her at their mercy. Fima soon divulges that her daughter, Lilith, is the woman who spontaneously combusted.

What does the cult actually want? Sometimes, we think Fima wants her daughter back, because she explicitly says this, but at other moments, Fima tells Kim that she wants her to become a “whole woman” through a series of compromising choices that Lilith was unable to make. Sometimes, we think they want to disassociate from all men, again because they tell us so, but their cult apparently is being aided and abetted by several men.

Basically, this convoluted mythos makes very little sense the more that you think about it, and takes up almost all of the conversation in this movie, so that you can’t help but think about it. We are treated to one very brief scene of two very perfunctory Christmas-themed murders, but we know that no one’s heart is in this stuff. The stars of this movie are director/co-writer Brian Yuzna (Society) and effects maestro Screaming Mad George’s imaginative and grotesque body horror makeups, animatronic bugs and slugs, and transformation effects. It’s just a shame that these solid elements were not made in support of a more compelling story with more realized characters, with a plot that progressed at a more deliberate clip.

5. Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 3: Better Watch Out! (1989)

Honestly, from a technical and performative perspective, Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 3: Better Watch Out! is “better made” than the movie that I have opted to install about it on this list, but it’s not nearly as fun.

Directed by Two-Lane Black Top helmer Monte Hellman, Better Watch Out! also treats us to major casting upgrades from its predecessor, with Bill Moseley, Robert Culp, and TWO future David Lynch players joining the saga. Though Ricky Chapman was quite verbose in Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (more on that in a minute), his renamed sequel incarnation Ricky Caldwell is basically a hulking reanimated corpse this time, a la Frankenstein’s monster.

The actual horror elements here are brief, un-scary and plodding, as if Hellman was rushing through them to get to what he considered the heart of the story: the relationships between the milquetoast lead characters. In a different genre, he’d be right. In horror, it’s all about striking the proper balance between chills and character.

The first straight-to-video installment of the franchise is essentially Ricky vs. Carrie, making it a riff on Friday The 13th Part VII, which is essentially Jason vs. Carrie. This time, though, our Carrie, Laura Anderson (Samantha Scully), is blind, orphaned, and kind of ornery about it. 

After the events of Part 2 (when, again, he was called Ricky Chapman), Ricky Caldwell has been comatose for six years, and now wears a glass encasing atop his head (looking kind of like a Mars Attacks! extraterrestrial) to repair brain damage incurred during the climax of the last movie. This time, a very good actor, Bill Moseley of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 fame, has been swapped in for Ricky. We do miss the intense eyebrow acting of Eric “Garbage Day” Freeman a bit.

At Mount Memorial Hospital around Christmastime, Dr. Newbury (Richard Beymer) is trying to use a bevy of telepathic teens’ psychic abilities to make contact with the comatose Ricky. Laura appears to be the only one who has broken through, but the disturbing images she witnesses (the terrifying 1971 flashback of the original Santa’s murder of Mr. and Mrs. Chapman/Caldwell, plus a slew of vivid nightmares where a non-vegetative Ricky pursues Laura across the hospital).

Laura’s long-haired ladies’ man brother Chris (future Twin Peaks star Eric Da Re) picks her up, telling Laura that his latest conquest, flight attendant Jerri (Laura Harring, future star of Mulholland Drive), to Granny Anderson (Elizabeth Hoffman)’s house for the holiday.

Soon Ricky has been roused from his coma, and taps into their psychic connection to track Laura, Chris and Jerri as they drive on the 101 to visit their grandmother at her house overlooking an orange grove in Piru, a small unincorporated town in eastern Ventura County, for Christmas Eve.

Lieutenant Connely (Robert Culp) and Dr. Marbury eventually piece together that the psychic connection between Laura and Ricky transfers both ways, and that Ricky can glean exactly where Granny Anderson (Elizabeth Hoffman)’s house is. They are in hot pursuit of a hunch, but will they arrive in time to prevent disaster?

What do you think?

4. Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (1987)

Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 stands as objectively the most shoddily made movie of the series, but my god, what a delight. A lot of the fun in this viewing experience stems from knowing a bit of the backstory behind its creation, so here we go. After the original Silent Night, Deadly Night belatedly found success on home video after an embattled theatrical run, Live Entertainment commissioned a cheapie sequel.

Producer Lawrence Applebaum hired two editors, Lee Harry and Joseph H. Earle, at his post production company company to re-purpose scenes from the original movie and build together a threadbare wraparound narrative that could justify a sequel. Harry and Earle broke the story in a handful of days. With Harry serving as co-writer, director and editor, and Earle operating as co-writer and first assistant director, 45 minutes of new footage was filmed, while about 40 minutes of old footage was carried over. So many of the major story beats of the first movie (albeit this time with narration from Ricky Chapman), right down to the very final moment, are used that Part 2 can function as one-stop shopping for curious horror fans who also have yet to check out Part 1.

From the jump, it is readily apparent that this is a much, much cheaper movie. We quickly meet the grown-up Ricky (Eric Freeman) little brother to Billy, homicidal maniac at the heart of the original Silent Night, Deadly Night. A lot of the new footage takes place in Ricky’s room at a psychiatric hospital, where he talks with over-the-top therapist Dr. Henry Bloom (James L. Newman), Ricky’s 13th such appraiser, and toys with an over-the-top-security guard on Christmas Eve. Ricky recounts his entire life story, which includes moments from the first movie where he was an infant, through his own eventual homicidal psychotic break in adulthood that yielded his incarceration.

Freeman’s Ricky is a transfixing phenomenon. When we last saw him, he was a precocious orphaned preteen how had just watched his older brother get gunned down on Christmas morning while trying to kill the wheelchair-bound caretaker of his orphanage. Now 18 and ’roided out to Jose Conseco levels, Part 2 Ricky has a bit of a scenery-chewing Patrick Bateman energy. He’s an evil yuppy chugging HGH.

One important tidbit about Ricky that he and his eyebrows would like Dr. Bloom to know:

RICKY. 

DOESN’T.

SLEEP.

Ricky apparently raises his eyebrow 130 times in this movie, according to Joe Bob Briggs, whose 2019 “Red Christmas” episode covering Part 2 is essential viewing for any fan. There are (deadly?) drinking games dedicated to this.

We need to unpack what happens next beat by beat, because man oh man is it a treat. Though Ricky has been covertly murdering random ne’er-do-wells here and there, his true psychotic break comes when he and his first serious girlfriend, Jennifer (Elizabeth Kaitan), while out for a daytime stroll, encounter Jennifer’s ex-boyfriend Chip (Ken Weichert) while the latter fixes up his car. After taunting Ricky about his past with Jennifer, Ricky electrocutes him with his own car’s jumper cable in the best death to this point. Ricky then strangles Jennifer with the car’s antenna after she reprimands him for slaying Chip. A neighborhood cop approaches Ricky, and then for some reason advances on Ricky with his gun drawn until he is close enough for Ricky to steal the pistol and blast him in the skull. Ricky, now fully demented, starts a killing spree down the block. He kills one neighbor (clearly a PA) drawn to the sounds of gunfire and screaming. 

Then, in the hammiest single moment of gratuitous overacting from Freeman (one so good that it has become an immortal meme), he sees another PA dropping off garbage cans in the PA’s driveway. “GARBAGE DAY,” he yells, with his eyebrows doing about half of the yelling, before blasting this additional PA to bits. Honestly, this guy looks almost exactly like the other neighbor.

A neighborhood girl, who would definitely have seen Ricky killing these last two neighbors, rides up to him on a tricycle. As in the original Silent Night, Deadly Night, the audience wonders if, for a split second, our main villain will cross the invisible “too far” line only limited to rare exceptions like (spoiler alert) Assault On Precinct 13 and Sleepy Hollow, and off a kid. Just like Billy before him, Ricky lets the kid pass.

Ricky kills an oncoming driver, who subsequently drives the car into a conveniently located ramp, inches away from Ricky’s stunt double, at which point it promptly explodes, before being finally cut off by a blockade of two cop cars. As he cartoonishly cackles while pointing his stolen gun to his temple, the incredibly empathetic cops beg him not to kill himself. He goes for it… only to discover he’s out of bullets, in probably the movie’s best (intentionally) funny moment. 

In one of the least surprising developments of the wraparound psychiatrist storytelling setup, Ricky strangles his therapist with a reel of recording tape. Why was he not tied up?

Finally, Ricky sets out to murder the cruel headmistress of the childhood orphanage that traumatized both Chapman brothers, Mother Superior (Jean Miller), who’s had a stroke and lives alone now. Half of her face has been burned, for no reason that we know of. The makeup choice was clearly motivated by our filmmakers’ decision disguise the fact that Mother Superior is a different actress this time around (to be fair, we saw the original Mother Superior actress, Lilyan Chauvin, plenty in all of the movie’s many flashbacks).

This movie is a delicious mess, and must be seen to be believed. For sheer entertainment value, Part 2 could easily be #1 on this list.

3. Silent Night (2012)

The most succinctly monikered sequel is basically a gritty, Halloween 2007 torture-porn version of Silent Night Deadly Night, but with Malcolm McDowell playing Sheriff Leigh Brackett instead of Dr. Loomis this time.

Our killer Santa this time wears an eerie translucent Santa face mask, in addition to the standard-issue Kris Kringle attire. He is enacting moralistic vengeance on the “sinners” in small-town Cryer, Wisconsin. He takes to brutally massacring adulterers, drug dealers, porn peddlers and more typically (i.e. not murderously) cruel Santas, before ultimately having to deal with arrogant Sheriff Cooper (McDowell) and dour Deputy Aubrey Bradimore (Jaime King), the daughter of a former intrepid cop-turned-seasonal Santa (John B. Lowe). 

Aubrey’s dad is competing in some kind of epic mall Santa contest, which has brought a variety of Santas from all over the country, though what exactly they’re competing for and how they’re judged is never addressed. Also it seems possible that this contest is more of a Santa parade than an actual contest but, again, it’s sort of a narrative red herring. Several creepy Santas become suspects once the cops are on to our masked Santa’s heinous, inspired crimes (which include a Fargo-esque woodchipper murder, a flamethrower, and electrocution by Christmas lights), including cynical traveling Santa Jim Epstein (Donal Logue), who has been making local kids in Cryer… well, cry, plus a drunken drifter Santa, Stein Karsson (Mike O’Brien), who turns out to be coveted drug dealer “Mr. Snow.”

Though there are a few pointed nods to the first two movies (including, yes, a stuffed deer antler impalement and a “GARBAGE DAY” reference), Silent Night is really a new story, a true sequel. We don’t have to worry about the tormented psychologies of the Chapman/Caldwell brothers, bug cults or toy makers. This is just another kind of scary, kind of funny Christmas Eve adventure, in the spirit of its predecessors. Directed by Steven C. Miller with a script from Jayson Rothwell, Silent Night is the only somewhat scary franchise entry — if you’re after that sort of thing from your killer Santa movies.

2. Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 5: The Toy Maker (1991)

After a spooky Santa-themed face-hugger toy gets architect Tom Quinn (Van Quattro) killed a few weeks before Christmas, his widowed wife Sarah (Jane Higginson) and their son Derek (William Thorne) are left to pick up the pieces. As a coping mechanism, Derek has stopped speaking and refuses to go sleep in his own bedroom now.

Toy Maker emerges as a MASSIVE improvement over Parts 3-4 when it comes to sheer entertainment value. Brian Yuzna remained attached to the saga for this installment, albeit as a producer and writer only this time. Martin Kitrosser took over directing duties.

The grieving mother’s best friend in their cozy suburban neighborhood turns out to be… Kim (Neith Hunter) from Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 4: Initiation! Kim brings her dead ex-boyfriend Hank’s little brother Lonnie (Conan Yuzna), apparently toughened up by his traumatic experience in the last movie, over to the Quinn home to watch TV with Derek. A third Initiation vet, Clint Howard, returns here as a mall Santa named Ricky. Of course, he is probably not THE Ricky since that Ricky was pretty definitively gutted and then had the contents of his stomach digested by giant animatronic slug puppets at the end of Initiation.

It seems like the series has at this point taken on an anthology-type narrative cumulatively, where, like American Horror Story in subsequent years, some of the cast carries over from movie to movie, playing different characters. In this case, though, for an extra confusing wrinkle, the three Initiation actors are playing characters with the same name. It’s unclear if Lonnie, who seems like a totally different character this time, is supposed to be Kim’s son. Maybe? At another point, though, Kim tells Sarah that she “would not BELIEVE the things I’ve been through,” a sly wink to the prior movie. So maybe this IS Kim? And thus that IS Lonnie? But of course, the mall Santa Ricky can’t be Ricky because in this universe he’s dead? Unless he’s an un-killable Michael Meyers-type being? Who knows? WHAT ARE THE RULES?

Though there is some tactful misdirection with regards to the identity of our titular toy maker, our antagonists this time turn out to be ingenious, cantankerous old inventor Joe Petto (Mickey Rooney) and Joe’s creepy, perpetually teenage son Pino (get it?), played by Brian Bremer. 

The Quinn family, some handlers and a few innocent bystanders find themselves under attack from an onslaught of inventive, pseudo-lethal toys: toy dinosaurs driven to really chew flesh, toy soldiers armed with real bullets, roller skates with a mind of their own, giant toy larval slugs that burrow into skulls, and more.

In addition to Yuzna, Screaming Mad George is the other key behind-the-scenes player to return to the table, and is in fine form here, tasked with making a much tamer arsenal of playfully sinister artificial critters to gorily ravage our victims. Rooney is terrific as a mad inventor, as is Bremer as the disturbing Pino. This a fun, adventurous little movie, and, unlike some other flicks I could name, it never loses sight of its Yuletide flavor.

1. Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

The one that started it all, director Charles E. Sellier Jr.’s original Silent Night, Deadly Night is trashy and tawdry and tasteless and violent — but also festive, clever, and loaded with some smart low-fi action set pieces that conjure palpable dread despite the fact that our killer looks like jolly old St. Nick. Silent Night, Deadly Night actually has a lot in common with its more serious-minded predecessor in the serial killing Santa sub-genre, Christmas Evil. A troubled young man-child, traumatized by a Christmas experience he didn’t quite understand, grows up to be unhealthily fixated on Santa Claus and Christmastime. One works at a toy factory, the other a toy store. They eventually crack on Christmas Eve, and lay waste to drunken revelers.

When it comes to character-building in this franchise, Part 1 takes the cake. It starts with a creepy prologue in 1971, wherein five-year-old Billy Chapman (Jonathan Best) is told by his heretofore catatonic grandfather (Will Hare) at a Utah-based mental facility called… Utah Mental Facility that Santa is coming for him. Gramps proves to be quite prescient, as a trigger-happy convenience store thief dressed as you-know-who (Charles Dierkop) winds up murdering the Chapman brothers’ parents and thus orphaning Billy and an infant Ricky.

We jump forward to 1974, where a reserved, mulleted Billy (Danny Wagner) and Ricky live in a cruel Catholic orphanage. Their nun educators, led by headmistress Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin), penalize him for a graphically violent illustration of Santa Claus getting murdered. As with any good ’80s slasher movie villain, Billy is scared of and confused by sex. When the eight-year-old discovers a mysterious adult couple (whose identities are never explained, though they don’t appear to be school teachers, so presumably they are supposed to be older teen orphans) copulating at his orphanage, Mother Superior explains that “what they were doing was something very, very naughty,” forever coloring sex as something to punish.

We flash forward to spring 1984, where the only sympathetic nun from his orphanage, Sister Margaret (Gilmer McCormick), gets 18-year-old Billy hired as a stock boy at Ira’s Toy Store, replete with a heartwarming montage of Billy lifting boxes to the tune of “Warm Side of the Door” by Morgan Ames, and to the appreciation of several sweet customers. Billy is now a strapping young lad played by Robert Brian Wilson, who looks a heck of a lot like Pantera/Down singer Phil Anselmo. A coworker offers him alcohol, but tea-totaler Billy only drinks milk and strives not to curse. 

As Christmas nears, Billy struggles to combat traumatic flashbacks to his parents’ murder at the hands of the 1971 killer Santa. Billy finds his sexual fantasies surrounding his crush, Pamela (Toni Nero), mired by serial killer Santa stabbing nightmares. When the store’s usual Santa suffers an injury, Billy is roped into the gig. Of course, this triggers his murderous rampage, which ultimately concludes, as it must, with Billy returning to the orphanage that drove him mad, to punish “naughty” Mother Superior.

The flick’s most creative kill involves a great early appearance from ’80s horror mainstay Linnea Quigley. Billy impales topless cat owner Denise (Quigley) on the antlers of a mounted deer head. When his work is complete, it looks like a death metal album cover.

Released on the same day as A Nightmare On Elm Street (November 9th, 1984), the original Silent Night, Deadly Night was out-grossing “Nightmare” until moralizing parent groups protested enough across the country that distributor Tristar pulled the film from theaters two weeks after it hit screens. It underwent a protracted legal battle before returning to theaters the next year with an independent distributor, but ultimately found its audience on home video a year after that, in 1986.

As someone who does not hold the religious elements of Christmas sacrosanct, I think any piece of entertainment that attempts in some way to subvert the consumerist shell that the holiday has become should be welcomed with open arms. Gremlins and Die Hard are two champions of the form, though of course movie history is lousy with mischievous Christmastime stories. Silent Night, Deadly Night’s cardinal sin, according to picketing Catholic mothers, was so iconically featuring a slasher Santa (and also probably advertising during a Packers game).

The original entry is a contained, creepy story that, though prone to genre trappings of its era, elevates material through sheer technical skill, with solid acting, a script that devotes considerable energy to trying to understand its tortured killer, and inventive and gruesome murders in spooky spaces tactfully lit by cinematographer Henning Schellerup.

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