Friday, December 24, 2021

"Silent" but "Deadly!"

Beginning around the late-'70s, moviegoers had begun flocking to a new genre of movie, the teen slasher flick. Halloween (1978) was a low-budget monster hit with Friday the 13th (1980) on its heels. Young mischief-makers found themselves on the receiving end of gory violence, often after having indulged in vices like pot and sex. Continuing the trend of incorporating significant dates or holidays into the equation, we also saw New Years Evil (1980) and My Bloody Valentine (1981.) But in 1984, the makers of Silent Night, Deadly Night apparently went too far when they dared to set a slasher movie at Christmastime and had good ol' Santa Claus wielding an axe!

In an early example of the "cancel culture," which is now so prevalent, outraged parents flooded local malls and movie theaters, picketing and chanting Christmas carols in protest. The PTA became involved, demanding the removal of television ads for the film. It was quite a spectacle at the time and made news all over. (I recall the drubbing that Siskel & Ebert gave the movie on their weekly review program.) The parents did have a point that showing ads for a movie like this during Little House on the Prairie (!) was a decidedly ignorant move. However, there had already been a movie with a highly similar theme - You Better Watch Out, later called Christmas Evil - in 1980, which had caused nary a ripple!  It ended up with the movie - which had a very successful opening weekend - being yanked from screens after 10 days... At the time it was withdrawn, it had made more money that its competitor A Nightmare on Elm Street. (Seeing people eviscerated, so long as it wasn't by Old St. Nick, was presumably not an issue...) 

I was 17 when this movie came out, technically too young to see it without a parent or guardian, though God knows I slithered into Little Darlings (1980) at age 13! I was averse to horror movies in general back then, so I never did get to see it. Didn't really care to either! But recently one of my high-def movie channels put it out there and I thought it was time I took a look to see what all the fuss was about. I expected it to be utterly devoid of any sort of craftsmanship or quality in the slightest, but I was rather surprised at some of its aspects! It's not "good," but you don't go into a movie like this anticipating "Long Days Journey into Night" level of dramatics. LOL

We begin in Utah as a young family is shown driving cross country.

Demonstrating all the strenuous 1971 period detail of, say, 1984, the mother is sporting full-on '80s makeup, highlights, etc... The little boy in the backseat is reading a careworn copy of "The Night Before Christmas."

They're on their way to visit grandpa at the "home." Looks like a real rockin' place with, literally, no one around except for him! Inexplicably, the doctor wants to discuss Gramps' case, so the parents take their baby and leave the older son there all along with a catatonic old man...

No sooner are they alone than the grandfather begins a creepy tirade about Santa Claus and how he punishes those who aren't good!

Having witnessed none of this, the boy's parents are more than skeptical as he attempts to relay to them what happened during their long drive home.

Meanwhile, a man in a Santa suit (Charles Dierkop of Police Woman!) holds up a convenience store and thinks nothing of doing away with the clerk.

Petrified of Santa to begin with, the child is apoplectic when they come upon Dierkop in the road with a broken down car. His father feels he has to stop to see if he can help, which is a truly bad decision.

Before you know it, Dad is down for the count and Mom is being dragged into the street!

Sadly, although he makes a run for it and hides in some brush, the tyke is forced to witness the attempted rape and murder of his mother. Jonathan Best, who plays the lead at this age, gives really good face throughout and was a decent little actor. He wasn't yet 7 at the time of filming. He later worked for a time as a (mostly voice) actor in several Morman-oriented animated projects. Remember, this was filmed in Utah.

Three years later, we're at a Catholic-run orphanage.

Our protagonist was so affected by the events of 1971 that it turned his dark brown eyes pale green!  LOL  He is also sporting a very 1984 mullet/bi-level haircut in what is purportedly 1974... 

He's called upon in class to tape his Christmas artwork on the board alongside other young students at the home/school. But his approach to it is decidedly different!

The Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin) is understandably alarmed by the very UN-Norman Rockwell-ish piece of art.

She and her assistant (Gilmer McCormick) discuss his peculiar case. He's clearly disturbed by the traumatic events of his early childhood. Chauvin takes a hard line with him while McCormick is more sympathetic.

The boy (now played by Danny Wagner) really isn't so much mischievous as hapless. For instance, he's merely walking down the hall on the way to recess when he hears oddball noises behind a door... (I think you can see some of the artful staging in scenes like this, with the keyhole light in his eye and the way the hallway is photographed and lit.)

Wagner is interrupted in his voyeurism by an irate Chauvin, who surprises the copulating couple who've holed up in a storeroom for some irresistible afternoon delight.

The startled couple looks like they were opting to "do it" on the set of Hogan's Heroes or something! Anyway, Chauvin soon takes a belt (!) to both of them.

Still fired up, she traipses out to the playground and calls young Wagner back in.

She proceeds to wallop him with the belt, too, for the sin of watching them do their thing.

One glance at this shot of the other orphans is all you need to know about the amateurish acting and un-detailed directing style of Charles Sellier Jr. Each kid has found a way to determine his or her own place to focus attention instead of on one unified thing! Sellier only directed two other features after this; Snowballing (1984, and, yes, it's about what you may think!) and The Annihilators, 1985), but he did create The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams and produced many, many projects up to 2008.

This coming not too long after Mommie Dearest (1981), there's an element of that feeling of a child trapped by a commanding adult. Chauvin takes to tying Wagner up in his bed!

Sympathetic McCormick can't convince her of any other route to success with the child. He really can't seem to catch a break!

Now it's Christmas and Chauvin has determined that the snot-nosed kids are becoming spoiled by so many presents.

Still, Santa pays his annual visit and Chauvin insists that Wagner take his turn with the old man, though he's violently against the idea. (Gee, I wonder why..!)

I don't even know why a Catholic-run orphanage is so all-fire big on Santa Claus, but nevertheless Wagner is crammed onto his lap. This results in Santa being punched in the face!

Yes, it's a little slice of hell at the school and Wagner is constantly put-upon by the domineering Mother Superior.

I didn't investigate it too thoroughly, but this is surely the only top-billed movie of Chauvin's career. The French actress was very busy for many years, but usually in uncredited bits or brief supporting parts. The only thing I ever really readily knew her from was Back Street (1961), in which she was a snidely gossiping airline ticket agent. But she was a highly active performer up until her death in 2008 at 82 from breast cancer and heart disease.

Now thirteen years after the initial incident, we're about to meet our boy all grown up.

McCormick is attempting to convince toy store owner Britt Leach to hire one of her young former charges as a stock clerk. The disbelieving Leach informs her that the job requires someone strong and hardy who can lift heavy boxes, not some orphan from her school.

She declares that the person she's trying to get hired is no weakling, but a nice, strong 18 year-old boy. She calls him to come around the corner and introduce himself...

This is our very first glimpse of the guy!

You're hired! Robert Brian Wilson is now portraying the lead (and has reverted to his dark brown eyes again...!)

Yes, please!

Wilson is a hard-working, milk-drinking model employee, much in contrast to his asshole coworker Randy Stumpf.

It's fun to examine the 1980s toys that are scattered throughout the store (though it NEVER looks like any of them are thoughtfully arranged or categorized. They're just piled here and there.)
Wilson does a good job, is responsible and is well-liked. But if you take notice, there are Halloween costumes hanging... November is on the horizon. And, after that...

Ho Ho No!!

He has noticeable discomfort at the sight of the man in the red velvet suit. 

Apart from the specter of Santa Claus on the horizon, he's doing all right and has developed a bit of a crush on one of his female coworkers.
She seems like a caring enough person and takes an interest in him as well.

Here, in a (wet?) dream, Wilson fantasizes about what it would be like to create the two-headed monster with his pert coworker.

Santa might be trimmed in white fur, but Wilson is quite the opposite. The camera glides by his remarkably hairy backside!

Comfy as they seem, this dream does not have a happy ending. Wilson, thanks to the horrible events of his childhood, equates sex with violence and as an evil act that requires punishment!

He awakens in a state of panic.

And he cannot hide his horror at seeing a real live Santa on hand for the annual visits with the local kiddies.

No, that's not the mother of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Just some unfortunate camera framing as one of the store employees informs Leach that the Santa Claus they are relying on will not be in that day! She suggests that he fill in the part himself, but he is aghast at the notion.

For some reason, instead of calling upon the slightly older and huskier Stumpf to do it, Leach asks Wilson to become the fill-in Santa Claus at the store!

It's almost more than he can bear, but the eager-to-please Wilson acquiesces.

This can't end well, can it?

All the rugrats are lined up and we get to watch the one at extreme right pick her nose while waiting for her turn...

In a dazzling display of what hair and fashion trends were "it" in 1984 Utah, we have this series of moms (and dads) overlooking the situation.

Wilson's "sleigh-side" manner leaves plenty to be desired, but he gets through the damned thing unscathed.

Trouble is, that night is the store Christmas party and Leach practically insists that Wilson have some wine along with everyone else.

The heady mix of alcohol, the Santa experience, his burgeoning sexuality and so on becomes a simmering cauldron of confusion and outrage, especially when his favorite coworker begins to play tongue-hockey with the other jerk he works with... He begins to snap.

Next thing you know, no naughty boys or girls are safe in town!

This was apparently acceptable winter clothing for young bimbo Linnea Quigley (who opens the door topless when trying to retrieve her wayward cat!) Quigley would go on to countless appearances in exploitation fare with titties titles like Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (1988), Vice Academy (1989) and Virgin High (1991) to name only a few.  I won't go on and on with the slew of killings that come here and thereafter, but there are plenty. Some of them are creative. Some were considered gruesome enough to edit in order to secure a R rating.

As I say, my expectations were virtually nil, so I was actually pleasantly surprised at the caliber of the photography and some of the depth - such as it is - to the story line. The hubbub seems almost unbelievable now that we've had so many other, far more reprehensible, pieces of cinematic excrement come down the movie chute. (The story is really just a warped variation on the origin of The Lone Ranger or Batman - a youth witnesses the death of his parents and it leads to costumed retribution of a sort.) This movie's notoriety led to a series of sequels and a later reexamination (with grainy, restored footage in some parts on the Blu-Ray), emerging as a maligned cult favorite. As to the shot above, these carolers are singing a hooty number written just for this project. It's only one of many songs provided throughout with ironic titles like "Slayrider," "Santa's Watching" and "The Warm Side of the Door." The movie may be viewed here.
If Gilmer McCormick seemed at all familiar to you, it may be because she was one of the original stars on Broadway of the musical Godspell and reprised the part in the 1973 movie. She only worked on screen once more after this (as a guest on the obscure TV series I Had Three Wives, which starred Victor Garber, her Jesus in Godspell.) She segued into teaching acting along with directing theater and is 74 today.

All the while Wilson was on his Santa spree, he reminded me of someone, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. Finally I decided it was likely televangelist Jan Crouch! Having this ostensibly successful film - his debut - yanked the way it was must have been crushing to young Wilson, but he managed to forge ahead on daytime soaps such as Generations and Santa Barbara. In the 1990s he married, eventually becoming a father of three, and moved into the trade show business. Which brings us to...

The End!