Santa Slays: When 'Silent Night, Deadly Night' Caused a Public Panic
By Jake Rossen
Upon the release of Silent Night, Deadly Night in November 1984, film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert had few kind words. Siskel in particular took offense at the film, which follows an axe-wielding Santa Claus on a killing spree, labeling it “quite sick.”
But the critic wasn’t finished. In a segment for their syndicated At the Movies program, Siskel dubbed television ads for the movie “sick and sleazy and mean-spirited. So let’s repeat the names of the people who did it.” Siskel went on to name distributor Tri-Star Pictures, which was a conglomerate comprised of Columbia Pictures, CBS, and HBO, as well as writer Michael Hickey, director Charles E. Sellier, Jr., and producer Ira Barmak. “Your profits truly are blood money,” Siskel said.
He finished by naming Silent Night, Deadly Night as one of the two most "contemptible" films he had ever seen, the other being the notoriously brutal 1978 Meir Zarchi film I Spit on Your Grave.
At a time when another bloodthirsty Santa Claus is succeeding at the box office in the form of Violent Night, such venom seems out of place. But Siskel was no outlier. When Silent Night, Deadly Night hit theaters, everyone from parent groups to protesters responded with a chorus of yuletide jeers, making it one of the most controversial films of the decade.
According to co-executive producer Scott Schneid, no one involved in the making of Silent Night, Deadly Night anticipated that the movie would provoke a national revolt. “It never occurred to me for one second,” he told Diabolique Magazine in 2013. “I thought we were making an R-rated movie for a teenage audience. I never thought for a second it was going to piss anyone off.”
Blood in the Snow
Silent Night, Deadly Night wasn’t the first time a homicidal Santa had invaded popular culture. Most notably, 1980’s low-budget thriller Christmas Evil had depicted a tormented man named Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart) who decides to adopt the Santa persona to reward good people and punish the naughty (with an axe). It probably didn’t help that Harry once witnessed “Santa” in carnal relations with his mother when he was just a child.
While Christmas Evil is reputedly a favorite film of director John Waters, it largely escaped mainstream attention. But Silent Night, Deadly Night launched homicidal Santas into the spotlight. And it all began in a Harvard University dorm room.
According to Dread Central, Harvard undergrad Paul Caimi wrote the script, originally titled He Sees You When You’re Sleeping, as a class assignment. The story found its way to Scott Schneid, a Harvard alum and talent agent who, along with partner Dennis Whitehead, was looking for a film to back as a producer. Schneid and Whitehead optioned the script based on the general premise of a berserk Claus with the intent of reworking it.
“This was in the day of Friday the 13th and the first Halloween and I thought this could be a potential for a teenage franchise,” Schneid told Diabolique Magazine in 2013. “A psycho dressed in a Santa Claus suit on the loose, Christmas Eve, all the visual imagery, the iconic Santa … you know, Christmas imagery, interweaving that into the killings. I thought as naturally teenagers are the most rebellious creatures on the planet, they would love the concept.”
Whitehead enlisted writer Michael Hickey, who came up with the premise: After witnessing his parents being murdered by a man dressed as Santa, young Billy Chapman grows up to become a slasher Claus. In keeping with the motif, one victim is dispatched with antlers; another is done in by Christmas lights; a child is threatened while sitting on Santa’s lap. In terms of holiday cheer, it was quite a few rungs below A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Schneid and Whitehead took the script (then titled Slayride) to Tri-Star, which saw value in producing a modest horror film for big profit margins. They assigned it to producer Ira Barmak as part of a two-picture deal, the other of which was a comedy. Barmak would later recall no one at Tri-Star seemed to study the movie with much scrutiny. It was possible no one other than junior executives had read the script. If true, it was an oversight they’d soon come to regret.
Silent Night, Deadly Night opened in limited release in roughly 400 theaters on November 9, 1984, the same weekend as A Nightmare on Elm Street. Despite Wes Craven’s film being equally unsettling, as burn victim Freddy Krueger stalks teens in their dreams, it was Silent Night that bore the brunt of parents’ wrath.
Unlike Christmas Evil, Silent Night was backed by a potent Tri-Star television advertising campaign. Across the country, primetime viewers—many of them children—were blanketed by ads of a Santa cradling an axe while sliding down a chimney. It was a stark contrast to Santa’s typical, jolly benevolence. To astonished parents and watchdog groups, it was like handing Big Bird a machete.
Though the TV spots were soon relegated to after 9 p.m.—presumably when school-aged kids would be getting ready for bed—few people were placated.
“Some Say Movie May Cause Irreparable Harm” read one Asbury Park Press headline, with the article going on to say the ads could prompt “phobic reactions” in children. A psychologist warned that kids might even “regress” in their toilet training.
“That’s like having the Easter Bunny go out and strangle everybody,” one annoyed mall Santa told the paper. “I think it’s totally unconscionable, and theater managers who show it are irresponsible and have no feelings for the holidays.”
The backlash the week following the film’s opening was demonstrated in picketers and protests outside of theaters screening it.
“Believe it or not, we actually had to cross the picket line,” Schneid said of going to his first produced film. “People were holding banners saying ‘Santa ain’t no hitman’ and ‘Deck the halls with holly not bodies.’”
One of the most vocal opponents was Kathleen Eberhardt of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who drummed up publicity for banning the film by creating an advocacy group, Citizens Against Movie Madness, or CAMM. The publicized protests were copied in other cities, which led to further media coverage, and even further condemnation.
Within days, theaters in three states—New York, Wisconsin, and New Jersey—pulled the film from screens, and Tri-Star’s marketing arm was working overtime to try and quell the backlash. The film, the studio insisted, was rated R, meaning no kids under 17 could be admitted without a parent.
It was of little use. By November 24, Tri-Star made the decision to pull the film from a planned wide release. The studio said the lack of television spots had impacted the box office. (When Tri-Star let go of distribution rights, the film received a modest re-release via Aquarius Film Releasing sans any television ads in May 1985.)
But that may not have told the whole story. In a post-mortem for the Los Angeles Times, an unnamed executive told reporter Deborah Caulfield that Tri-Star may have stumbled by paying little attention to the homicidal Santa premise before greenlighting the movie. It wasn’t until the film was completed that one executive began having second thoughts, wondering if it should even be released. Moreover, at the time, Columbia was owned by Coca-Cola, purveyor of a friendly Santa who quaffed soda.
Eberhardt said she was pleased by the result and vowed she would be there to protest in the event there was a Silent Night, Deadly Night II. There was, of course. Despite the backlash, the original film made a decent $3.2 million in just over two weeks of release and became a success on home video. Part II, which was released in 1987, was one of four sequels, none of which captured the hysteria over the original. There was also a remake in 2012. Worse than offensive, critics wrote, it was simply boring.
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A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the release date and director of Meir Zarchi's I Spit on Your Grave. The story has since been updated.