As I mentioned in a previous post, holiday-themed slashers have been a staple of the genre since its very inception. Black Christmas, arguably the first slasher ever, takes place on Christmas Eve at a near-empty sorority house. As a result, the typical warm and fuzzy Christmas atmospheric indicators–carols, twinkling lights, etc.–become twisted into ominous signs of the impending doom that the handful of the sorority house’s remaining occupants face. Christmas themes also function subtextually: the killer appropriately climbs into the sorority house attic from the roof like a demented Santa Claus, while the primary character toils over her unwanted pregnancy a la Mary. Black Christmas demonstrated that even the most sacred of holidays could be used as fodder for horror. Once again, here is the trailer:
The voiceover at the end of the trailer drives home my point that holiday horror is all about perverting the quaint holiday traditions that have become cliches. In this way, the holiday horror subversively challenges the notion of tradition.
No holiday slasher does this more than the eighties b-movie slasher Silent Night, Deadly Night. Whereas Black Christmas subtly works in the idea of Santa Claus as serial killer, SNDN derives its entire plot from the concept. To be sure, the killer is not the “actual” Santa of the North Pole but a mere toy store impersonator. Still, the result is a film that plays upon the modern Santa Claus iconography popularized by Coca Cola’s illustrator Haddon Sundblom in the 1930’s. Below is one example of the marketing tactics used for the film:
But beyond the sensational imagery evoked by the poster, the film walks a weird line in its attempts to justify the use of Santa Claus. It begins with the story of Billy, a young boy who witnesses the murder of his parents after the attempted rape of his mother on Christmas Eve at the hands of a robber dressed as Santa. This traumatic event occurs just after Billy and parents visit his grandfather, who explains (in one of the film’s most comical scenes) what Santa does to bad children:
Not surprisingly, the now-orphaned Billy associates Santa with murder and mayhem. The Mother Superior at the orphanage where he subsequently grows up reinforces this connection with a series of harsh punishments that in one way or another coincide with Santa Claus and/or witnessing the act of sex. Years later as an eighteen year-old, Billy leaves the orphanage and begins working at a local toy store. During the Christmas season, the manager enlists Billy to play Santa, triggering his memories of his parents’s murders. When Billy sees one of his coworkers attempting to sexually assault another, he himself becomes the punishing Santa figure, hanging the would-be perpetrator with Christmas lights. A murderous rampage ensues, ending at the orphanage where Billy attempts to kill the Mother Superior before police shoot and kill him. Billy’s younger brother, who witnesses the scene, looks up from his brother’s dead body toward the Mother Superior and concludes the film with the line “Naughty!”
While the film’s play on Christmas screams camp value, some critics took umbrage with the film’s depiction of a maniac Santa. Gene Siskel even went so far as to call out the film’s distributors, producers, writer, and director:
Toward the end of the clip, Siskel dismisses the idea that the film might be campy, yet he describes with a straight face the film’s most ridiculous scenes: a topless woman impaled on antlers, another woman killed with a bow and arrow, and one of my favorites, the killer’s presentation of a box cutter as a gift to a child. Maybe the passage of time has dated the film in a way that emphasizes the camp value, but I struggle nevertheless to fathom how anyone could have taken SNDN seriously. Yet the film proved controversial with various parent organizations successfully lobbying for its removal from distribution. Clearly, the slasherization of Santa touched a nerve in conservative 1980s America.
It would be interesting to see how today’s audiences would react to the concept. A remake helmed by French director Alexandre Aja had been discussed for a 2008 release but has not come to fruition. It’s quite possible that thirty years later, the serial killer Santa Clause remains a taboo that even the most audacious distributors will not touch. For the time being, home video will just have to suffice.