Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

by Mean Mr. Jimmy Callaway

If you’re anything like me, you’re an atheist.

But even that doesn’t draw as many stares as the fact that I don’t celebrate Christmas. Disbelief in a superior power is a concept people seem to be able to wrap their heads around; not blowing every last dime on presents for people one doesn’t particularly like or not getting all misty-eyed during the Art Carney episode of The Twilight Zone, well, that’s just...wrong, somehow. And it’s even more difficult to explain that it’s not strictly Christmas I have a problem with. I have many warm Christmas memories, mostly having to do with Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. So it’s not that so much as my explicit refusal to observe outmoded traditions simply because they are traditions. That’s behavior fit for the likes of sheep or Exploited fans. Not for anybody with a brain.

I had a writing professor who had a really well-formed lecture on the formula followed by the average slasher movie. I tried to drum it up for reference on this little project, but no soap. However, his basic point was that these flicks tend to bang out like little morality plays. The victims tend to be guilty of various perceived sins like cruelty, substance abuse, lust, etc. The moral: be good or Jason/Freddy/Michael/whoever will chop you up. And on the surface, Silent Night, Deadly Night seems to follow this formula to the bitter end. But I would say that this flick tries to extend itself beyond the formula, so instead of just reinforcing commonly held moral beliefs, it questions the hypocrisy and futility of those who would impose absolutist “naughty or nice” modes of judgment and punishment. Basically, this flick says that if we try to pigeonhole human behavior into broad, polarized concepts like “good” or “bad,” we’ll not only fail spectacularly, but people will end up worse than when we started.

Don’t get me wrong, though. This is still a slasher movie, through and through. It’s got a low budget, not very good acting, painfully “witty” dialogue, and blood ‘n’ guts by the barrelful. It opens with young Billy and his baby brother Ricky and their lovely blonde parents off to visit Grandpa. Aw, isn’t that sweet? Thing of it is, Granddad lives at the Utah Mental Health Facility (which I imagine does some pretty brisk business). Grandpa is catatonic, or at least he is until he’s alone with Billy. Then he pipes up with all this nutcase stuff about how Santa Claus punishes all the naughty boys and girls. Then, as soon as Mom and Dad return, Grandpa’s back in dreamland. Aside from the Michigan J. Frog parallel, Grandpa here is obviously the first anti-tradition salvo in the story: the old guard passing on its deranged nonsense to the next generation, and scaring the shit out of them in the process.

Billy’s newly-minted Santa phobia is thoroughly cemented on the way home. Kindly Mom and Dad pull over to help a guy in a Santa suit who’s run into some car trouble. To express his thanks, Santa shoots Dad in the face and then rips Mom’s blouse off before slitting her throat. Billy is upset, and not just because it appears those Hot Wheels he’d been wanting will have to wait until next year.

But seriously, folks, these childish moral codes we drum into kids’ heads from this age should work fine, I guess, as long as crazy shit like the above doesn’t happen. And while you may not often hear about this exact sort of thing, how do you explain all the other random catastrophe that life is full of? What about when a hurricane knocks the house over on Thanksgiving? Guess you shoulda eaten your vegetables, kid. Oh, your uncle diddled your butthole, did he? Maybe if you’d brushed your teeth every night, that sort of thing wouldn’t happen (Oddly enough, not long after I first wrote this little diatribe, that guy in L.A. went on his killing spree dressed as Santa, kicking things off by shooting an 8-year-old girl in the face. I certainly feel bad for her now, but imagine all the bullshit she’s going to have to go through from November 1st to December 26th every year for the rest of her life. I almost feel like I should thank that shithead for driving my point home for me here).

Anyways, back to the movie. Fast-forward now a couple years, and we find Billy being raised in an institution renowned for its progressiveness and forward-thinking: a Catholic orphanage. When 8-year-old Billy draws a violent picture of Santa and Rudolph hacked to bits, he gets taken to task by Mother Superior, a typical (in these kinds of movies and, I’ve found, in life) authority figure: big, mean, and unwaveringly sure of her own authority. She’s gonna break Billy of this nonsensical “traumatization” of seeing his parents murdered, and if kindly young Sister Margaret thinks her hippy-dippy “child psychology” is gonna fly around here, she’s got another think coming. Amen.

It’s bad enough that Billy does something crazy like express himself artistically, but then he has the sheer audacity to innocently stumble upon a young couple fornicating. Nothing will twist a youngster’s mind quite like the sight of two consenting adults creating life. Mother Superior, thankfully, catches him and, quick to recall the Sermon on the Mount, beats the living shit out of him (Here also comes my first real problem with the screenplay. This scene does well to further meld sex and violence in the psyche of young Bill, so that’s all well and good. But who the hell does the deed in a Catholic orphanage in the middle of the day without at least locking the door first? This is never even kinda explained, like some of the later gaping plot holes. I can see that grabbing some afternoon delight in a House of God would be pretty hot, but still).

All right, fast forward ten more years, and Billy is a strapping young lad who drinks his milk and can’t act very well. Typical all-American boy. Sister Margaret, forever Billy’s champion, gets Billy a gig in the local toy store working for Gary’s dad from Weird Science. Sister Margaret, as the voice of reason in this story, really drops the ball here. I get that the toy store job was the last in town, but when we’re talking about a borderline psychopath with deep trauma related to Christmas working in a toy store during Christmas season? Maybe you wanna wait until after New Year’s, or even Presidents Day.

But Billy’s good at his job, working overtime for nothing while really bad ‘80s Christmas music plays. And of course, Billy is really freaked out by the merest sight of a Santa. And also of course, Billy is tapped to play Santa when the original guy craps out. What could possibly go wrong?

But despite frightening the kids a bit (and what department store Santa doesn’t do that every year?), things are going okay. Billy’s able to reign in his nearly palpable mental derangement, until he catches his Neanderthal supervisor, Andy, trying to rape the pretty, young Pamela. What follows is a no-less-than-3-hour flashback to Billy’s parents getting killed, and him catching the couple fucking in the rectory, and the beatings and blah blah blah. Just so we’re all on the same page.

So Billy snaps into action and, completely ignoring the advice of Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods, attempts to be a hero. Big fella that he is, he’s able to pull Andy off Pamela and hang him with a string of Christmas lights. That’s bad enough, but then he leaves him up there until almost March, which is just tacky. Pamela, for some reason, is disturbed by this and calls Billy a monster while defiantly refusing to cover her boobs back up. Billy responds by gutting her from stem to stern with a box cutter. In Billy’s defense, though, Pammy was never that bright really, so there was a good chance she would have eventually tripped over her own feet and impaled herself on a box cutter anyways.

The narrative jumps track a little here to make room for more splatter, as Billy kills Gary’s dad and the other lady employee, whose only sins were being better actors than the dialogue given them. Then Billy hits the neighborhood proper. First, he kills a young couple for being all hot and horny, and possibly for their taste in music. Then, he whacks some other kid with a sled who was just kind of a dildo. Not the best reasons for grisly murder, but they work pretty well within the logic of the film. Also, there are more boobs.

By this time, Sister Margaret has alerted the fuzz, and they scramble to intercept Billy once they figure out he’s headed back to the orphanage, ostensibly to spread his brand of Christmas cheer. The cops are ordered to shoot Santa on sight. When Santa comes tromping up the path to the yard where the children play, Deputy Sheriff Mustache-Face, giving vent to frustrated dreams of Johnny Lightning ownership, lets a few rounds fly. But guess what? It’s not Billy! Oops, sorry, kids. But you know how the only way to solve violence is more violence. Turns out the Santa that Officer Quick Draw has dusted is the kindly old priest who, as Sister Margaret hastily explains, did not respond to the officer’s orders to cease and desist because—whoops!—he’s deaf. Man, you’d think the orphanage woulda learned their lesson with this sorta thing when that blind Easter Bunny hid all those eggs in the breakdown lane on I-70.

Billy does show up eventually, just in time to take an axe to the cop. But just before Mother Superior can be dispatched to meet her maker, some more five-oh burst in and plug Billy in the back. I guess they wanted to kill another Santa in front of the kids in case any of them had been tying their shoes or something the first time and missed out. As Billy dies, he urges the children to not be afraid because Santa’s gone now. But little brother Ricky (remember him?) is on hand to witness all of this, thereby ensuring that this cycle of violence and mental anguish will continue on well into the future. It’s a Christmas miracle!

So yeah, America, let’s keep adhering blindly to every backwards-ass tradition handed down to us by previous, even less educated generations going back hundreds of years, and maybe we’ll be able to produce even more social deviants and psychopaths.

And have yourself a merry fuckin’ Christmas.