Greetings, all. Ambush Bug here with another AICN HORROR: ZOMBIES & SHARKS column. Fangoria and ScreenVision are bringing a holiday classic back to theaters this year. That’s right, the cult classic SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT is now back in select theaters through December. You can find out when and where here!
To celebrate the re-release of the classic and controversial film, I had a chance to catch up with the writer Michael Hickey, the producer Scott Schneid, and the editor/2nd Unit director Michael Spence (who filmed much of the movie). So join us as we look back on SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT!
But before the interview, here’s the trailer for the re-release to remind you of what we’re talking about!
AMBUSH BUG (BUG): What’s it like having this film, which was a pretty low budget film at the time, become such a cult classic?
MICHAEL HICKEY (MH): I found it to be amazing from beginning to end. I was amazed when the film got made. I was amazed at the reaction to it being as overblown as it was. And the fact that the thing won’t just die and that it keeps going and having these resurgences is fantastic. I get a lot of pleasure out of it actually. The other thing that I find so amazing is that almost everyone of a certain age remembers this thing and so the fact that it had any life at all let along such an explosive one and long lasting one, I’m very gratified by that.
SCOTT SCHNEID (SS): I became involved right from the beginning of this thing and we were in the middle of all of these slasher films that were being made at the time. I watched these films being successful, getting theatrical releases and getting sequels. When we came up with the SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT idea we thought this was an incredibly commercial concept. For me, when the plot began to unfold and Michael did such a great job with the script, I thought, “There could be a huge market for this movie!” given what’s happening in the marketplace at that time. We always tried to do something that was, forgive the pun, a cut above your typical slasher film, and I felt it had that, it had that something extra in terms of story depth and I’m really not surprised that it became so popular.
BUG: It really is a pretty expansive script filled with some really effective scenes in terms of fears and nightmares through the eyes of a child. Were these things you guys took from your own childhoods? Were you the type of kids who were afraid to sit on Santa’s lap as a child?
SS: Michael, didn’t you grow up in a Jewish orphanage back east? (laughter)
MH: (laughter) Yeah, I did. Well, all of this came from a mechanical need to answer the question, “How does a guy end up in a Santa suit with an axe killing people on Christmas Eve?” And you back out of that and certain things are imposed on you. I never really was afraid to sit on Santa’s lap. I’ve loved Santa Claus all my life. I believed in Santa Claus up until an embarrassingly late age. It was just all about the concept really. Fear is obviously a part of it. Trauma is the probable explanation, so if you back out of the killing spree and try to address the question of “Who is this character and how did he get here?”, the rest just emerges out of necessity to tell a story. Not out of my psyche. Not that I know of or not that I’m willing to admit to.
SS: Well, we were in the middle of this maelstrom of slasher films and holiday themed slasher films, but no one had done Christmas yet with blood on the snow and all of the iconic Christmas images we could work into the killings. We had to satisfy the audience on some level. We had to throw the red meat out there to that demographic. SO then you bring in the Christmas killings and you try to make them organic to the piece. We don’t just add a stupid sleigh riding scene that doesn’t make any sense. It can be the sort of thing that develops organically in the story. We tried to incorporate all of those iconic images into a slasher movie context and give the audience something more. As I said before, Michael [Hickey], back in those days, the conventional slasher movie was 85 minutes of killing and somewhere midway through they’d give you a two-minute back story in a flashback of who the killer was. As we developed the script, we thought—we realized that the back story was THE story. This is not just the back story, this is a really great story. Therefore we diverged from the formula and came up with something a little more special, I hope.
BUG: One of the more chilling scenes of the film didn’t have any blood or axes or killing in it. It was the scene with the grandfather in the old folks home where all of a sudden this catatonic man comes alive to tell a little boy the most horrific story I can image for a little boy to hear about the true meaning of Christmas. Where did that idea come from and where did you find that actor because he was perfect for the role?
MH: From a mechanical standpoint, if you’re going to have Billy harbor this intense fear of Santa Claus I wanted to build it in a progression so that the audience sort of gets the idea of what’s coming and becomes invested in that anticipation. And clearly we knew early on that he was going to see his parents murdered by someone in a Santa suit, but that needed a setup. We wanted the back story to be more of our actual story and we wanted to develop this psychosis in more detail and more fully, so I came up with Grandpa and his story about what really happens on Christmas Eve.
MICHAEL SPENCE (MS): In regards to casting, I was involved with a little bit of it, but not much. If my memory is correct, Chuck [director Charles E. Sellier, Jr.] used to like to use a lot of Salt Lake locals and there’d been quite a large number of these people in his films because of how long he used to work in Salt Lake. And I think the grandfather character was just one of the local Salt Lake actors.
BUG: Cool. Did you do any research into childhood trauma and things like that in preparation of this film?
MH: I would love to tell you that I interviewed teams of psychologists in preparation for this film, but there was none of that.
MH: but any of us who have escaped childhood intact have some kind of childhood trauma and how long lasting it could be, plus the story just required it. There’s this whole debate as to whether story generates character or does character generate story. I’m a firm believer in the first of those. If you know where you’re going with the story, and we knew since it was a concept film, you have to get the character in that Santa suit. And you have to get him in the condition that while in the Santa suit he’s going to snap. In the case of Billy, it was sexual frustration and being drunk for the first time in his life. Then you back out of that and you have the childhood trauma and seeing your parents killed would obviously leave a mark on somebody. But with this particular character, we know where he’s going to end up, so it was really just a question of setting up the dominoes and nudging the first one. And then at a certain point he looks at himself in the mirror wearing the Santa suit. It was a requirement of the story rather than psychological research.
BUG: Let’s talk about the controversy. This is the first time I’d ever seen a slasher film being debated about on a national scale. It was on the nightly news talking about people trying to get the film banned and all of the controversy over the release of the film in theaters. What was that like looking back on that time?
SS: I remember when the film came out and I was actually on vacation in Boston and I got a phone call, I was checking my messages in LA and I got a phone call from the Phil Donahue show which was a popular daytime talk show back then. They wanted me to do a full hour on the show and dedicate the whole show to it. And I said to my then girlfriend at the time, there’s no way I’m going to go on that show. I was going to get crucified. At the time, there was a group called Mothers Against Movie Madness, it was started in the Midwest somewhere. Another one of the producers who has since passed away, he went on the show and he was in the hot-seat and all of these Midwestern mothers were irate and righteous and it was crazy. But of course, the old expression is “Any publicity is good publicity.” Certainly all of that helped fuel the thing when it opened in the box office. There were a lot of people talking about it everywhere, but unfortunately it got pulled soon after.
MH: There was not only a full hour of DONAHUE on the subject, but the CBS Evening News and Dan Rather did a story on it. People Magazine did an article on it. The LA Times on their Sunday Calendar did a piece on it. I was interviewed for TV and radio shows. And I just thought the whole thing was hilarious and fantastic. I never took seriously the criticism and to me it was simple. If you don’t like it, don’t go to see it. No one is forcing you, but you don’t have the right to stop other people from seeing it if they want to. So for me, it was an easy thing for me to swat out of the way. The publicity and the media circus around the release, it was kind of wonderful. I thought it was hilarious. And of course all of that is the reason why we are still talking about it today 29 years later.
BUG: I’m sure there are a lot of people like myself who didn’t get to see it in theaters and only saw it on video. This film kind of hit right in the middle of the video boom and people didn’t have to go to theaters to see it. They could see it in their own homes. What was that like to be a part of all of that?
MS: Yeah, that was the time of the big box and I don’t know if you remember those boxes with that iconic image of the Santa with the axe going down the chimney. It was just so compelling from the shelf and made you want to rent it. The artwork on that poster was great.
BUG: Looks like we are running out of time, so one last question. What kind of warning do you want to give readers of this interview who might want to seek out SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT and see it in theaters this holiday season?
MH: Go to a bar first and go see it on a midnight show!
BUG: Thanks, Michael, Scott, and Michael! Again, you can find out when and where here! Below is my Retro-review of SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT and its first sequel from last year! Enjoy!
SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT/SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT PART 2 Double FeatureSILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT (1984)
Directed by Charles E. Sellier, Jr.
Written by Michael Hickey, Paul Ciami (story)
Starring Robert Brian Wilson, Lilyan Chauvin, Gilmer McCormick, Toni Nero, Linnea Quigley, Britt Leach, & Leo Geter
SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT PART 2 (1987)
Directed by Lee Harry
Written by Lee Harry, Joseph H. Earle, & Dennis Patterson
Starring Eric Freeman, James L. Newman, Elizabeth Cayton, Jean Miller
Retro-reviewed by Ambush Bug
Though it raised quite a stink when it was released in 1984 from house fraus disgusted by the perversion of a beloved children’s fable, there’s no way SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT would have achieved cult status if the powers that be would have just let this film fade into obscurity. As is, it’s not a very good film in terms of scares or acting, but SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT does have some quality kills and the focus of Billy’s psychosis is surprisingly deeper than one would think.
The first fifteen minutes of this film are what most people talk about. In those first scenes, we see a typical American family going to see their grandpa in a nursing home. Thought to be catatonic in his chair, the grandpa mystically comes to life as soon as little Billy’s parents leave to room in time to warn Billy that Christmas is the scariest time of the year and that he’d better watch out for Santa because he punishes naughty boys. Scared shitless and scarred already by grandpa’s words of wisdom, little Billy and his infant brother Ricky become the sole survivors of a carjacking gone wrong when a robber dressed as Santa shoots his father and then attempts to rape and then kills his mother as he hides in the bushes on the side of the road and witnesses the whole demented scene.
Had SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT maintained that level of intensity; I’d understand why folks got so uppity about the film. Instead we are treated to a by-the-numbers killing spree as a grown up Billy is forced to wear a Santa suit at the toy store he works at and has a nervous break when he sees a man and woman wrestling in the backroom at a Christmas party, reminding him of his mom and Santy Claus all those years ago. Up to the toy store section of this film, things are still pretty interesting, though cliché as the Mother Superior at the orphanage Billy ends up in beats the message of good vs. naughty into Billy at every chance she can get, resulting in a pretty fucked up kid. Still, all of this set up doesn’t payoff as Billy becomes a robot shouting “PUNISH” or “NAUGHTY” whenever he sees pretty much anyone in his path, naughty or not, for the rest of the movie.
At least the kills are kind of goofy fun. The most memorable being Linnea Quigley’s death by deer antler scene and a headless sled ride taking a quick second place. But the shift in tone from the downright disturbing opening scenes to the goofy killing spree is pretty abrupt, making this almost two different movies at once—one you can take seriously depicting how a childhood trauma can seriously fuck up a person, the other becomes the most unscary serial rampage put to film. I kind of wish things would have stayed as disturbing, because SNDN was on the right track there for about half of the film.
But both this film and it’s special needs stepchild of a sequel (which we are about to get into) are filled with stupidly fun kills that make you forgive the tone which is all over the place and the acting which ranges from cardboard to cadaver. The filmmakers may have realized they were delving into some pretty dark material in the first half and tried to make up for it by filling the second half with goofy kills. Nevertheless, these kills are goofy as hell, sure to cause much eggnog nose-squirting if watched at a horror holiday party with the sound off in the background.
Proving that you really don’t have to have any semblance of plot, creativity, or imagination to make a sequel, three years after SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT was released, SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT PART 2 appeared, which was astonishing…mainly because it took three years to shat out this turd. Now, some of my favorite parts of the latter FRIDAY THE 13TH films were the little recap/montages at the beginning. It was a great way to catch the viewer up with the story while providing some cheap thrills that cost the film nothing to make since someone else made it before them. But in SNDN 2, the first 40 minutes of the film is a fucking recap!!!
I shit you not, the first forty minutes of this film take place in a cell as a psychologist examines Billy’s kid brother Ricky on his way to death row for going on a killing spree himself. But before we get to Ricky’s killing spree, Ricky must describe in gratuitous details there is no way he could know every kill and every boob shot from the first film (of course shown through WAYNE’S WORLD diddle-diddle-doo flashback), even though Ricky wasn’t there for most of it.
Not only is the lack of actual story in SNDN 2 laughably bad, but the actor playing Ricky (Eric Freeman) seems to have taken his acting lessons from Macho Man Randy Savage as his bulbous eyes and steroid laced rants make it hard to not think of spittle filled rants into Mean Gene’s microphone. The way Freeman grunts “PUNISH” is laughably awful and by the final scenes of the film his dialog has devolved to Cro-Magnon belches one hears either in the most annoying gym in the world or the bathroom at a health code limbo-ing burrito place. Still, as with the original, there are some so-bad-it’s-good scenes of carnage as Ricky pummels a movie theater heckler, hooks a dude’s face up to jumper cables, and shoots a guy taking out his trash screaming “GARBAGE DAY!!!” So bad it’s hilarious, SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT PART 2 tries to be both scary and shocking and fails marvelously at both
I’m going to try to cover a few of the other SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT sequels next year. I might have seen them as a kid, but they don’t necessarily stand out to me. If they’re anything like the sequel to the original, I don’t think I’m missing much by not recalling them. Still, if you’re looking for something ghoulish to play in the background at your Horror Holiday Party this year, SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT and its sequel have your whole night covered…
…WITH BLOOD! MWO-HAHAHA!!!
Ambush Bug is Mark L. Miller, original @$$Hole/wordslinger/writer of wrongs/reviewer/interviewer/editor of AICN COMICS for over 12 years & AICN HORROR for 4. Mark’s written comics such as THE TINGLERS & WITCHFINDER GENERAL, DEATHSPORT GAMES, NANNY & HANK (soon to be a feature film from Uptown 6 Films), Zenescope’sGRIMM FAIRY TALES Vol.13 & UNLEASHED: WEREWOLVES – THE HUNGER and a chapter in Black Mask Studios’OCCUPY COMICS. FAMOUS MONSTERS’ LUNA: ORDER OF THE WEREWOLF (co-written with Martin Fisher) will be available soon in trade. Mark also wrote the critically acclaimed GRIMM FAIRY TALES PRESENTS THE JUNGLE BOOK and its follow up THE JUNGLE BOOK: LAST OF THE SPECIES! Follow Ambush Bug on the Twitters @Mark_L_Miller.
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