In 1971, five-year-old Billy Chapman and his family go to visit a nursing home in Utah where his catatonic grandfather stays; when Billy remains alone with him for a few minutes, his grandfather suddenly awakens and tells Billy to fear Santa Claus, as he gives presents only to the children who have been good all year, and punishes the ones who have been naughty, no matter how briefly. While driving back, a man dressed in a Santa outfit seemingly has car trouble and gets Billy’s family’s attention. As they pull over to help, the Santa-clad criminal shoots the father with a pistol. He forcibly removes the mother, attempts to rape her and slashes her throat with a switchblade. Billy runs off to hide, leaving his baby brother Ricky in the car.
Three years later in 1974, Billy and Ricky are celebrating Christmas in an orphanage run by Mother Superior, a strict disciplinarian who persistently strikes children who misbehave and considers punishment to be a necessary and good thing. Sister Margaret, the only one who sympathizes with the children, tries to help Billy play with the other children, but Billy is constantly subject to Mother Superior’s scrutinizing eyes and regularly punished. On Christmas morning, the orphanage invites a man in a Santa Claus suit to visit the children; Billy gets dragged by Mother Superior and he punches the man before fleeing to his room in horror.
10 years later, in the spring of 1984, a now-adult Billy leaves the orphanage to find a normal life, and obtains a job as a stock boy at a local toy store, thanks to Sister Margaret. At the store, he develops a crush on his co-worker Pamela; he has sexual thoughts regarding her which are often interrupted by morbid visions of his parents’ murders. On Christmas Eve, the employee who plays the store’s Santa Claus has been injured the night before and as a result Billy’s boss Mr. Sims makes him take his place. After the store closes, the staff has a Christmas Eve party. Billy (still dressed in a Santa Claus suit) tries to have a good time at the party, but he keeps having memories of his parents’ murders, causing him to feel depressed. At one point, he sees his co-worker Andy making out with Pamela and they both walk into the back room. Billy walks after them and sees Andy trying to rape Pamela. This finally, psychologically, triggers his insanity; he hangs Andy with a string of Christmas lights and stabs Pamela with a utility knife, uttering darkly that punishment is good.
A highly intoxicated Mr. Sims goes into the back room to check on the noises he heard. Just when he is about to leave, Billy murders him with a hammer. Billy turns off the store’s lights, causing his manager, Mrs. Randall, to go check out the back room. She screams at the sight of Mr. Sims’ corpse and tries to call police, but Billy cuts the phone line using a double-bit axe, causing her to run and hide. Billy walks around the store trying to find her and, at one point, Mrs. Randall jumps out and trips Billy, stealing his axe. Before she can escape, Billy shoots and kills her with a bow and arrow.
As Sister Margaret discovers the carnage and returns to the orphanage to seek help via telephone, Billy breaks into a nearby house where a young couple named Denise and Tommy are having sex and a little girl named Cindy is sleeping; Billy then impales Denise on a set of deer antlers and throws Tommy through a window. When this awakens Cindy, Billy then confronts her and asks her if she has been nice or naughty; she says she has been nice, and he gives her the utility knife he had used earlier. After this, he witnesses bullies picking on two sledding teenage boys and decapitates one of the bullies with his axe as the other screams in horror.
The next morning, the orphanage is secured with Officer Barnes and Captain Richards aided by Sister Margaret, who knows that Billy has committed the murders. The deaf pastor, Father O’Brien, who was dressed in a Santa outfit, is mistakenly shot by Barnes upon coming forward, mistaking him to be Billy. Barnes is then axed by Billy while distracted. Due to his Santa outfit, Billy gains access into the orphanage and confronts Mother Superior, now in a wheelchair. She taunts Billy due to her disbelief in Santa Claus and just as he prepares to kill her with his axe, Richards appears and shoots him in the back, much to Sister Margaret’s shock. As the dying Billy lays on the ground, he utters to the nearby children “You’re safe now, Santa Claus is gone.” before succumbing to his wounds. As the children gather around, Ricky, coldly staring at Mother Superior, utters “Naughty”.
The roots of the film lie in an amateur screenplay by Harvard undergrad Paul Caimi, titled He Sees You When You’re Sleeping. Though the details of the original story are obscure, it was based around the idea of a slasher Santa, and that was enough to get Scott Schneid – one of several producers on the film interested. This was the time of Friday the 13th and Halloween, as a 24-year-old guy trying to break into producing, I thought that Paul’s idea was extremely commercial and would slot [in] quite nicely, given its holiday theme,” he recalls. “Christmas, with all its colors, traditions and trappings lent itself to telling a teen horror story, and held the promise of being quite visual – blood on snow. We also felt that teenagers, the most rebellious creatures on the planet, would really spark to the story’s irreverent nature.”
To flesh out the idea Schneid and co-producer Dennis Whitehead took it to writer Michael Hickey, after reading a spec horror script he had written that was inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and had nothing to do with Santa Claus.
“The Shining had its influence on Silent Night, Deadly Night,” explains Hickey, “which can be seen when Santa is stalking through the toy store, wielding an axe and making guttural sounds, pretty much key Jack Torrance in the hedge maze. My main intention while working out the story with the producers and in writing my screenplay was to make sense of the concept – in other words, to answer the question, ‘A killer Santa Claus? How does that happen?’ The answer provides the structure of the story.”
Director Charles E. Sellier Jr was in the midst of a black listing brought on by his severing ties from Taft International Pictures. Jeff Sagansky president of Tri-Star Pictures, who had just commissioned producer Ira Barmak to make a horror film about a killer Santa Claus and needed a director. The job was offered to Sellier, who felt he couldn’t turn it down. “A lot of my crew were out of work when I left Taft,” he says. “Jeff knew my situation and recommended me to direct the picture here in Utah. I took it to put my crew to work. I didn’t take a fee—I did it to keep everybody together for a while.”
Silent Night, Deadly Night-was based in part on an actual incident that was detailed in a book called Slayride. Sellier believed it to be different from other slasher films, in that it took a critical view of Catholic boarding schools “Ira really believed in this element of the picture,” he says-and attempted to make the audience sympathize with its killer by way of exploring his traumatic background of abuse. “I liked this aspect of the film because I believe we’re all responsible for what happens to our fellow man,” Sellier says. “When the shop owner tells Billy to put on the Santa costume, the whole audience groans because they know that it’s going to drive this poor kid over the edge.”
What makes Silent Night, Deadly Night different from other slashers is the depth of the killer’s back story, which forms a good portion of the film and ultimately proves to be more horrific and interesting than when Santa finally picks up his axe and begins to slay. In it, young Billy Chapman goes with his parents to visit his catatonic grandfather in an old age home on Christmas Eve. When the two are alone, Billy’s grandfather suddenly becomes cognizant, and in an absurdly creepy moment, warns the boy that Christmas Eve is in fact the scariest damn night of the year and that when Santa makes his rounds, he only gives gifts to the kids that have been good. The rest, he punishes.
Understandably shaken. Billy leaves with his family, only to witness them being murdered by a man in a Santa disguise when his father pulls the car over to offer assistance upon seeing Saint Nick apparently stranded at the de the road. Oh, but that’s not all that fate has in store for Billy. Fast forward a few years and he’s now living with his younger brother in a Catholic orphanage, where he’s beaten and punished by Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin) for drawing violent Christmas images and spying on a couple having sex.
“My favorite thing about Lilyan Chauvin in the film is that she takes the character absolutely seriously, with no winking, no tongue-in-cheek and no histrionics at all.” says Hickey “Clearly, the part as written could have been a real scenery chewer, but greatly appreciated Chauvin’s underplayed, grounded approach, which makes the whole movie better.
Things start looking up for Billy when, as a young adult he gets a job at a toy store-until he’s asked to play Santa for the kids on Christmas Eve. Absolutely terrified of having to step into the suit, Billy is finally pushed over the edge when he witnesses a co-worker raping a woman in the back of the store. Recognizing the evil of the sexual act, Billy becomes he version of Santa his grandfather told him about and begins to punish.
The killings themselves are not quite as outrageous as some other slasher films of the day, but a couple of them stand out scream queen Linnea Quigley is impaled on a set of antlers (after having sex of course), and then, after two bullies attack some kids tobogganing, one is decapitated with an axe. The latter became Hickey’s favorite slay.
“I thought it would be difficult to do when wrote it.” he says. “I wrote that When the sled comes to a stop at the bottom of the hill, the decapitated corpse topples over into the snow as trying to reattach itself to its nearby head, and I was happy to see how well that works in the movie.”
“I had my own special effects and stunt teams who were pretty fresh off The Boogens (1981) and wanted to show that they could do some unique things. I got into it, simply because if you’re going to do something, you have to do it as well as you can. We came up with some things that were sort of evolutionary, like shooting a lot at night and creating some very graphic effects work.”
One of the most memorable of said FX was the impaling on a mounted deer’s antlers of future scream queen Linnea Quigley. “TriStar had put out a casting call for the film,” remembers Sellier. “She read the script and told her agent that she really wanted to be in it. She had just been center pieced in Return of the Living Dead. so she had the right qualifications! She’s very good at this type of stuff.”
Interview with Don Shanks
How did you first get involved with Silent Night, Deadly Night?
Don Shanks: Well, Charles E. Sellier Jr., the director, was the producer of The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, a TV series I did, so he called me and asked if I was willing to do some stunt work. A lot of the stuff had to do with using the ax, and I throw tomahawks and knives, so that was sort of natural. Anytime there was an action scene, I did it: Killing Linnea, throwing the ax at her and impaling her on the antlers, getting knocked over the railing, throwing the guy through the window. I played the priest getting shot and the cop who shoots him—he didn’t know how to shoot a gun, so I did that-killing the cop with the ax, cutting off the kid’s head on the toboggan.
Did you work with Wilson to get your body language matching up?
Don Shanks: Yeah. What I’d do (when doubling an actor) was, I’d watch to make sure I got all the movements down, the little gestures, how they stood, how they used their hands and so on. I doubled Rutger Hauer one time (on 2000’s Partners in Crime), and I was standing off in the distance, and they went, “Rutger! We need you over here. Rutger!” They came over and said, “What’s wrong, we need you over…oh, Don!” I was standing just like him, so that was kind of a compliment.
Can you tell us more about your scene with Quigley?
Don Shanks: It was one of her first films, so we kind of worked through it. I was pretty much controlling what she did, so she’d flail and do whatever she had to. I had to lift her up over my head and walk her into the antlers, and you’ve got to be pretty strong to do that. For the actual impaling… I used to do special FX makeup, and they originally gave me something made of AB foam and the horns wouldn’t go through it, so I redesigned it. I made a fiberglass mold and put latex over it, so the horns would go right through.
When you threw the ax at her, did she know it was real?
Don Shanks: No, she didn’t. As we walked out, she wanted to know how I stuck the rubber ax in the wall! Then I told her, and she had this look like, “Why didn’t they tell me that?”
Was this the first horror character you ever played?
Don Shanks: Yes, it was. I had mostly played Native Americans, because I’m Native American.
So you were used to cold temperatures when you took on Silent Night.
Don Shanks: Yeah, but on that one I got to wear a lot more. They gave me a down jacket to make Santa fatter, and I had the whole suit on, so I was comfortable outdoors. Inside, with the hot lights, it was miserable, though.
What was your most physically demanding scene in Silent Night?
Don Shanks: The one after I kill Linnea, when I beat up her boyfriend. The gentleman who was doubling him and I were doing this fight scene, and I went over a railing and then popped back up and started strangling him with Christmas lights, and he kicked me in the groin. We were trying to do it in a master shot, the way Chuck wanted, and I said, “I’m not gonna put my cup on, because every time I go over that railing, it’s banging into me. Just kick me on the side of the leg.” And he said, “OK.” But he kind of over amped that kick, and his foot literally came up and hit me in the back. He started to stop, and I went, “Don’t you dare stop!” So I threw him down, put the boots to him, picked him up and threw him through the window. And as soon as they said “Cut,” I dropped. I was black and blue up to my navel. So that one was kind of tough.
Did you also double the first killer Santa at the beginning of the film, who attacks the family?
Don Shanks: Yep. For Charlie Dierkop, who was on Police Woman and was known for The Sting—the guy with the broken nose. And the special effects weren’t ready to do the shot where he shoots out the windshield, so I had to strap my feet to the top of the car and stand up there with a sledgehammer, and on cue, I hit it-you can’t even see it-and blew out the glass.
You said that you also doubled both the cop who shoots the priest in the Santa suit, and the priest himself.
Don Shanks: Well, for that, they shot the car coming in, I threw the 180, jumped out and fired the shots, ’cause the priest is playing Santa taking presents to the orphanage, and people think he’s the serial killer. Then I turned around, put that outfit on and did the bullet hits.
There are a number of scenes in Silent Night, especially toward the end, where there’s not much snow on the ground. It looks like you filmed out of season…
Don Shanks: We shot it in March/April, and though we were in Park City, Utah, we didn’t have much snow that year. In the higher elevations, we could find it, but it was harder to get the equipment up there. So for the stuff by the orphanage, we were literally bringing in snow, trying to get the shots done.
At any point during the production, did anyone have an inkling of how controversial the film would be?
Don Shanks: No, no. I mean, I thought it was kind of strange, because Chuck was going from doing Grizzly Adams, In Search of Noah’s Ark and Heroes of the Bible to a slasher film, so that was a little bizarre. But we didn’t know it would be so controversial. And we didn’t know they were going to release it at Christmastime, which made it even worse .
How did you feel when you started to hear about the protests, etc.?
Don Shanks: Well, I could understand it, like when he’s telling kids that if they’re naughty, they’re gonna get killed. But it was just one of those things. Like with Halloween 5; that movie got an X rating at first, so they cut out some of my better kills.
Was there anything like that on Silent Night? You mentioned cutting the toboggan kid’s head off, but the actual severing isn’t seen on screen.
Don Shanks: Yeah, I think the ratings board thought it was too graphic. We actually had that shot—which we had to do twice, because when I first cut the head off and the guy fell down, the head landed right next to him face up, and it was so funny that everybody was laughing. For that scene, we took a goat’s neck and put it on his head, put fake shoulders and the prosthetic head on top of that, and I used the real ax to cut it off. Then it froze to his head and we couldn’t get it off, so we had to use hairdryers to thaw it out. We worked all night and went to breakfast, and it was like, “You’re gonna have to sit at another table because you smell too bad!”
Were you approached to do Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2?
Don Shanks: No, they just cut out the scenes I did, and put’em into that movie! It was by accident that I saw that happened, and I made a claim with the Screen Actors Guild. Because it said Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 and I was like, “Oh, I wonder what this is…” and then it was, “Wait a minute… That’s me, that’s me…wait a minute, that’s me!” And I was in Silent Night, Deadly Night III, too. They used the footage again.
So there was never any contact between the sequel people and the team behind the original?
Don Shanks: No. I guess what happened was they just sold off the footage, and I’m not sure exactly what their deal was, but I got paid for three movies from doing one!
Interview with Gilmer McCormick
Your Silent Night character is a kindhearted nun as opposed to the strict, stern Mother Superior (Lilyan Chat vin) who tries to help Billy and guide him through life. When you first read the script. what were your thoughts on the part?
Gilmer McCormick: I was reminded of Ingrid Bergman’s character in the Bells of St. Mary’s you know, the food servant. I happened to mention that at the audition. and I could see straight away that they were on the same page. Later, I was told that that kind of thinking and that comment did a lot to sway casting in my favor,
Do you feel the movie makes a statement about child abuse, and how it plays a part in burgeoning violent behavior in adulthood?
Gilmer McCormick: I suppose the movie does say a lot about child abuse and its effects, though I doubt very much that that noble idea was in the minds of the creators. If anything, I think it says a lot more against the Catholic institutions of the time their fierce and punishing disciplines and mixed up ideologies. Only in the recent light are those abusive “servants” being exposed. In Billy’s timeframe, that kind of abuse was “normal.”
How was young Danny Wagner, who played Billy as a youngster, to work with? Did director Charles E. Sellier Jr. make sure he was OK with the subject matter, or was he mature enough to fully comprehend that it was all make-believe?
Gilmer McCormick: I hardly had an opportunity to know Danny, but he seemed like he knew what he was doing. In other words, he had been trained as an actor, young though he was. He was very professional, listened and followed direction. And as I recall, the director worked very well with him and vice versa. Honestly, I was so nervous, I hardly noticed anyone else. Those scenes with Danny were the first ones shot, and I was sort of new at it myself.
How about Lilyan Chauvin?
Gilmer McCormick: Lilyan and I, however, struck up a real friendship during the making of the film. She was a fascinating person, and so professional. On the one hand, she could be found laughing and joking with the cast and crew, but then when “Places” was called, her professional side would kick in and she’d become super-composed and focused. I learned a lot from her about the importance of the actor’s preparation, and even about a few things an actor can’t prepare for. I remember we were filming a scene in fact, it was Lilyan’s and my first one together and I just couldn’t get the tension out of my face. She whispered to me that what she always did was to inflict pain on another part of her body, thereby bringing the tension down from the face and into the self-inflicted area. Since we were both sitting with a desk between us, she suggested I squeeze my hands together as tightly and as painfully as I could. It’s OK, she said, for an actor to sometimes use little tricks to get the right result, though Stanislavski would probably have disagreed. She was delightful!
What did you think of the movie when you first saw it?
Gilmer McCormick: It’s very difficult for me to watch any movie that I’m in. All I notice is what a terrible iob I did, and how I should have done this or that. As a rule, I don’t like horror movies of any kind, so when I did see Silent Night and I’ve only seen it once, many years ago I could hardly wait till it was over!
Were you aware of the backlash from parent groups?
Gilmer McCormick: I was aware of it, and someone even said at the time I don’t remember who that the protesters were acting as if Santa Claus was on a par with Jesus Christ. I stayed way away from all of that. I know my agents were trying to decide whether or not to try and capitalize on the publicity, negative though it was, citing other actors who had done horror movies like Jack Nicholson and Jamie Lee Curtis with no damage to their careers. In the end, they thought better of it, I guess, and I was never contacted by the press or any. one else. My agents may have been, on my behalf, but I was never aware if they were.
What caused a lot of the anger toward Silent Night was the ad campaign the commercials and poster showed Santa with a bloody ax, etc., and that outraged parents who hadn’t even seen the film! Do you think the advertising should have been less extreme and more cagey, so audiences came in not knowing what to expect?
Gilmer McCormick: No. I think the advertisers did their job. Truth in advertising. I always say. You see up front what you’re going to get, and you choose to go or not to go. God forbid we should ever censor the thoughts and imaginations of our artists, no matter how warped they may appear. We’ve gone through that sort of thing in this country before, during the disgraceful and damaging McCarthy era. So now we have a ratings system: very democratic and dare I say, American
What is your fondest memory of working on Silent Night, Deadly Night?
Gilmer McCormick: I have several fond memories of it, but I guess the fondest is really the funniest, or the most memorable. We filmed Silent Night in the heart of Mormon country in Utah, staying in a hotel owned and operated by a family with four wives and quite a few children. The actor chosen to play the rapist (Charles Dierkopl) was from LA like the rest of us, and had recently become a new father What was so cry was that he was also a devout Jehovah’s Witness, and every morning you would hear him leave the hotel hours before filming began, trying to make witness in this completely Mormon territory Poor thing-for a week or so, his guilt and anxiety level were off the charts, but after a while, the relaxed and even laughed about it, knowing that sometimes, not all things were possible.
Silent Night, Deadly Night was one of the most controversial films of the 1980s due to its advertising campaign, particularly its posters and TV spots, that made significant emphasis on the killer being dressed as Santa Claus. The PTA fought to have this film removed from theaters due to its subject matter and the fact that it was shown around Christmas, although an earlier film with a similar premise, Christmas Evil, had gone unnoticed. Television advertisements, which aired between episodes of family-friendly series such as Three’s Company and Little House on the Prairie, led to parents complaining that their children were terrified of Santa Claus. Large crowds (mostly angry families) formed at theaters and malls around the nation to protest the film; at the film’s East Coast premiere at the Interboro Quad Theater in The Bronx in New York City, protesters picketed the theater and sang Christmas carols in protest.
Mainstream movie critics such as Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert weren’t exactly known for being friends of slasher and exploitation films, but no sleaze epic earned the kind of intense hatred from them and from the public then Silent Night, Deadly Night did upon its release.
“I was mystified by Siskel and Ebert’s review,” says Michael Hickey. “They seemed to have come completely unglued about it, as if they had been expecting a French art house film or something. I would simply point out that effete middle-aged men were not exactly the target audience for Silent Night, Deadly Night – although I am one of those now and I like the movie just fine. But I certainly didn’t mind their review He adds, jokingly. “And refrained from picketing their studio!”
This reaction, director Charles Sellier admits, caught him by surprise. “I really didn’t expect so much outrage.” he says. “I mean, given the number of slasher films that had been done by that time, I didn’t think anybody would notice. Kids couldn’t go to camp or babysit or trick or treat anymore, so wasn’t Santa the next step? Plus, this was based on something that had really happened. When the press called me at the time it broke, I didn’t even return their calls or go along with Tri-Star’s requests for interviews. I totally avoided the whole issue.”
In response, TriStar Pictures, the film’s original distributor, pulled all ads for the film six days after its release on November 15, 1984. The film itself was also withdrawn shortly thereafter, due to the controversy. In response to the public outcry, producer Ira Barmak told People magazine: “People have taken offense at Santa being used in a scary context… Santa Claus is not a religious figure, he’s a mythic character. I didn’t deliberately ride roughshod over that sensitivity and I didn’t anticipate the objection to it.” An editorial published in Variety stated: “Most protests were generated by the feeling that the depiction of a killer in a Santa Claus suit would traumatize children and undermine their traditional trust in Santa Claus.”
Of course, as the old adage goes, there’s no such thing as bad publicity and before it was pulled from theatres, Silent Night, Deadly Night out grossed A Nightmare on Elm Street during its opening weekend and eventually spawned four admittedly poor and mostly unrelated sequels the studio hadn’t caved 10 the controversy, producer Scott Schneid figures it would’ve gone on to earn between $15 and $20 million, from its $1 million budget.
I don’t think you can separate the movie from the controversy,” laments Schneid, who went on to pen an episode of Friday the 13th TV series and the horror film Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge and currently has other genre projects in the works. “This is unfortunate, because when people of my generation – and even kids today-hear about it, they either remember the avalanche of publicity upon its release or see a quote about it on the DVD box. Marketing folks still use that controversy to sell the film today. I say unfortunate because Dennis, Michael and myself had always hoped that our $1 million Christmas slasher would turn out to be a cut above your then-typical slasher particularly from a depth of story point of view. And while it was never Citizen Kane, we thought it would be fun scary, Irreverent lend itself to sequels, and be very, very visual.”
Despite an offer to direct the first of what would be four sequels to Silent Night. Sellier completely divested himself of the whole sordid affair. And as far as he was concerned, it was good riddance. “I was so disturbed by doing the film, and am to this day deeply apologetic to the public for it,” he confesses. “I had just walked out on Taft and with all the lawsuits, it was very traumatic. My head just wasn’t on straight.” Given this, what would it take to get Sellier back into the horror film business? “It would depend on what I stumble into. Boogens was done because I’d been to all these mining towns and saw the fear people had. I suppose it would have to be something like that.”
Comparing the independent production scene of today to his heyday in the 1970s. Sellier is not encouraged by what he sees-and knows where the blame should go. “In the 1980s, President Reagan allowed the studios to buy back the theaters they had divested in the 1950s. Independents like Sunn could no longer conduct four wall’ operations where we actually rented the theaters that showed our product, guaranteeing an outlet. Because the studios got the theaters back, I don’t think there is a real independent force in cinemas anymore. And because the studios have driven up the cost of film production so drastically, that trickles on down to everybody in the film business, making it much harder.”
Charles E. Sellier Jr.
Ira Richard Barmak
Scott J. Schneid
Robert Brian Wilson as Billy Chapman (age 18)
Danny Wagner as eight-year-old Billy
Jonathan Best as five-year-old Billy
Alex Burton as Ricky Chapman at 14
Max Broadhead as four-year-old Ricky
Melissa Best as infant Ricky
Lilyan Chauvin as Mother Superior
Gilmer McCormick as Sister Margaret
Toni Nero as Pamela
Britt Leach as Mr. Sims
Nancy Borgenicht as Mrs. Randall
H.E.D. Redford as Captain Richards
Linnea Quigley as Denise
Leo Geter as Tommy
Randy Stumpf as Andy
Will Hare as Grandpa Chapman
Donald L. Shanks as Santa climbing in window (uncredited)