Being Christmas I had a thought about the controversial 1984 film Silent Night, Deadly Night.
I was eight years old in 1984 and I remember some new reports about the furore the film’s release caused in the United States, Australia (where I’m from) and other countries.
We were frequent visitors to our local video store and I remember as a kid glancing at the horror movie covers, including Silent Night, Deadly Night and wishing I could watch them. (May sound weird but I do like a decent horror film.)
This slasher film is about a young man, who after witnessing his parents murdered by a criminal donning a Santa Suit and surviving childhood in an orphanage turns into a spree killer.
The film’s advertising was what causes the worldwide outrage. The film poster depicted a hand of Santa emerging from a chimney and clutching an axe. The tagline was: “You’ve made it through Halloween, now try and survive Christmas”.
The R-rated film was released in the United States on November 9 1984 and immediately the public was in uproar. By the end of November, the film’s distributor Tri Star Picturs dropped plans for a wider release. The film had performed poorly in the selected markets it was shown (The Northeast and Midwest of America) due to the media attention on the protests and complaints. An article “Christmas horror film dropped from distribution” (Gadsden Times, November 24, 1984) stated the film’s earnings declined after Tri Star stopped the controversial television ads for the movie. The commercials had shown a man in a Santa suit swinging an axe and shooting a gun.
But according to Box Office Mojo on the film’s opening weekend it screened in 398 theatres in the US and made USD$1,432,800. The film’s budget was reportedly USD$750,000. The opening weekend takings actually more than the now legendary horror film Nightmare on Elm Street, which opened the same weekend and made USD$1,271,000 (it played in 165 theatres).
Local television stations were reportedly bombarded with complaints from parents who said the commercials for the film were too scary for children who could not discern the fact that the person in the film was not actually Santa.
Tri Star marketing vice president Steve Randell (who would have truly earned his money doing issues crisis management) told The Pittsburgh Press (November 16, 1984) “The picture doesn’t present Santa as a killer. It’s the story of of a man who dresses as Santa Claus who is the murderer”.
A pressure group called Citizens Against Movie Madness picketed the film’s opening and were vocal in the local media about their objections to the movie. Their campaign was picked up nationally. The founder of the group, Kathleen Eberhardt said of their efforts: “I guess all of my griping did some good”. Ms Eberhardt told a reporter from Los Angeles Times said she did not believe the group was practising censorship but would lobby any future sequels to the original film.
The film went on to get a cult status, mostly due to the controversy around the film’s marketing. But according to reviews, it was really a storm in a teacup. The movie wasn’t actually that scary or more violent than any other of its ilk.
A review in the Schenectady Gazette called it “cinematic garbage”. The Boston Phoenix said: “…it’s not a particularly gory film, or even a particularly suspenseful one…”.
The Toledo Blade’s film critic at large said “To say ‘Deadly Night is blasphemous would be an understatement. It’s an absolute travesty…”.
There were several sequels made.
I never did end up seeing the original movie…