Collins’ Crypt: Protesting SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT Was… OK?

Back in 1984, TriStar didn't have the option to replace Santa Claus with Christopher Plummer, so they pulled the film entirely.

Like most kids, my son (aged 3) is very excited about Christmas - he loves the tree, his Lego advent calendar (he's a little shaky on the "rules" though, asking every night why we can only open one), and - most of all - the idea that he'll wake up one morning and get a bunch of new toys when he goes downstairs. But he's very concerned about Santa - specifically, the part where a big dude in a red suit will just stroll into his house in the middle of the night. He didn't have any problem last year (he even helped put out the cookies and carrots) but now he says he would prefer if Santa just left all the presents outside, which seems like kind of a raw deal for Santa - dude can't even come in and warm up? But I get it; possibly because of my early exposure to horror movies i.e. desensitizing myself to scary things, it never dawned on me that Santa's whole deal IS kind of weird, and now that Will is old enough to understand the concept of strangers I guess it makes sense that he might not be cool with one entering his home in the middle of the night, regardless of his intentions.

So I guess that means he definitely won't be up for watching Silent Night Deadly Night anytime soon; if he's scared by the idea of Santa entering his house while everyone is sleeping, he'd really be freaked out to see one shooting and stabbing his way through Utah. But the timing of his newly discovered concern and my excitement over receiving Scream Factory's new remastered Blu-ray of the film got me thinking - was this perhaps part of why the film was picketed against and ultimately pulled from theaters back in 1984? Quick history lesson - TriStar released the film on November 9th, 1984, on 400 screens (more than twice as many as a film called Nightmare On Elm Street, which was released on the same day), with the plan for it to go wider as it got closer to the Christmas holiday. However, PTAs and other parents' groups were outraged at the film, specifically its advertising, which showcased Santa Claus with an axe (not the actual Santa Claus, but the 30 second TV spots didn't have much time to make that clear). Bowing to pressure, TriStar pulled all ads for the film less than a week after its opening, which is a death curse for any film, let alone one that was trying to build up steam for a wider release. The film began to plummet at the box office, and rather than deal with the headache anymore, the studio pulled the film entirely after a mere two weeks.

I have known about this uproar for almost as long as I've known about the film; as an astute reader of Fangoria and the like the film's controversy was part of the appeal for me. And until now, I always thought of the parents as overreacting "villains" in the situation, because "Booo" on anyone who would decry a horror movie, right? But as I thought about it a bit more as a parent, I kinda see how there were a lot of reasons for them to be outraged about the movie's existence. Sure, the poor taste was likely the main reason, but until my kid told me about his new fear I never considered that perhaps some were just annoyed that their kids were already distrustful of ol' St Nick and this sleazy horror movie was undoing lots of work convincing them that they didn't have any reason to be afraid of Santa. I myself might have a problem with it if the film was being released today; I wouldn't call for its outright exodus from theaters, but I'd certainly be frustrated with having to shield my kid from its posters and billboards whenever we drove to the store. I mean, he's 3 - he can barely wrap his head around the fact that I do not personally know the owner of every other car on the road, so how the hell is he going to understand the difference between a movie "Santa" and the "real" Santa that he's already a bit hesitant about?

It's interesting that the very same studio, at the very same time of the year, is currently dealing with controversy that once again had them pulling ads, albeit for a different reason. TriStar is behind Ridley Scott's All The Money in the World, which up until a month ago co-starred Kevin Spacey, whose name appeared on who knows how many bus ads, posters, and billboards (he was also being pushed for an Oscar nomination for good measure). But after numerous allegations about the actor surfaced, Scott made the unprecedented move of cutting Spacey's scenes out of the film and recasting his role with Christopher Plummer - without delaying the film's release as much as one day. Miraculously, Scott pulled it off; we already have a new trailer showcasing Plummer, and all of the ads have been replaced (I keep trying to find one that got missed) - and the filmmaker doesn't deny that the controversy has probably helped the film's chances at the box office. Maybe some folks weren't interested in a period piece about the Getty kidnapping, but they sure as hell might be interested to see how much Plummer is in the movie for a role he only learned he was getting a few weeks ago. 

This is - headaches and extra costs aside - an easy solution to keep the focus on the movie (the ad campaign hadn't really been in full swing, so it's likely some folks will see it without knowing Spacey was ever a part of it in the first place). But it's not like they could just remove the killer Santa from the killer Santa movie without drastically changing the film's plot, so TriStar and the SNDN filmmakers didn't have this kind of an option (plus, it seems no one was really worked up about the film until it was actually playing in theaters). If the studio courted the controversy, they would have pissed off the parents who they needed to be buying tickets for all their other movies (such as Supergirl, which opened the day after the plug was pulled on SNDN for good), and if they ignored the protests entirely they'd simply look like uncaring monsters. And if we've learned anything recently, it's that any time someone tries to defend their unpopular actions, they just look worse, so they probably didn't even try defending their gleefully mean-spirited slasher flick. Given the film's low budget the studio probably broke even, maybe even made a few bucks by the time it was pulled, so they didn't really have much to lose - the only ones who were disappointed were horror fans that hadn't gotten a chance to see it yet, and the filmmakers who were hoping to launch a franchise.

Well, it DID become a franchise, with four sequels and a remake, but no one involved with the first film ever worked on another - even the aforementioned remake (2012's Silent Night) doesn't credit the original's writers (it had an entirely different story, so I guess legally they didn't have to). The rights kept changing hands, and most of the sequels were direct to video, so that along with the film's long absences from DVD (it went in and out of print frequently) makes it almost hard to believe that once upon a time this film was actually on the national radar. In one of the bonus features on the Blu-ray, producer Scott Schneid even talks about how Dan Rather kicked off one edition of his nightly news broadcast with a report on the film. Had the original film been given the same sort of limited release of its followups (or even previous killer Santa movies Christmas Evil and To All A Goodnight, neither of which anyone ever protested), it's likely that no one would have paid it any mind - it was just a target because of its wider exposure. That's how it even caught the attention of Mickey Rooney, who wrote the following letter of protest:

Luckily for Rooney, none of those "scum" were involved with Silent Night Deadly Night 5, so he probably didn't feel too weird about signing on to play the lead character of Joe Petto. But his "change of heart" (read: likely desire for a paycheck) is the kind of thing that makes me doubt a lot of the Twitter protesting I see nowadays, particularly for movies. A few months ago, some folks were on their high horse about Victor Salva again, when Jeepers Creepers 3 got a one night release at select AMC cinemas. One Tweeter in particular was going on and on about it, saying how the sites shouldn't cover the film, that Salva shouldn't be allowed to work, etc. Curiously, a couple years back the same writer posted about watching Clownhouse (i.e. the film where Salva's crimes actually occurred) and shrugging off that he/she "should be feeling guilty about it", rendering their attitude rather disingenuous in my eyes. Seems to me that they were just hopping on an easy bandwagon and ranting for the social media clicks, not because they genuinely cared about the issue (ironically, more than one person told me they didn't even know there was a new Jeepers Creepers movie until they kept seeing this person trying to mount a boycott of it). You also see a lot of pretzel-logic in order to defend someone they happen to like more; someone will tweet something inflammatory about Kevin Spacey, but defend Louis CK a few days later. Why? Because they love Louie but didn't like the last couple seasons of House of Cards. There's so much bullshit out there, it's hard to tell when people are being sincere with their outrage, because so many of them are simply saying whatever they think will get them a spot on Twitter Moments.

So after years of thinking these parents were overreacting morons, I now kind of appreciate the Silent Night Deadly Night protests in a weird way, because I know they were genuine and really did have their kids' interests at heart. I love that its various DVD/Blu-ray producers always include anecdotes and things like Rooney's letter each and every time the film is released in a special edition, because you're seeing a letter that was written to a specific person (i.e. the head of the studio, or a movie theater manager) that, for all the author knew, wouldn't be read by anyone else and therefore they weren't writing it with fifteen minutes of fame in mind. These parents weren't trying to score retweets and followers - they were legitimately angry about the damn thing, and they wrote letters (which would cost money to send!) and took to the streets to voice their displeasure. Schneid says he saw protests at every screening he attended in Boston and New York - contrast this to Jeepers 3, where people were huffing and puffing on Twitter, but not a single protestor was seen at any of the film's screenings (which, it should be noted, were so successful that AMC decided to have an encore the following week). And the parents for SNDN actually had a case - the filmmakers admit the ads were shown not only in primetime (as opposed to later in the evening) but even during the Sunday football games, so this wasn't a case of them trying to blame Hollywood for their own bad parenting.

Plus, it's not like they got the film buried for good. Again, it spawned a franchise, the soundtrack came out on vinyl a few years ago courtesy of Death Waltz, and it's a frequent option for repertory theaters at this time of the year, often on 35mm. Hell, I'm going to see it TWICE on film this month (along with two of its sequels at one screening; paired with Black Christmas at the other), and a few years ago Fathom chose it to show on dozens of screens the same as they do for Halloween pretty much every October. Had the film just been a standard flop (or even a minor hit), I doubt it would receive the same kind of attention - the notoriety keeps it afloat when its close cousins like Don't Open Til Christmas (an inversion of sorts, where a standard killer offs department store Santas) continue to be obscure. I don't know if there will ever be another horror film that inspires this kind of successful crusade (most horror films' controversies begin and end with an MPAA battle), but I know I'll have trouble believing the intentions of certain people on the frontlines. I would love to hear from parents who protested this film back in the day, not only because of my fascination with all things surrounding this film, but also to get their take on protests they see today, which play out on social media instead of in the real world and, as Jeepers proved, don't seem to really affect a thing. In the end, the movie got more famous and the children had almost zero risk of seeing a clip or poster for the remainder of that holiday season (not sure what they did when it came to VHS), so in a way, everyone kind of won, and no one was really a "bad guy". What a lovely Christmas story!