It's December 1971 and young Billy's family are going to see their grandfather who now lives in a care home. When they get there, grandpa sits staring into space, not communicating with anyone, until Billy is left alone with him, whereupon grandpa tells him that he should be afraid of Santa, because if Billy hasn't been good, he will be punished. On the drive back home, the family car is stopped by a man dressed as Santa, whose car has broken down - unfortunately the man is a murdering thief, using the costume as a disguise, who proceeds to kill Billy's parents...
Written by Michael Hickey, this daft horror was the centre of much controversy when it was released in America, because parents and moral guardians were outraged that the wholesome Father Christmas would be associated with a killer-on-the-loose slasher movie. But come on, what's tasteless about an axe-wielding maniac dressed as Santa chasing a topless Linnea Quigley around a room? Hm? I mean, really? Yeah, OK, maybe they had a point, but watching it now, the most offensive thing that strikes you about Silent Night Deadly Night is the general poor quality of the enterprise.
It wasn't a new idea anyway, in the 1970s horror anthology Tales From The CryptJoan Collins was menaced by a killer Santa, but with more time to build up story and character, this film wants us to feel sorry for the murderer. Almost half the film is used to explain Billy's pathological dislike of Santa, as we see him living in an orphanage where he is taught under the strict rules of the Mother Superior, who forces Billy to sit on Santa's knee at Christmas and ties him to his bed to stop him running around the orphanage after his nightmares.
"Punishment is necessary," says the Mother Superior, "Punishment is good." When Billy catches one of the nice nuns shagging in her bedroom (nuns don't come out of this too well, either), he is duly punished, making him a mixed up kid all round. On the old nature versus nurture argument, Silent Night Deadly Night comes out on the side of nurture, and Billy's traumatic experiences have terrible consequences in later life.
By the time he's eighteen, Billy (Robert Brian Wilson) finds work at the local toy store, and it all goes well until the festive season, when he is in the position of standing in for the absent actor playing Santa. Dressed in the red and white costume, Billy snaps during the Christmas party and butchers the staff, then walks out into the night muttering his new catchphrase, "Punish!" Then it's business as usual for this sort of thing, with Billy hacking down everyone he meets in various Christmassy ways until the authorities stop him.
It's not the tacky idea that Santa is a killer that bothers you watching this film, because it's obviously not the real Santa doing the killing. But why take so much time to make us feel sorry for Billy, when he just turns into a cartoon psycho in the second half? I don't know about you, but I tend to lose sympathy with people when they go on murder sprees. That said, there are some unintentional laughs to be had, as when the young Billy biffs a Santa on the nose, or when the cops shoot the wrong Santa when out hunting Billy. The moral? When there's a mad axeman on the loose, don't be in a house with a cardboard door. Music by Perry Botkin, and listen for the annoyingly sugary "Santa's Watching" theme song.