The slightest re-ordering of synaptic sequences and a sane man becomes psychotic; the slightest re-ordering of alphabetical sequences and Santa becomes Satan. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire? How about severed fingers? Stockings hung by a chimney with care? How about teens hanged with stockings by a chimney with care? A jolly fat man with six tiny reindeer? How about a depraved, homicidal psychopath dressed in red and white? Prefer the latter in every case? Then welcome to the obverse side of the cinematic Christmas coin. Welcome to festive dystopia - a time of chaos on earth and ill-will to all men, where the fraught Christmas film becomes the fright Christmas film.
The first and for various reasons the most influential of the slasher sub-genre of Christmas films (if genre they be) is the 1974 film Black Christmas, directed by Bob Clark and written by Roy Moore. Black Christmas set the parameters for almost all future slasher films: the slasher in contradistinction to the murderer, the ‘final girl’ scenario, the sorority house setting, the stalker/slasher point of view shots, the not-so-smart cops and adults, the ‘Is anybody there?’ motif, the ‘should have left the house but had to have one more look’ motif, and even the ‘leave narrative room for a possible sequel’ strategy. Clark and Moore can also lay claim for establishing the Christmas (or holiday/special day) variant of the slasher film, entailing as it does the additional elements of transgressive seasonal activity and dystopian, even oppositional, frames of mind that render traditional Christmas certainties impossible to maintain. Black Christmas remains, if not the best, certainly the most influential of slashers and opened up the market for more of the same - including an inevitable remake in 2006.
With the successful reception of Black Christmas (it made back six times its budget) and the cinematic Christmas slasher stencil established, other filmmakers turned their attention to the Christmas theme. Coming at the tail end of the psycho-Santa peak period, Charles E Sellier’s Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) was released at a time when alarm was being raised about the so-called ‘video nasties’, and debate raged about the sacrilegious nature of the film and the effects that film depictions of a psycho-Santa might have on children. In Sellier’s variation on the theme, a boy witnesses his parents’ death at the hands of a Santa-garbed thug and then grows up to become a Santa-garbed maniacal killer himself. Due to the controversy around the film, it acquired a small following and four sequels were made, each one decreasingly rewarding. With the last instalment, the poorly rated Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (1991), director Martin Kitrosser condemned the whole Christmas slasher film cycle to the dustbin and by extension, forced our poor psycho-Santa into near-retirement.
James B Evans
This is an excerpt from James B Evans’s ‘Psycho Santa, qu’est-ce que c’est: The Christmas Slasher Film’, published in the winter 08 issue of Electric Sheep. It is available from Wallflower Press.
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