By David Dent
Released in 1984 at the tail end of the stalk and slash craze (although decidedly not fitting into that genre), Charles E Sellier Jr’s rather subversive take on the by now familiar killer on a rampage movie has thankfully risen above many of the lesser examples of this type of film and proved itself a true classic of seasonal horror, if one that courted a fair amount of controversy on first release.
For American mums didn’t like the idea that Santa Claus should be depicted as a crazed maniac, a protest that was taken up by popular film critics Siskel and Ebert, who lambasted the filmmakers on TV, leading to tri Star pulling the film early.
Seen now, and with the Christmas slasher being part of cinema’s cannon, I would normally comment about it being hard to see what the fuss was. Except SNDN continues to play as one nasty film. Part of this is down to the length of time that Sellier Jr takes to show the genesis of the killer.
We first meet poor troubled Billy witnessing his parents getting killed and raped by a guy in full SC regalia, who has escaped from the local nuthouse. We then see a traumatised Billy a few years later getting a hard time from an overly strict nun after spying on two people having sex in his orphanage, and visiting his seemingly catatonic grandfather who completes the boy’s psychosis. So by the time we meet adult Billy, we know he’s on the point of no return.
And sure enough Billy’s upbringing sees him, as a strapping adult in the ‘present day’ part of the movie, descend from relative job satisfaction into murderous madness after being asked to stand in for Santa Claus at the store where he works.
First he kills a sleazy guy who has his paws all over Pamela, a fellow employee who’s taken a bit of a shine to Billy. But Billy’s red mist, triggered by seeing Pamela’s ripped garments and making a connection with the rape of his own mother, means that he takes Pamela out too. Out out, as opposed to dinner and a show out. And then he’s off on a very creative killing spree, including scream queen Linnea Quigley being ‘parked’ on a wall mounted deer’s antlers.
From here on in, it’s now a case of ‘catch the killer Santa Claus’ which is presumably where the protesters obtained their high dudgeon. For the local police force have to pick out Billy from the myriad Santas walking around town (a snowy location in the Utah mountains), which at one point involves the wrong Santa being mown down in front of a group of kids.
And it’s the disappointment of the children that is perhaps the most depressing part of the whole picture. You can see their dreams being shattered as the police drive around with a ‘shoot to kill’ order.
SNDN is an awkward, uneven, occasionally very poorly acted film. It’s also brilliant, and one of my favourite seasonal movies.
The fact that Sellier Jr is better known as the guy who created the wholesome Grizzly Adams character makes my enjoyment that bit sweeter. But do me a favour and ignore all the ‘sequels’ – you’ll be pleased that you did.