Directed by Charles E. Sellier Jr.
Starring: Lilyan Chauvin, Gilmer McCormick, Toni Nero, Robert Brian Wilson
IMDb 5.9/10 Rotten Tomatoes 25% Metacritic 31/100
This is considered to be one of the most controversial horror films of the 80s. That being the case I was compelled to see what all the stink was about. I mean, it’s hard to think that there would be controversy in horror AFTER the whole uproar over The Exorcist. I would have kind of assumed that resolving THAT matter would sort of blanket the whole protest list and we could move on. But, no. That’s not what happened.
Here we have a story about a loving family going to visit an elderly family member on Christmas Eve. We have the husband, wife and their two boys, Billy is about 8 and Ricky is still an infant. They all go to visit the husband’s father, who lives in a “mental facility” (as the sign in front of the building puts it). While there, the doctor wants to talk to the hubby and his wife. They leave the 8-year-old with Grandpa and take the infant into the office with them.
While alone with catatonic Grandpa, things get weird and fast. As soon as everyone is out of sight (and earshot) Grandpa turns to Billy and starts talking to him about Christmas and Santa Claus. Through the conversation Billy is told by Grandpa that Santa punishes the naughty in addition to not bringing presents. He tells Billy that if he did ANYTHING naughty during the WHOLE year that he will be on the naughty list. Then, he scares Billy with horrifying thoughts and threats. As the rest of the family and the doctor return, Grandpa goes back to his catatonic state and nobody is the wiser.
On the way home, Billy explains to his mother that he doesn’t want Santa to come and he is scared of Santa. Then, they see a motorist stranded by the side of the road. He is in a Santa suit. But, he’s not just looking for a set of jumper cables. He’s looking for victims. Right in front of Billy’s eyes, this Santa brutally slays his father and attempts to rape his mother before killing her. Then, as infant Ricky is screaming and crying in the car, Billy is hiding from Santa in a ditch. Santa briefly looks for Billy, cussing him as he does so but doesn’t find the kid and quickly gives up and leaves. All of this reinforces what Grandpa told him.
The kids are sent to a “home for wayward children”, which apparently sounds better than “orphanage”. (‘Orphanage’ is an antiquated term so apparently, in the 80s, ‘wayward children’ was more politically correct. HOWEVER, in this movie they make a concerted effort to point out multiple times that the job of “stocker” in a town store is a “male only position”. So, the word ‘orphanage’ is considered insensitive and offensive but, blatant sexism is not. No wonder people were confused in the 80s.) As the home is run by Nuns, things are very strict there and Billy, being emotionally scarred for life, does not adjust well, mostly when it comes to the holiday season.
At 18, Billy is moved out of the home and gotten a job, courtesy of one of the Nuns. Everything is great and he does well, until Christmas comes around. Then, as if to be the punchline in some sick and twisted cosmic joke, Billy ends up having to play Santa to all the kids that come in the store on Christmas Eve. Needless to say, this is unsettling to Billy. What’s worse is that at the end of the night, Billy witnesses a male co-worker trying to rape a female co-worker, Pamela. Pamela also happens to be Billy’s first real crush. This causes Billy to snap and go on a rampage, killing people in order to punish the naughty.
Now, I have seen all kinds of things, characters and people killing other people in movies. I’ve seen dolls, puppets, animals, monsters, men, women, children, lawnmowers, toasters, televisions, cars, guns, knives, ropes, arrows, electrocution, cute and fuzzy things and ugly and grotesque things, ALL kill people…and more. So, the idea of a killer Santa didn’t seem outrageous to me. It still isn’t. But, I can see, after watching this movie, how the PTA and local churches and such would flip out about this movie. I’m not saying I agree with flipping out, just that I can see why they did.
When the previews for this film first hit the public, the trailer and the advertising artwork were shown during commercial breaks of shows like Little House on the Prairie and other family oriented shows. The images also capitalized on the depiction on a killer Santa. Mothers frantically and furiously called anyone who would listen and complained saying that the previews were scaring children and that they were now afraid of Santa. Eventually they demanded that the commercials be removed from television and the film pulled from theaters.
This film was released in theaters the same day as A Nightmare on Elm Street and grossed more than that classic movie. This film series also has almost just as many sequels as Nightmare does. However, after being in theaters just about a week, the film WAS pulled and the rest of its fame and profits coming from home viewers.
Interestingly, while this filmed was highly controversial and highly criticized, not to mention the low ratings it has on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes, there WAS a film released in November 1980 that was almost the exact same plot with a killer Santa and it went practically unscathed by censorship and fanatical parents who abdicate policing what their own children watch. That film also has very high ratings on IMDb and RT and Metacritic. That film was called Christmas Evil. The biggest difference was how the film was marketed, leaving the killer raping Santa out of the trailers and key art.
I thought this was a pretty good movie. I mean, in the 80s it would definitely have had a lot of shock value. I think the movie is incredibly unbalanced as to where society was at the time. I mean, like I said before, they went to great lengths to point out women can’t stock shelves and carry cardboard boxes. They also went way out into left field, in my opinion, with the image of the main character, Billy. They took what would have been considered a 1980s hunk (tall, tan, blonde, muscles, white teeth) and made him a blithering idiot who can hardly speak to another human being. This is completely contradictory to what we always saw back then, which was the jock/athlete type guy NEVER had a problem talking to anyone, especially girls. Look at the Nightmare series. The “jock” is always confident and cool. And if they were trying to make some kind of statement then, they should have left the antiquated sexism and church stuff out of it too. It’s like they said, “Hey look at us, we’re evolved” and then tried as hard as they could to prove they weren’t.
I love that this was a controversial film. I don’t find anything in it offensive. This IS a film with a lot of female nudity so, as I always warn, if that bothers you, you’ll want to skip this film. But, if you are like me and want something new to watch for the cheap thrill of old school film entertainment then, you’ll want to dive right into this movie.
UPDATE: In watching the second film in this series, I found that the "home" is not for "wayward children" but, "orphaned" children. I still don't understand the societal moral balance in this film either way.