Waking up in CLOSE-UP

|Jesse Lawson|

For those of us caught slumbering in the cinema, Abbas Kiarostami once offered a vindication. Interviewed at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997, he expressed his distaste for those films that “hold viewers hostage” or attempt to “disturb” them. “I prefer the films that put the audience to sleep in the theater,” he explained. “Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks.” Hearing this backhanded confession from a major filmmaker, we sigh with relief, at last free to stop pinching ourselves and get on with our dreams in the movie theater. With Kiarostami’s imprimatur, the moral rights of the cinema sleeper have been asserted.

You might object: the film-viewing experience itself is key and one must be awake for it. To those of Kiarostami’s persuasion you might bid “sweet dreams, and lots of thoughts.” But for serious cinephiles, you say, sleep is contraindicated. You do not go to the movies to have a nice nap, even if, you reluctantly admit, sleep sometimes befalls you. You go to engage—whether with art or entertainment, visceral thrills or formalist provocations—but above all, with the whole film. If you find yourself drifting, you must march through the film, like Jack Lemmon marching Shirley MacLaine through the night after her sleeping pill overdose in The Apartment. Not to experience the film as completely as possible is a kind of film discourse death: if you didn’t really see the movie, you must restrain yourself from commenting on it. Otherwise, you are an imposter cinephile.

A film about imposture and cinema, Close-Up concerns Sabzian, a marginally employed printer who is a devoted film enthusiast. While riding a bus, a bourgeois woman asks him about his copy of a screenplay for Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s film The Cyclist. Sabzian claims to be Makhmalbaf, offering her the screenplay and his signature. Ingratiating himself into her family, the Anankhahs, he becomes so invested in the role that he persuades their young adult son to start rehearsing for a film. However, the family eventually catches on to the ruse, and Sabzian is arrested and tried for attempted fraud. The film “documents” his trial and ultimate release, while re-staging antecedent events using the actual participants. In this strikingly reflexive film, not only do real events provide the basis for the narrative’s unfolding, but the narrative’s unfolding becomes the basis of real events. Close-Up’s interplay of fiction and documentary modes may indeed inspire reflections on the social meanings of cinema, its aspirational pull, its ability to convey some kind of truth.

During the trial, Sabzian attempts to justify his deceit as the expression of an artistic and spiritual quest. While the Anankhah family suspect him of trying to burgle them, he insists that this was not his intention, that he was driven by playing the role of the filmmaker. Even though this role was difficult, he explains, he would make himself go out and be Makhmalbaf and work on his “film” with the Anankhahs. He did so because it brought him respect, where no one respects him in his daily life as Sabzian, where he might miss meals or fail to provide for his child. Furthermore, he idolizes the cinema, going again and again to see Makhmalbaf’s The Cyclist—a film that seems to speak of his own suffering. While they enjoy clear privileges, the adult Anankhah children have comparable aspirations: they would like to be artists, and they share Sabzian’s love of cinema; they studied to be engineers, but neither finds work even in this seemingly more open field. We can surmise that, as long as they believe Sabzian is Makhmalbaf, they too are excited at the prospect of making the film.

Sabzian insists that while he knows his performance as Makhmalbaf appears as fraud from the outside, it was not meant that way inside: he did it for the film he imagined making. But he also did it for respect, which is social. He is committed to an idea of the spiritual value of film as art, but he can only pull off his imitation as long as other people commit as well. The Anankhahs offer conflicting accounts of when the Anankhahs begin to suspect Sabzian. One clue is a photograph of Makhmalbaf in a book the family has, and another is when Sabzian seems unaware of an award Makhmalbaf has just received. Real images and real prestige are instrumental in his undoing. Sabzian performs Makhmalbaf until he no longer can, when circumstances become too much.

In the cinema (and hardly just there) sleep may find us out. For all our intention of attention, we are suddenly unprepared and inadequate, not quite what we hope or wish we could be. While my own cinephilia has never approached the two-films-a-day-minimum of some of my peers, there was a time when I was eagerly seeking out titles on Jonathan Rosenbaum’s list of a thousand essential films and planning a four-day excursion to New York (eight hours away) basically to see films: a ‘50s 3D retrospective at the Film Forum, lesser-known ‘70s exploitation fare like The Town That Dreaded Sundown at Anthology Film Archives, A Man Escaped at Brooklyn Academy of Music. By my standards, I was gobbling movie experiences carnivorously. But a year later, when I enrolled in a graduate program where film study had particular purchase, I couldn’t seem to stay awake through an entire feature. It didn’t matter if it was a Fassbinder miniseries epic (World on Wire, the first film I attended at a packed Trylon Microcinema), a Billy Wilder classic (Sunset Blvd.), or the latest Errol Morris documentary (Tabloid); inevitably, I succumbed, waking at some point before the credits rolled and then getting back on my bike to fight my way home. I raged at my inability to attend, to think, to even enjoy; like many graduate students, like so many people who are alone, I felt myself an imposter.

Among other things, Close-Up can be read as a redemption story, as Sabzian emphasizes his suffering serving as the basis for a work of art. Redemption stories are ethically complicated, because redemption has to come from a source with power; Sabzian’s redemption can’t happen until he admits he’s “only Sabzian,” and confesses what this means at some length. In watching this confession unfold, one feels that however eccentric his notions of art, they merit forgiveness, indeed in part because they express a utopian ideal: the union of art and everyday life. Kiarostami (who reportedly scripted Sabzian’s confession, albeit based on the latter’s remarks) seems to miraculously produce this union, and this forgiveness… within the production of a work of art. Whether this is finally a commentary on the superlative power of art or a damning comment on the inadequacy of lived experience and the role art plays in it is an open question.

I will confess: on my most recent viewing of Close-Up, I did fall asleep. The following morning, I ran it back to watch what I had missed. It turned out I had slept through what is perhaps this gentle film’s most discomfiting scene, which chronologically precedes Sabzian’s arrest. He sits in the Anankhahs’ handsome living room, not eating a meal that Mrs. Anankhah has prepared for him. Mr. Anankhah and Sabzian dialogue about truth and inner nature, leaving us wondering if Sabzian senses Anankhah’s sarcastic subtext. Sabzian expresses his puzzlement and disappointment at the family’s younger son, Mehrdad, who shows so little enthusiasm for rehearsal after earlier seeming so invested. Tightly framed between sofa and coffee table, Sabzian looks profoundly out of place, Mehrdad’s white jacket on his sloped shoulders seemingly giving him away. Meanwhile, the family patriarch (who explains elsewhere in the film that he let Sabzian keep pretending “as a lesson to my children”) smiles on and shrugs—“what can I do?”—with benign condescension. This is the only scene where we witness Sabzian in the family home, and, watching it, it’s hard to believe he pulled off the imposture in the first place. It is strange to watch this chilly “fiction” scene after the truth-telling generosity of the courtroom “documentary”—the latter an aspirational success in public space and in 16mm, the former a humiliating failure in private and in 35mm. Somehow in my slumber, I had missed the scene that seemed most to take Sabzian hostage; but now, it is the scene I am most thinking about.

Close-Up screens at the Trylon on 35mm from Sunday, January 19 to Tuesday, January 21. Learn more and buy tickets here.

Edited by Ben Savard.

(Not Coming) Out Out

|Jesse Lawson|

I ended up with the wrong Gremlins poster on a trip to Spencer Gifts one Saturday in the mid-1980s, when I was eight or nine years old. It may have been mislabeled; I may have misread the label. I had wanted a reproduction of the film’s meta promotional poster, where the film’s lead villain, Stripe, tears through an original poster image of warm hands holding a box from which cute, cuddly Gizmo’s paws emerge. In this poster, Stripe emerges through the center of what would be Gizmo’s head (and, Alien-style, Zach Galligan’s stomach), crossing out the original tagline (“Cute. Cuddly. Mischievous. Intelligent. Dangerous.”) and scrawling “WE’RE BACK!” over the top of the image with a big red crayon.

What I got instead was a blowup of a still from the film’s bar scene, where Stripe sits hunched in darkness at a poker table with two other Gremlins. One is done up with lipstick and a hat full of flowers; the other is a default, male-gendered Gremlin, who will be shot at that same poker table by Stripe at the urging of his female-presenting companion. (This is the only time, as far as I can tell, that Stripe does anything at someone else’s urging. She must have been a special lady.) The image presents Stripe in a rather unflattering light, his scowling head draped in shadow as if he were totally wasted in these decadent surroundings. It’s not that Stripe would be, you know, a hunk like Robert Picardo in Gremlins 2 or the cheery, unwrinklable curly-haired grown-up boy Zach Galligan in both films. Rather, it’s that Stripe is usually full of life, dark and light: vicious and malicious with guns and chainsaws, chasing what’s delightful and delicious, watching Snow White or filling his arms full of concession stand candy bars. His mohawk brings the urban threat of unhinged ‘80s youth to the midcentury studio-lot trappings of Kingston Falls, the shock of white electric hair ageless atop his reptilian green visage. Neither of these features is particularly shown off by the poker-playing poster, which, to my prepubescent mind, seemed a peculiar way to sell Gremlins, or at least Stripe.

I had taken the poster back to the store and exchanged it, but when I slid the replacement from its plastic tube it bore the barroom image. It seemed I was stuck with it, like poor Sigmund Freud in “The Uncanny,” who somehow ends up wandering repeatedly into the red-light district. So I put the poker-playing Gremlins on my bedroom wall, and they remained there for several years, getting increasingly tattered as I crushed many a buzzing fly stuck behind them, my fingers besmirched by Cheeto dust. (I like to think those depicted would have approved of this usage, though they might also have just shot me in the face.)

I remained somewhat stuck in the ‘80s as adolescence befell me in the early ‘90s. An early cassette purchase was the “specially-priced 7-cut mini-album” soundtrack to Gremlins, which contained the revelation that my favorite singer, Peter Gabriel, had contributed a song to this favorite childhood film. Gabriel being part of Gremlins was almost as astonishing a discovery as his having been part of Genesis, whose (way post-Gabriel) Invisible Touch was my favorite of my mother’s exercise albums. What was more, his Gremlins song accompanied the scene that had been on my wall years before I even knew who Gabriel was. Such constellations feel like fate to an eleven-year-old brain.

Gabriel’s Gremlins song, “Out Out,” introduces the sequence of carnage in Dorrie’s Tavern, where an elf-hatted Gremlin spins from the ceiling fan as pounding drums accompany Gabriel’s declaration, I’ve had enough of this! Before one of the creatures switches the boombox to some bluesy jazz that will accompany an impromptu puppet show, we get two minutes of “Out Out.” During this time, we witness Gremlins with mouths full of cigs, pounding beer glasses at the bar, chortling for no reason at bowls full of popcorn, trenchcoat flashing, and executing the aforementioned poker-game in an all out Gremlinslaughter. All the while, Kate (Phoebe Cates) does her best to serve/hold her own against the horde.

“Out Out” was Gabriel’s first composition for a motion picture, and its pulsing rhythms, echoing saxophone, and monstrous guitar sounds seem right for Gremlins. But what of the lyrics? If they reflect the point of view of anyone here, it would seem to be lovely Kate, the volunteer bartender, who wants out, away from these people who don’t know me at all, who wants, presumably, to hoooold you (cheery, unwrinklable curly-haired grown-up-boy Zach Galligan) in my arms. But Gabriel’s imagery seems brought in from other worlds, from tall, dark trees to subways. Beyond this, the music’s Afrobeat elements and funk-jazz rhythm guitar point toward a desire to reach horizons way beyond Kingston Falls, or even the Manhattan of Clamp Tower in Gremlins 2. An epic whose journey is only sketched out impressionistically, the song’s full seven minutes would be too much for this film. By the time Gabriel has started growling OUT… OUT… OUT… OUT… from the back of his throat, he might as well have become Gremlin-as-lycanthrope, pronouncing human words as sheer aggressive sound. The song longs for concupiscent union while undergoing its own effects-laden metamorphosis; it wants girl and Gremlin.

Gabriel has said that when writing the anti-apartheid anthem “Biko,” he was concerned that he might be doing it for the wrong reason—that is, it might be a self-aggrandizing gesture. He expressed these doubts to Tom Robinson, who had had success with his own political anthem, “Glad to Be Gay.” Robinson told Gabriel not to worry about his motivations, that raising awareness about the murdered South African poet was worthwhile in itself. “Biko” appeared as the final track on Gabriel’s self-titled 1980 album, whose songs depict psychopathy, urban alienation, and geopolitical horrors (“Intruder,” “No Self Control,” “Games without Frontiers”); much of the album, with its iconic Hipgnosis-designed melting face cover, projects self-disgust. After the claustrophobic gated drums and Fairlight synthesizer sounds that populate most of these songs, the elegy of “Biko” offers catharsis, in many ways setting the course for Gabriel’s subsequent music and globalist activism.

“Out Out” seems to be a kind of detour on that course, crossing paths with another, queerer road. In this respect, it’s inviting to draw a parallel between Gabriel’s melting face—the product of a Polaroid manipulation—with Kate’s tactic to disperse the Gremlins at the bar, using a Polaroid flash bar. We know from the climax of the film that bright light and water will “melt” Gremlins. Their perverse polymorphisms—they reproduce asexually, wear clothes only for fun, and are all out—are finally rendered in rotting goo; grim, comic ejaculations. Gabriel’s narrators, who don’t remember, have no self control, and slip into women’s homes to wear their clothes in the dark, appear more self-aware but similarly dangerous and unpredictable. (Gizmo, for his part, dreams in his Barbie car that “that guy needs a certain kind of dame,” recalling a Clark Gable film he’d been watching, but, expressing no interest in eating after midnight, remains unchanged and innocent—and, as is the American way, suitably vengeful to his tormenters, especially in the sequel.)

“Out Out” was co-produced by Nile Rodgers, who earlier had cowritten Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out,” another LGBTQ anthem. His collaboration with Gabriel seems to have been something of a one-off, apart from their shared work on Laurie Anderson’s “Excellent Birds” at the same time. Meanwhile, it’s a peculiarity of Gabriel’s discography that it does not reproduce “Out Out”: a recent compilation of songs for films, Rated PG, overlooks it (as does the six-hour B-sides-and-ephemera dump Flotsam and Jetsam). Gremlins was, of course, one of the films whose violence helped usher in the PG-13 rating, partly at producer Stephen Spielberg’s suggestion. Why, now, is “Out Out” locked away? Perhaps there are rights issues. Perhaps it does not wish to leave the Gremlins franchise closet, fearing the light. But perhaps, one day, it will be ready.

Gremlins screens at the Trylon from Friday, December 27 to Sunday, December 29.

Edited by Michelle Baroody

PARIS, TEXAS: Wim Wenders’s American Myth

|Greg Hunter|

Paris, Texas begins with Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) in a kind of walking catatonia. He has spent years away from his family––most of them on foot, for all viewers know––and only reconnects with his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) after collapsing in a small West Texas town. Despite these odd circumstances, director Wim Wenders avoids outright surrealism in the film’s early scenes, favoring a grounded, naturalistic approach. And yet Paris, Texas suggests that a literal-minded understanding of Travis’s affliction­­––a specific medical diagnosis––is beside the point. For Wenders, Stanton, and screenwriters Sam Shepard and L.M. Kit Carson, what Travis’s condition is matters less than what it means. Their film’s title, evoking two places at once, is a signpost––we’re in the realm of metaphor, however dusty and sun-bleached it appears to be.

Once Walt takes charge of his brother, Travis slowly becomes more animated, more articulate––the closer he gets, viewers realize, to reckoning with his past. The film’s design is simple in this respect. Paris, Texas unfolds like a folktale, a transformation story with a distinctly American myth underneath it: that anyone can start anew. Travis begins his journey apart from his own personhood, and we watch him remake himself. His story resembles an archetypal American fable, one that begins with a person in a state of destitution, persecution, or simple dissatisfaction and ends with the person reaching self-reliance, wholeness, even reinvention.

Wenders’s suitability for Paris, Texas begins in his youth in postwar Germany, where he encountered America almost exclusively through its pop-culture exports and thus almost exclusively in terms of American myth making. The story marks a major shift for the director. The Wrong Move (1975), a study of the psychic conditions of Wenders’s home country, features sweeping overhead shots of trains in motion and long takes of characters conversing in front of massive hills, but the film’s atmosphere is one of unease, even paranoia, not unlocked potential. Kings of the Road (1976) is, well, a road picture, but its characters’ movements across Germany play, from the start, like indications of existential malaise, not the pursuit of a dream. The American Friend (1977) depicts a collision between European and American sensibilities, with its “cowboy in Hamburg,” Dennis Hopper’s Tom Ripley, disrupting the life of a German artisan (Bruno Ganz), but the movie is a story of transformation only en route to despair. Not until Paris, Texas, and the opportunity to film the wide-open landscapes and sprawling cities of the American West, does Wenders allow optimism equal to the American dream into his films.

But if Paris, Texas is about an American regeneration, it’s also about the magnitude of regret. By the film’s end, we have an explanation for Travis’s extreme stoicism in earlier scenes: a consciousness of guilt so severe that it nearly destroyed his larger consciousness. When Travis’s quest for atonement leads him to his estranged wife (Nastassja Kinski), he elaborates:

He knew she had to be stopped or she’d leave him forever. So he tied a cowbell to her ankle so he could hear her at night if she tried to get out of bed. But she learned how to muffle the bell by stuffing a sock into it, and inching her way out of the bed and into the night. He caught her one night when the sock fell out and he heard her trying to run to the highway. He caught her and dragged her back to the trailer, and tied her to the stove with his belt. He just left her there and went back to bed and lay there listening to her scream.

With these lines, Paris, Texas complicates its mythic underpinnings. Travis may have started the story primed to begin anew, but only as a result of his own abusive behavior. His distressed circumstances are wholly his own fault. (This is perhaps the most American thing about the movie—the jarring reality from which a myth emerges.) And yet Wenders, Shepard, and Carson don’t interrogate this myth to the point of deconstructing or abandoning it. Instead, the film suggests that Travis’s reflection on his past actions—after a break from awareness of them—completes his transformation.

Viewers could credibly dismiss the film on those grounds. One take on Paris, Texas––and a justifiable one––is that the film suggests a person can get away with anything if they apologize with the gravity of Harry Dean Stanton. (Near the movie’s end, Travis once again exits the lives of his family members, but in the manner of a ghost that has settled its unfinished business.) But another is that the film’s empathy extends that far, even to someone whose actions it condemns. Wenders, Stanton, Shepard and Carson are certainly aware of the wrongness in Travis’s past––it’s the context for everything we see. Paris, Texas implies that, to the extent Travis can exist apart from his past, he can do so only after he fully accounts for that wrongness. Notably, the film focuses on tracking this shift rather than contriving a display of forgiveness from Kinski. People can change, Paris, Texas says, but that change isn’t easy, automatic, or—in Travis’s case—the responsibility of anyone other than himself.

This is maybe why Stanton’s climactic words are so well remembered. Stanton played Travis after decades of supporting parts, and the lines he delivers to Kinski are a gift from Wenders and the film’s screenwriters to a journeyperson actor in his first lead role. And while the material serves Stanton, he serves the material just as well. The scene is fraught, but a viewer, sufficiently moved, believes both in the weight of Travis’s wrongs and in the transformation Paris, Texas thinks possible. We see Stanton take on a myth that’s compelling but also troubling, and commit to the part worth keeping.

Part of the Trylon’s “Volunteer Programmers” series, Paris, Texas was chosen by Greg Hunter, box office volunteer since 2011. Hunter is an arts writer and a graphic novel editor based in Minneapolis. He is kind to animals, serious about breakfast, and a fan of any movie starring Toshiro Mifune or (naturally) Harry Dean Stanton.

Paris, Texas screens at the Trylon on Thursday, December 19 at 7 pm. Purchase tickets and learn more about our Volunteer Programmers series here.

Edited by Michelle Baroody

Black Christmas: The Godfather of Slasher Genre

|Finn Odum|

Artwork by Thom Robertson

John Carpenter’s Halloween is a cornerstone of the slasher genre. It’s one of the most influential and well known horror franchises, inspiring countless sequels and knock-offs. It’s everywhere in horror culture: The hockey-mask wearing Jason of Friday the 13th is based on Michael Meyers. Halloween appears in Wes Craven’s meta-slasher Scream, when Randy Meeks (Jaime Kennedy) uses it to illustrate the “rules” of slasher movies. Then there’s Trick ‘r Treat, a Halloween-themed anthology featuring a masked killer and plenty of gory imagery. Halloween is an important film in the history of slashers. But it wasn’t the first. We only have Halloween because of a little Canadian movie called Black Christmas, starring a faceless killer stalking sorority sisters just days before they leave for winter break.

Black Christmas helped construct the slasher formula in a manner that hadn’t been seen in the early 1970s. Back then, the only other film close to its format was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which was released earlier that year. Though Tobe Hooper’s seminal cannibal flick contributed to what we now know as the slasher genre, Black Christmas was the inception of the serial killer’s home invasion on film. Drawing from “the babysitter” urban legend, Black Christmas’s killer is hidden within the house from the start of the film. He terrorizes the sisters in their place of comfort. There’s something different and terrifying about being stalked in your own home as opposed to outside in the elements. If you can’t feel safe in your house, how can you ever hope to stand your ground against a murderous psychopath out in the world?

Yet, there’s more to the slasher formula than just the home invasion. Similar to the many movies that came after it, Black Christmas’s killer remained unseen for most of the film. Point of view shots establish his gaze and force the audience to watch as he kills his victims in increasingly gruesome ways. This pattern repeats in subsequent slasher films, where the audience becomes a witness to the violence through the eyes of the perpetrator. Black Christmas also includes the prototype for the “final girl” in the character of Jess (Olivia Hussey), whose fate is left up to the audience at the end of the film. The last of her sorority sisters to survive, Jess spends the film running around and beating her ex-boyfriend with a fire poker. Her presence is enough, though, to establish a pattern: the shapeless, faceless killer almost always leaves one victim alive.

Black Christmas was met with mixed reviews upon release, with some criticizing the pointless violence and others lauding the “killer inside the house” twist. Despite its relative cult status, director Bob Clark never went through with making a sequel, despite having an idea or two on how to develop it. In a conversation with John Carpenter, Clark said the sequel would follow the killer as he escaped from an insane asylum and stalked the residents of his former town. Like the original, this movie would take place on another beloved holiday: Halloween.

Even though we’ve circled back to Halloween, that’s not where the Black Christmas influence ends. Point-of-view shots are now a slasher staple; the opening shots of Friday the 13th and Halloween are filmed from the killer’s perspective. The murderers are given little backstory, if any at all, a slasher trope that is often ruined by unneeded sequels or remakes. And who could forget the long string of final girls left behind by faceless killers in countless films. We can thank Bob Clark for Halloween’s Laurie Strode, who inspired the likes of Nancy Thompson (A Nightmare on Elm Street), Sidney Prescott (Scream), and Valerie Bates (Slumber Party Massacre).

Taking a step away from the vaguely Halloween related influences, Black Christmas started another slasher trend: holiday killers. The genre began with movies like Christmas Evil, To All a Goodnight, and Silent Night, Deadly NightTo All a Goodnight is the closest to the Black Christmas format, while the other two follow killers obsessed with becoming Santa Claus avengers. Branching even further away from Christmas was the Canadian film My Bloody Valentine, a personal favorite that tells the story of a psychotic miner who terrorizes a small town on Valentine’s Day, as the title suggests.

You can trace the influence of Black Christmas beyond early ’80s slasher movies and holiday horrors. Friday the 13th took influence from Halloween while also inspiring the killer campground trend, leading to Sleepaway Camp and, to a larger extent, Evil Dead. Without Evil Dead we wouldn’t have the 2012 meta-horror Cabin in the Woods, one of the best horror movies of the last ten years. For a visual representation, check out the map below.

Created by Finn Odum

Compared to Halloween, Black Christmas doesn’t get the credit it deserves. The genre’s formal techniques and conventions owe a lot to this movie’s silent slasher narrative and its point-of -view shots. And let’s not forget that Black Christmas is the movie that reminded audiences that even their homes aren’t safe. There’s always some place you haven’t looked: an attic, a basement, or a closet. When’s the last time you checked your crawl space?

Edited by Michelle Baroody

Black Christmas screens at the Trylon from Friday, December 13 to Sunday, December 15. Purchase advance tickets and learn more about this film and our “Yuletide Horror” series here.

He Sees You When You’re Sleeping

Artwork by Dan Murphy

|Finn Odum|

Santa Claus is an American Christmas staple. As soon as Halloween passes, department stores pull out red and green decorations and radio stations start playing Christmas carols. TV networks air every Christmas movie imaginable, including a wide variety of Santa Claus origin stories and adventures. To the dismay of many parent-teacher associations, some of these movies are Santa Claus slashers, including 1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night.

Normally, I would understand not wanting children to see one of their favorite holiday heroes as evil. That said, can we all just stop for a moment and agree that the concept of Santa Claus is terrifying? Santa’s reclusive. He lives up in the North Pole with only his wife, eight reindeer, and an army of elves who exist to do his bidding. Santa works the elves year round, forcing them to make toys that he’ll eventually deliver to children worldwide, who he has allegedly been watching all year. Then there’s the matter of Santa literally breaking into homes to drop off gifts (provided the ritualistic milk and cookies are set out). In any other scenario, this would be a crime, but we give Santa a pass in the name of Christmas magic.

There are a number of killer Santa movies that identify the bizarre nature of his backstory. They accomplish this partly by removing Santa from the suit. By making the killer some guy in a Santa costume, these films corrupt the image of Jolly Saint Nick, but they also insert a distance between the villain and the actual Santa. For example, Christmas Evil, a 1980 post-Halloween slasher, follows a man obsessed with Santa Claus as he enacts revenge on those who hate the Christmas spirit. And the atrocious 2017 film Once Upon a Time at Christmas, depicts a Santa Claus killer murdering residents in a small town according to “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” 

Then, there’s Silent Night, Deadly Night, where the “Santa” kills anyone he deems naughty. Billy Chapman, the film’s protagonist, is traumatized as a child after his parents were murdered by a man dressed as Santa Claus. His grandfather tells him to be afraid of Santa, who will punish the naughty no matter how small their offense. Billy internalizes this and eventually takes on the killer Santa mantle when he grows up. If you put aside all the murder, the most terrifying part of the movie is when Billy asks a little girl if she’s been naughty or nice just after he’s murdered a couple in the next room. She tells him she’s been nice and he gifts her a utility knife (the murder weapon). 

Because of its vicious portrayal of a killer Saint Nick, initial reactions to Silent Night, Deadly Night were so potent that the movie was removed from theaters. As one reviewer put it, public fury stemmed from the “blasphemy of turning America’s best loved institution into a slasher.” Mickey Rooney said, “I’m all for the First Amendment, but … don’t give me Santa Claus with a gun going to kill someone. The scum who made that movie should be run out of town.” 

Billy Chapman’s cinematic legacy lived on in four sequels, all of which departed from Santa Claus imagery. The second and third movies followed his younger brother Ricky and are noteworthy only because of Eric Freeman’s off-the-wall performance as Ricky. The fourth and fifth movies departed from the Chapman saga in favor of other Christmas-themed stories. In a humorous turn of events, former Silent Night, Deadly Night naysayer Mickey Rooney starred in the final movie. Apparently, as long as Santa was out of the picture, Rooney was at peace with corrupting Christmas. 

Silent Night, Deadly Night wasn’t the first movie to feature a killer Santa Claus. Christmas Evil and To All a Goodnight both predate Silent Night, Deadly Night and feature killer Kris Kringles. Both flew under the radar of angry parents due to limited release or lackluster promotion. In the case of Silent Night, Deadly Night, the short clips used in the TV ads did not indicate the killer wasn’t actually Santa. Traumatized children asked their parents why Santa was taking lives instead of leaving toys. Film studios learned that you needed to outline explicitly that the killer wasn’t actually Santa to appease paranoid parents. 

Once Silent Night, Deadly Night was pulled from theaters, concerned adults lost interest. Studios continued to make Santa slashers, though none attracted the same level of attention as Silent Night, Deadly Night. These films’ central characters were advertised as impostors who’d gone mad and taken the name Santa Claus as their own. None of these films are particularly good, though that’s not saying much when compared to Silent Night, Deadly Night. Today, slayer Santas are nothing more than a gimmick. There are other things in media that parents worry about, leaving studios to crank out B-grade Santa horror flicks every year. Some, like 2005’s Santa’s Slay, play up the inherently weird nature of Santa Claus. Others are merely generic slashers set in the snow. Saint Nick has lost his shock value in horror media. 

Personally, I’m not sure I’ll ever get over my Santa suspicions and my discomfort with Santa’s role in popular Christmas culture. But as long as I can settle down in December for a cheesy yuletide horror, I think I’ll be fine.

Catch a rare 35mm screening of Silent Night, Deadly Night at the Trylon from Friday, December 6 to Sunday, December 8. Learn more and purchase tickets here.

Edited by Shivaun Watchhorn