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2012’s “Silent Night” isn’t high art but a fun holiday horror that reimagines a seasonal classic with enthusiasm, if not originality.

Silent Night

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It’s a heartwarming thing for horror fans when a filmmaker transforms the sugary sweet holiday season into something sordid, and perhaps the cinematic sleight of hand is as common as the candies one finds in their stocking on Christmas morning. Just as department stores roll out their merry merchandise earlier and earlier each year, one won’t have to wait long before a movie studio turns the yuletide morning into momentary carnage.

It’s certainly not a new trend.

Charles Dickens’ classic novella “A Christmas Carol” – the story of a miserly man visited by three spirits on Christmas Eve – is essentially a ghost story at its heart, referenced as it is in Andy Williams’ 1963 holiday carol “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” In it, Williams sings:

There’ll be parties for hosting, / Marshmallows for toasting, / And caroling out in the snow. / There’ll be scary ghost stories / And tales of the glories / Of Christmases long, long ago.

Through the song, a fear of the other side is inextricably linked to an appreciation of Christmas joy.

Try as one might to convince themselves that this perversion of the holiday is somehow a sign of today’s “cultural decay,” it’s difficult to do so when this artistic flourish has been present in pop culture for more than a century.

This year alone, RLJE Films’ latest, It’s a Wonderful Knife (now streaming on Shudder), manipulates the Frank Capra classic film of a similar name by becoming a motion picture of LGBTQ empowerment, and Joe Dante’s family-friendly creature feature Gremlins (1984) dropped an entire army of mischievous demons upon a small town trying to maintain its hold on the Christmas spirit.

Even the 1971 Shelley Winters-helmed holiday horror film Whoever Slew Auntie Roo – widely considered the first legitimate cinematic mashup of merriment and murder – reminds audiences that filmmakers have been making movies for holiday and horror fans longer than some seasonal purists may recall, so it’s not that we haven’t seen this sort of thing before.

And yet creativity sometimes has its limits.

A growing trend for film fans is to avoid trailers, reviews, and spoilers that might influence their motion picture experience. Imagine seeing 1999’s The Blair Witch Project with no prior knowledge of what lay in wait. Imagine seeing the conclusion of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense that same year, had the world not already spoiled the finale.

Similarly, going into the 2012 Santa slasher Silent Night – starring Donal Logue (Blade, 1998) and Ellen Wong (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, 2010), among others – may require proportionate discipline.

But step into this suspicious sleigh ride of slaughter, knowing nothing of what gifts await you, and this seasonal horror flick may be a true gift.

The film tells the story of small town Cryer, WI, besieged one holiday season by a sadistic killer dressed in a Santa Claus outfit – complete with a mask that hides his identity from everyone, including the audience. Pursued by Sheriff Cooper (Malcolm McDowell) and Deputy Aubrey Bradimore (Jaime King), the sinister St. Nick cuts his way through the town, killing its residents once he’s determined that they’ve been “naughty,” and will continue to do so unless the community’s would-be heroes can bring his assault to an end.

At first glance, the premise seems one-dimensionally entertaining enough, even if it sounds a bit similar to the sort of straight-to-video slasher that low-budget studios churn out annually.

Even so, there are some terrific surprises that set Silent Night apart from its bloody brethren. The FX and kills are clever enough, even those that make the woodchipper scene from Fargo (1996) look like a backyard family picnic.

The gore is unabashedly on full display here, and it never looks cobbled together on a shoestring budget but instead a worthy bit of production value.

Meanwhile, the film’s casting is a particularly strong point.

Jaime King – as the reluctant deputy still rocked by the death of her husband – remains dogged yet humbled throughout. Even if her grief, meant to humanize her character, is never fully realized or brought to a satisfying resolution, King’s performance grounds the film with at least some gravitas.

But it’s McDowell and Logue who have the most fun in the filmmaking.

The two — as the town’s arrogant sheriff and as the town’s annual Santa Claus, respectively — steal their scenes, if not devour the scenery altogether. Still, their energy is infectious rather than distracting to the film as a whole.

Yet the movie’s creativity ultimately contributes to its own fiery reception.

Knowing nothing of the film going into the screening, one might be taken aback by some of the more obvious references to the controversial Christmas 1984 slasher Silent Night, Deadly Night.

From the antler-based kill to a joke about garbage day, what at first looks like a reverential homage to the original motion picture or outright highway robbery on the part of the filmmakers makes at least a little more sense when one understands that Silent Night is intended as a remake of the classic.

This was a surprise, at least to this critic.

In the original film, a young boy is traumatically scarred on Christmas Eve when he watches his parents killed by a Santa-cloaked criminal – just after being warned by his senile grandfather that Santa Claus punishes all those deemed naughty. Years later, the shellshocked Billy (Robert Brian Wilson) dresses up as the jolly gift-giver and goes on a killing spree of his own.

The film inspired a number of iterations & sequels (of which Silent Night is apparently the sixth movie in the franchise), but not before becoming a target of conservative groups across the nation that saw the deviant film as an affront to decency.

In response to the collective outrage levied upon the picture, Tri-Star Pictures – the production’s original distributor – pulled all media advertising mere days after the film’s premiere, and Silent Night, Deadly Night left theaters not soon after.

None of this is meant to suggest that the original holiday slasher isn’t ripe for a remake… because it is.

However, one’s understanding of this background asks that the audience reconcile some hard truths when it comes to Silent Night.

As a remake of the original film, the movie overcomplicates itself by transforming the plot into a Whodunnit, asking the audience to follow along to suss out the true identity of the masked killer. In so doing, the filmmakers also ask the audience to decide what sort of film Silent Night wants to be.

Is it an effective slasher with a flimsy mystery lurking in the wings, or is it an underdeveloped procedural with some tremendously gruesome kills?

According to either reading, the mystery is so secondary to the film as to be inconsequential – at least where a remake of the 1984 film is concerned.

But approach Silent Night with a pitch-black ignorance of the original film or its successors, and the movie resonates rather well as an addition to the seasonally sinister silliness that overpopulates the DVD racks in big box department stores.

The only Christmas wish left upon seeing this picture is that studios would abandon those cinematic treasured toys of the past and instead seek out an image of the horrific holidays that isn’t as familiar as that final float at Macy’s annual Thanksgiving day parade. That silvery silhouette of St. Nick – rosy-cheeked, chortling, waving to his adoring audience – certainly earned its place once upon a time as the double-page announcement for the holiday season.

Still, moviegoers yearn now for a holiday treat that doesn’t look so much like the ones they’ve long since outgrown because we’ve seen this sort of thing before.

Perhaps it’s finally time to stop following in the snowy footsteps of hallowed holiday horror films that audiences have come to know before it. The path itself looks a bit too well-trodden, worn with time as if we’ve been walking in circles for too long.

Yet, as it becomes more and more difficult to develop a Christmas horror film that remains original in its storytelling, compelling in its performances, and novel in its special effects, Silent Night is worth at least one evening’s consideration.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 3

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