Vicious Christmas: The Holiday Horrors of 1984

By Brian Keiper

1984 may well be the greatest year in the history of filmed horror, both in content and in consequence. The list of memorable movies from that year is nearly endless, from massive blockbusters to cult favorites and indie gems. It also provided two perennial classics for the Christmas season, both of which had repercussions far beyond the flickering images on the screen.

June 8, 1984, has to be the greatest single day in “family” horror as two truly classic PG-rated terrors hit the screen on that day. One remains the ultimate in horror-comedy perfection, Ghostbusters, and the other a vicious little monster movie from producer Steven Spielberg and director Joe Dante — Gremlins. Seeing that latter film now, it seems strange that it would be released in early summer considering its nearly total immersion in the winter holiday. In fact, its major theatrical run ended in November of 1984, so it spent no time on the big screen during the holiday season of that year. But with its clever marketing campaign and the strength of the picture itself, Gremlins went on to become the fourth highest-grossing film of the year behind Beverly Hills Cop (1), Ghostbusters (2), and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (3).

Despite its success and the general adoration it now receives, the film was not without controversy at the time. Its afore-mentioned marketing campaign was aimed squarely at kids, focusing on the cute and cuddly Gizmo over the vulgar and vicious titular creatures. One of the most vocal critics of the film was outspoken science fiction, horror author, and critic Harlan Ellison. In a lengthy article for his Watching column in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Ellison pulled no punches when discussing the film, calling it “one of the most purely evil films ever visited on the filmgoing public.” Ellison went on to call it “a grotesque breach of trust with all the kids who hear Spielberg and think E.T.” and “The Muppet Chain Saw Massacre.” Time, Newsweek, and Twilight Zone Magazine critics were equally dismayed by the film being targeted at children. Theaters reported parents asking for their money back as they escorted their screaming children out the door.

An excerpt from “Some Groups Unhappy with PG-13 Film Rating” in the New York Times, August 13, 1984, Section C, Page 20.

The most wide-reaching result of Gremlins, along with another Spielberg effort from that year, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, was the decision of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings board to create the PG-13 rating. Many still call it “the Spielberg rating” and rightly so. Jaws (1975), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and Poltergeist (1982) are all filled with violence, gore, and real terror (not to mention drug use and extreme child endangerment). They are also all rated PG, provoking more than a few raised eyebrows at the time. The new rating had the greatest impact, at least in the horror genre, on films from smaller studios. Cat’s Eye (1985), The Monster Squad (1987), and Lady in White (1988) all suffered at the box office, at least in part, because the PG-13 rating signaled that these films were too scary for kids and not scary enough for adults. As the years have gone by, the PG-13 rating is affixed to some of the most successful films of each year, but still, sparks debate in the horror community. The recent Black Christmas (2019) received a large portion of its backlash (though far from all) due to the fact that gore scenes were trimmed to receive the rating.

As for Gremlins, the controversy it received was relatively minor. Though I did not see it until well after its home video release, I was very familiar with Gizmo, Stripe, and “the rules” by the time I finally saw the film. Friends came to school with Gremlins lunch boxes, the hardcover storybook was sold at my school’s book fair, and I even owned a Stripe posable figurine. It is a film I love personally and have shown to my own kids, who enjoy it as well. It is genuinely scary at times, but it’s cut with healthy doses of director Joe Dante’s trademark humor that makes the film a sheer delight. It remains Dante’s most financially successful film to date. Because of that success, he was able to produce several more movies that have become favorites like Innerspace (1987), The ‘Burbs (1989), Matinee (1993), and Small Soldiers (1998) despite an inability to replicate that success, at least at the box office.

In a previous article for Manor Vellum, “1984: The Death and Resurrection of the Slasher,” I indicated that Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter was intended by its makers to be the end of the slasher, but the film that truly put the nail in the coffin for the first wave of the subgenre was Silent Night, Deadly Night, and not particularly because of the film itself. If the ad campaign of Gremlins contributed to its success, the ad campaign for Silent Night, Deadly Night contributed to its downfall.

There had been plenty of “killer Santa” movies before Silent Night, Deadly Night (and no shortage of them since), but most of those had been small, independent features like Christmas Evil (1980) that were able to sail under the radar. Silent Night, Deadly Night was released through a new company, Tri-Star Pictures, which had spent 1984 (its first year of production) up to that point releasing films like The Natural, The Muppets Take Manhattan, and Places in the Heart. The studio garnered a great deal of success in a very short time and decided to get on board with the low budget horror craze of the early ‘80s.

Producer Ira Barmak optioned a novel titled Slay Ride by Paul Caimi and brought on old friend, Charles E. Sellier, Jr., to direct. Sellier contends that he made the film for hire and has a mixed reaction to his involvement. In an interview for the 30th anniversary Blu-ray released through Anchor Bay, he indicates that he feels they made a good film but also regrets making a “slasher.” He feels that he did not consider the consequences of his work as a young filmmaker.

And there certainly were consequences. As the film neared its release date, Tri-Star ran a trailer featuring a fair number of disturbing images and does little to indicate that the ax and handgun-wielding maniac on the screen is merely a man in a Santa suit and not the jolly old elf himself. The trailer was run during commercial breaks of popular family fare like Happy Days, Silver Spoons, and Webster. Parents groups, including the PTA, began organizing boycotts of Tri-Star and the theaters that were exhibiting the film. Tri-Star pulled the trailer from television after a week, but many theaters were picketed by angry mothers declaring that Santa Claus was a symbol of purity being befouled by this “disgusting” film. Critics such as Siskel and Ebert, who regularly denounced slasher films, joined the outcry, calling the film’s profits “bloody money.”

Despite, or maybe because of, the controversy, the film turned a profit within days of its release. Still, the protests mounted, and the voices of parents were joined by critics calling for Tri-Star’s blood. The company opted to pull the film from theaters within three weeks and scrapped the entire west coast run of the picture. Director Charles E. Sellier comments that he believes the film was pulled because it had already made its money back and Tri-Star was on the verge of going public with a new stock option. Not wanting to besmirch their reputation built on the prestige pictures they had already released or were in the works, the company opted to pull the film and sell it back to its producers for home video sale, where it found a great deal of success and spawned several sequels.

The controversy officially killed the first wave slasher, but it also left a vacuum to be filled. Luckily, released the same day, November 9, 1984, on far fewer screens, an innovative little film was there to fill the horror void left behind by Silent Night, Deadly Night. A Nightmare on Elm Street was exactly the kind of film horror fans craved. It had plenty of gore, compelling lead characters, and the most memorable villain in years. It also had a level of sophistication, intelligence, and filmmaking prowess that had been lost in many of the formulaic rip-offs that had been ground out, like so many sausages, for years to cash in on the success of films like Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980).

To me, Silent Night, Deadly Night is fine. It doesn’t particularly thrill me, but it is a well-made and brutal little slasher. It has several memorable characters and innovative kills (that antler scene!). It is also at times very tough to watch. The early sequence of the robber dressed as Santa Claus brutalizing and murdering parents in front of their children’s eyes is horrifying. Also, more than one person in a Santa suit is killed in front of kids. It revels in subverting some of the most treasured traditions of the season, but to be fair so does Gremlins.

Ironically enough, the movie that Silent Night, Deadly Night initially outgrossed in its opening weekend became, at least indirectly, responsible for its longevity. A Nightmare on Elm Street was a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart that the genre was in dire need of. The success of its next two sequels brought about a massive boom in sequels to known properties, including Silent Night, Deadly Night, and Gremlins, often with a more supernatural or comedic bent than their predecessors. In 1987, the bizarre sequel Silent Night, Deadly Night, Part 2 appeared, more than half of its footage came from the original film, and forever changed the meaning of the phrase “garbage day.” In 1990, director Joe Dante returned with the very meta, and PG-13 rated, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, a film underappreciated at the time that has grown to become a fan favorite that many feel tops the original.

So, this year, as you snuggle up in your Texas Chain Saw blanket with the Ghoul Log blazing on Shudder, raise a glass of eggnog to the holiday horrors of 1984. And if you hear something go bump in the night, you might want to just turn on all the lights and take down the antlers mounted on the wall…I’d hate for you to have a vicious Christmas.


Brian Keiper is a contributing writer for Manor Vellum. He’s also written for Bloody Disgusting, Dread Central, F This Movie!, and Ghastly Grinning and others. Follow him on Twitter @BrianDKeiper.

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