So-bad-it’s-good movies aren’t often associated with Christmas, but then you remember how many cheap Christmas horror films have been made, and the Venn diagram starts to take shape. The most iconic crappy Christmas flick is undoubtedly Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2, in no small part due to a 20-second viral clip where an ordinary man is taking out the trash, only for a sweater-clad gentleman to pull a gun on him, yell what we can only imagine is his pro-wrestling finishing move (much to the internet’s pleasure) and blow the man away. The man finds the whole affair as amusing as the audience, as he chuckles to himself in the aftermath. It’s impossible to tell this clip is from a Christmas-themed movie by watching it in isolation.
Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 feels like both barely a movie and also a prank on its audience. The first Silent Night, Deadly Night (or, SNDN) is a low-budget but competently assembled slasher tracing the psychosis that overwhelms a young man, Billy, growing up under punishing nuns after his parents were killed by a murderous Santa Claus. You can’t appreciate how influential Psycho was to the horror genre until you see a million inferior clones taking a broad stab at what they think child psychology is, but for playing a stock insane killer, Robert Brian Wilson hands in a pitch-perfect performance, grounding it with enough realism but unafraid to go loony every time he sees red—often prompted by sex and nudity.
It should be said, I have not seen Silent Night, Deadly Night, but Part 2 features about 30 minutes of reused footage from the first film. It’s framed by a recap from Billy’s younger brother Ricky (Eric Freeman) while he’s locked up in an institution for following in Billy’s murderous footsteps. You know how it is with brothers at Christmas; if Billy gets a kill count, then it’s only fair that Ricky gets one too.
It’s only fair that Part 2 went viral for Eric Freeman’s delirious performance. He is, and I’m putting this lightly, the finest comic actor of the 20th century. Freeman plays Ricky as a man who looks suspicious of his own face, twitching and staring with unfettered intensity. And the delivery! His intonation sounds like the exact inverse of how normal actors would speak. When Ricky gets his shot at being weird and murder-y, each kill seems to feed him a dark cosmic energy, so by the end he has a presence of a violent superhuman. There is absolutely no way to actively attempt to act like this; it’s the type of glorious oddity one can only achieve accidentally.
But there’s the catch—why are we so quick to assume every one of Part 2’s joys are accidental? So-bad-it’s-good is one of those genres that says more about the audience experience than actual filmmaking style or tone; it threatens to omit whole swathes of performance or directorial choices with the assumption that they’re all failures. Just because something in a film is not conventionally “good” doesn’t mean it was created through incompetence. Part 2’s camp brilliance is a product of astute filmmaking decisions with a very limited array of options.
Part 2 was given a feeble budget of $250,000 (and only made back $150,000 of that theatrically), giving director Lee Harry and co-writer Joseph H. Earle little choice but to accept the studio’s demand to reuse huge portions of the first film. SNDN is not a film that necessitates a lot of explanatory voiceover, but by condensing the original down so thoroughly, the filmmakers had to add Freeman’s contextualizing narration to rush us through Billy’s highlights. The curling snarl of Freeman’s voice throughout his brother’s backstory and his adds a macabre-but-campy sinisterness to the proceedings; it injects the goofy but grounded events of the first film with a heightened silliness, and supercharges Ricky’s story with glorious purpose.
At one point, Harry and Earle acknowledge the structure of their own film. While Ricky’s on a date in the world’s crummiest movie theater, he realizes the film he’s watching is about a murderer dressed up as Santa Claus. The film that has just shown us half an hour’s worth of SNDN is now showing its main character SNDN. By getting metatextual, the filmmakers are owning up to the fact that, yes, this is a cheap, arguably lazy, piece of crap. Its meta-ness is not an attempt to be clever or witty—it’s an admittance of the film’s huge limitations.
Once it clicks that Part 2 is aware of its inherent flaws, its reputation as an unintentional comedy starts to falter. If they’re in on the joke here, what else are they having fun with? Take the scenes between Ricky and his interviewer, Dr Bloom (James L. Newman). They make up the majority of the Part 2 timeline, and aside from the intrusions of an orderly (J. Aubrey Island, bringing a lot of presence to a dialogue-free part, as well as one of the most dramatic finger wags of all time), it’s really just two men and a tape-recorder in a room. Not very exciting—until you realize it’s one of the most deranged one-act plays ever conceived.
Aside from some acid-tongued insults from Ricky, Harry and cinematographer Harvey Genkins spice up the repartee by getting incredibly silly with their framing, pulling off ludicrous and impossible shots where Ricky disappears and reappears comically around the edges of the frame. Together with the absurdity of the escalating kills and the fact that every supporting character spends their screen time yelling, it’s not hard to see how the filmmakers deliberately leant into the comic potential of their otherwise unnoteworthy film.
The shining, sincere gem of the film, however, is Freeman. Apparently Harry gave the performer barely any notes, and Earle actively encouraged his over-the-top performance. I don’t think they did this to embarrass the actor—they knew the film would be genuinely better because of him. Painting him as a bad actor, that the cult following he received online and at midnight screenings is because he’s no good at what he’s doing feels disingenuous—it’s a style of performing that’s insanely watchable and compelling. He may not be in on the joke, but there is no joke without him.
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.