By Kristin McMurran
December 03, 1984 12:00 PM

It is Christmas Eve. A small boy watches a madman dressed as Santa Claus shoot his father between the eyes, then slice his mother’s throat with a switchblade. And that’s just the beginning of Silent Night, Deadly Night, a grisly horror flick, made all the more grotesque by the psychopathic killer’s pose as Santa. Currently playing in almost 400 theaters in the East and Midwest, the movie has touched off a tempest, with furious parents rallying to boycott it.

As the screen scenario unfolds, the abandoned child is being raised in a grim Catholic orphanage by a frosty Mother Superior, until at age 18 he snaps when asked to play Santa on Christmas Eve. After dark, with ax in hand, he gets started on his chopping list. The eight victims of Santa’s slay ride do not meet mundane deaths: One is strangled with a cord of blinking Christmas lights, another is impaled on a pair of reindeer antlers.

Known in Hollywood’s trade talk as a splatter movie, Silent Night recouped its low production cost ($1 million) within days. Yet it might have vanished after its scheduled two-week run were it not for a sensationalist TV ad campaign depicting the crazed Santa swinging his bloodstained ax. That outraged parents like Denise Giordano, 31, of the Bronx, N.Y. “I have a very impressionable 3-year-old child,” she says. “On Christmas he expects Santa to come down the chimney with gifts. In this ad a man in a Santa suit comes with an ax. I can’t imagine a child seeing that and not being frightened.” Giordano and her cousin, Judy Fiametta, 37, called upon various civic leaders, PTA members and parish priests to join their crusade to stop the film from being shown. The two women (whose husbands are partners in a funeral home) dispatched petitions, enlisted enough volunteers to collect 700 signatures and fashioned 30 placards. “We had some great slogans,” says Giordano, “like Deck the Halls with Holly, Not Bodies!” Some 100 carol-singing protesters picketed a Bronx theater that was hosting Silent Night, and six days after the movie opened, it closed.

The dark vision of a mad, bad Santa was filmed for Tri-Star Pictures by Ira Barmak, 48, a physician-turned-actor-turned-producer. “I’m not a horror buff. I’ve never made a horror film and I probably never will again,” says Barmak, who won an Emmy for a daytime TV special, The Girl Who Couldn’t Lose, which he produced in 1975. Ironically, Silent Night, which was shot in Utah, was directed by Charles Sellier Jr., whose credits include such quality family fare as Grizzly Adams, Chariots of the Gods and Mark Twain’s America, which he produced. “We’re not sleazy, cigar-chewing profiteers,” says Barmak, who sympathizes with parents distressed by the ads that ran in the early evening. “Those promos were made to run late. It was a mistake to air them sooner,” he says. “I wanted the movie advertised on rock radio and on MTV.” The ads ran for one week and were canceled before the movie’s opening. “I am sorry people are upset,” he says.

Barmak is not, however, apologizing for making the bloodbath movie. “People have taken offense at Santa being used in a scary context,” he argues. “Santa Claus is not a religious figure, he’s a mythic character. I didn’t deliberately ride roughshod over that sensitivity and I didn’t anticipate the objection to it.”

More offensive, says Barmak, are general-audience films that he believes are meant to be taken seriously. “The Omen shocked me profoundly,” he says. “I was horrified by the violence in A Clockwork Orange, and The Shining scared the living hoo-hoo out of me.”

Barmak bought the Silent Night, Deadly Night screenplay after one reading. “The premise, God forgive me, struck me as funny,” he says. “I thought it could really work with the right balance of humor and fright. Our target audience is teenagers over 17 and young adults who go to these pictures like they go on roller coasters. They aren’t looking for a believable story; they go to be startled, to yell back at the screen.”

Although the movie drew an R rating, meaning that children under 17 are not admitted without parental supervision, the angry parents consider that inadequate protection. “You can’t stop older children from talking about it,” says Denise Giordano, “and what’s to stop some unstable person from imitating the movie?”

Those concerns sparked other protests in Brooklyn, Chicago and Milwaukee, where two nuns appeared outside a theater in Santa and Mrs. Santa Claus costumes, announcing that they had come from the North Pole to protest the film. “Horrified” by the television promos, local housewives Karen Knowles, 23, and Kathy Eberhardt, 32, started a kitchen campaign that made the network news. “I want people to stop making movies of this sort,” says Knowles. “The world has enough graphic violence. Little children trust Santa Claus.”

Even Robert Brian Wilson, 23, who made his screen debut as the maniacal Santa, has some qualms. “I don’t feel I have to justify my playing the part,” he says. “It was an opportunity to work, but,” he adds, “I depersonalized the character to the max.” Wilson was surprised by the final product. “They pushed the story out the door and replaced it with gore,” he observes. “I told friends and family with kids not to go see it.”

Despite all the furor, Tri-Star plans to continue releasing the film as scheduled. Though the movie is no longer playing at her local theater, Denise Giordano is still upset: “It made me so mad. This kind of thing robs children of their innocence. Nothing is sacred anymore.”