Christmas Evil (1980)

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“A toy factory worker, mentally scarred as a child upon learning Santa Claus is not real, suffers a nervous breakdown after being belittled at work, and embarks on a Yuletide killing spree.” — IMDb

An oddball film mostly glossed over during its release but now a cult film with fans like John Waters, Christmas Evil (originally released as You Better Watch Out, which I think fits a bit better, and also known as Terror in Toyland) is a surprisingly deep and complex Christmas horror which I hesitate to even categorize as a slasher film, per se, due to the fact that there’s barely any killing and, ultimately, the fear comes from something far more subtle.

It’s no surprise that director Lewis Jackson, who ended his very short career with this film, had the idea brewing in his mind (and had the script written and re-written) for 8 years. It’s not your typical horror movie — Jackson himself said he only let the misconception that it was horror at all stand so he could get the movie funded. It’s funny and more than a little bit surreal and rather than dealing with a simple story of revenge or even homicidal mania we have a character that is deeply flawed but someone we can empathize with, which I think can be rare.

** SPOILERS! **

The most important thing that needs to be said about this movie is how incredible Brandon Maggart — who plays the Christmas-obsessed Harry Stadling — is. He was found last minute as a replacement for Lewis Jackson’s original choice and it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the role better. I felt like he was so deeply in the psyche of Harry and, as a result, was successful at alternating between warm and relatable and just unbelievably creepy. His personality changes were almost manic at times, which made him wonderfully unpredictable.

One minute he’s watching the neighborhood kids through binoculars and updating his Naughty and Nice lists and you’re cringing. The next he’s pulling a Robin Hood and delivering stolen toys from the factory he works at to disabled children at a hospital. He is both terrifying and honorable.

But when he’s terrifying, he REALLY goes all out. Watching him strangle a doll until its neck snaps while angrily humming “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”… imitating his dad’s jolly wink in the mirror and then passing his hand over his face to reveal a dead-eyed frown… tugging at his newly applied beard with increasing intensity and exclaiming “it’s me! it’s me!”… the whip cracks and calls for the reindeer to pick up speed while he drives his hand painted van… all SO amazingly well done and creeptastic.

As I mentioned, this is not a story of revenge, of lust, of jealousy, even of the desire to kill. He’s deeply disturbed from his brutal wake-up call as a child during which his belief in Santa Claus was shattered and, as a result, he has become obsessed with the holiday and with truly BECOMING Santa Claus and being loved for it. He soon realizes that while children are almost universally not only accepting but enthusiastic about his image, adults are much less so, some even responding with taunts and jeers. He’s troubled by the facade that seems to exist around Christmas, with the stories and songs talking about good will towards man and generosity but the reality being more focused around commercialism and greed. He’s moral to a fault in the sense that his principles may be in the right place but the anger, desperation, and hysteria he feels when confronted with situations or people who challenge those morals are uncontrollable (and, duh, result in him murdering people outside of a church).

Ultimately just a gem in the vaguely horror landscape — truly not to be missed, even with the wacko ending.

Rating: 7/10 | Director: Lewis Jackson | Writer: Lewis Jackson | Music: Don Christensen, Joel Harris, Julia Heyward | Cinematography: Ricardo Aronovich | Starring: Brandon Maggart, Jeffrey DeMunn, Dianne Hull

 

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