Christmas Evil (1980)
by Steve Habrat
Well folks, it’s Christmas time again. It’s that special time to trim your tree, line your house with lights, hang stockings from the mantle, sip eggnog, and toss on the usual classic Christmas movies like A Christmas Story and Christmas Vacation. If you’ve had your fill of those cheery comedies and are in the mood for something dark, twisted, weird, and completely under the radar, look no further than the 1980 slasher flick Christmas Evil (aka You Better Watch Out). Made before the more popular Holiday slasher Silent Night, Deadly Night, which also featured a nut job dressing up like dear old St. Nick and hacking up a few naughty boys and girls, Christmas Evil is one seriously bizarre movie that feels like an authentic glimpse into the disturbed mind of a psychopath. Sure, there are more than a few moments where you may tense up but those moments are thrown off by a number of sequences that are so unbelievably peculiar, you may never know if they were meant to be taken seriously or if director Lewis Jackson was aiming for a couple of laughs. Over the years, Christmas Evil has remained relatively unknown but has been steadily gathering a cult following and even enjoys having legendary filmmaker John Waters as a fan. It’s easy to see why the Christmas Evil wins over those who see it, as it features one hell of a creepy performance from Brandon Maggart as the main lunatic, Harry.
Christmas Evil begins on Christmas Eve night in 1947, with a young Harry Stadling catching his mother and father, who is dressed as Santa Claus, getting a little naughty by the Christmas tree. Distraught, Harry dashes upstairs and accidentally knocks over a snow globe, which he then proceeds to cut his hand on. Many years pass and the now adult Harry (Played by Maggart) lives a lonely life obsessing over the Christmas season. His apartment is cluttered with Christmas decorations and he hovers by the windows to monitor the behavior of the neighborhood children. It turns out that Harry keeps two books, one that he fills with names of children who are good all year long and those who indulge in naughty behavior. When he isn’t pouring over his decorations and books, Harry works at the local toy factory, where other employees constantly take him advantage of him. One evening, Harry covers a shift for a fellow employee, only to bump into the employee at a local bar on the way home laughing over how he suckered Harry into covering the shift. Furious, Harry storms home and makes a Santa Claus outfit, arms himself with an axe and a bag of toys, and sets out to deliver presents to the good boys and girls and kill the people who have wronged him.
While Christmas Evil gets far with the way it tracks Harry’s decent into all out madness, the film has a number of awkward moments that never add up. It is hard to believe that Harry would go bonkers over simply seeing his parents get frisky on Christmas Eve but that is the case here. There is also a flashback scene where Harry, his brother, Phil, and their mother sit up and watch Santa (their father) come down the chimney and leave presents under the tree. This particular sequence is basked in strange lighting and finds all three characters watching with eerie smiles on their faces. It seems dream-like, vaguely comedic, and completely out of place when the film veers into gritty, fly-on-the-wall territory. Christmas Evil sheds some of the unintentional giggles when it begins to document Harry’s mental collapse, which is basically in full swing when we meet him. It does make your skin crawl the way he watches the local children but there is a huge sigh of relief when we realize that he really means the children no harm. He does, however, stalk out one little boy named Moss Garcia (Played by Peter Neuman), who he deems very naughty and then proceeds to mark his house with mud and scare him. Once again, the scene is basically pointless and completely out of place. It makes no sense in the grand scheme of things, especially since we know he adores children and wouldn’t hurt one.
Christmas Evil would ultimately be disposable if it wasn’t for Maggart’s terrifying performance. Even when things get really silly, Maggart manages to keep Christmas Evil believable and chugging along. There is a sequence that finds Harry, dressed in his Santa getup, arriving at the Willowy Springs State Hospital and dropping off a slew of toys for the handicapped children that are staying there. It is a sweet moment in a truly ugly film and it weirdly distorts the evil that has been awoken in Harry. The camera lingers on him as he waits outside the hospital in a snowy night, yelling “Merry Christmas!” in different tones of voice. It was a small moment that actually allowed me to have some sympathy for the devil before he bumps into some children and creepily warns them to be good little boys and girls. For the blood and guts crowd and the ones who want to see Harry hack up a few enemies, there is an immensely shocking sequence with Harry arriving at a church, finding a few coworkers, and splitting their heads with an axe. Half appalled by what he has done and half giddy, he jumps into his van, which has a sleigh painted on the side, and zooms off into the night to claim another victim. The film also has an appearance from Jeffrey DeMunn (Dale from The Walking Dead) as Harry’s increasingly concerned brother, Phil, who may be partially responsible for Harry mental collapse. Dianne Hull also shows up as Jackie, Phil’s wife who has very little to do except scream.
As this (basically) one man show speeds towards its climax, which features a roaring mob with torches prowling the streets for the terrified Harry, Christmas Evil begins to fall apart. It is clearly a nod to Frankenstein (villagers hunting a misunderstood monster) but it just seems so random that New Yorkers would be picking up torches and prowling the streets in 1980. I guess that torches are more dramatic than flashlights. The film ends on a goofy hallucinatory image that has not aged well since its release. Honestly, we got that Harry was out of his mind and we didn’t really need this image to drive the point home. At ninety-five minutes, Christmas Evil does begin to drag its sack of goodies and you will find yourself getting a wee bit antsy. The film is clearly meant to be a character study, but do we really need an extended sequence of Harry trying to squeeze down a chimney? Apparently, director Jackson thought we did. It should also be noted that the film is extremely poor in the editing department and the synthesizer score is irritatingly distracting. Still, there are enough eerie surprises to make Christmas Evil worthwhile for those looking to see a Holiday horror movie that isn’t Black Christmas or Silent Night, Deadly Night. It may also make you a bit leery of a guy in a Santa suit.
Christmas Evil is available on DVD.