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Christmas Evil (1980)

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 (1980)

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.

Grade: B-

Christmas Evil is available on DVD.

Monsters (2010)

by Steve Habrat

It is hard to believe that British director Gareth Edwards’ ultra low budget science fiction film Monsters cost only around $500,000 to make. Just take a look at the crisp cinematography, the dreamy score, and charred special effects and you will be absolutely staggered that he made so much out of so little. Edwards masks the low budget by turning Monsters into a character drama, one that only uses the alien invasion as a political backdrop for his two main characters. Heavily critical of the tense American views on immigration and illegal aliens, Monsters is a sharp jab at how some American citizens view our neighbors to the south. That being said, I more than believe that Monsters has its heart in the right place, exploring the idea that we fear what we don’t understand, but I wish Monsters wouldn’t have been so heavy handed with this message, taking advantage of every opportunity to point out what it is attempting to do. I also wish that Edwards had added a bit more action to the film. I enjoyed traveling with these characters and seeing all the nifty little touches along the way but I feel Monsters would have benefitted from a little more action. I say this because the night-vision shootout in the opening moments leaves the viewer shaken, battered, and wanting a hell of a lot more.

At the beginning of Monsters, we are told that a NASA deep-space probe crashed near the United States-Mexico border. In the wake of its crash, alien life forms begin to appear, causing the U.S. and Mexican armed forces to attempt to contain the infected area. The U.S. quickly puts up a massive wall to keep the towering creatures from crossing over onto American soil. Meanwhile, in San José, a young American photojournalist named Andrew (Played by Scoot McNairy) is asked by a wealthy employer to escort his daughter back into America. Andrew reluctantly accepts the offer and sets out to find the beautiful Samantha (Played by Whitney Able). The two strike up a friendship over the course of their journey, Andrew beginning to fall for Samantha, who also happens to be engaged. After getting mugged and loosing their passports, Andrew makes a shaky arrangement to have Samantha escorted to the American wall but the journey will take them through the infected zone and put their lives at risk. Or so they have been led to believe.

Monsters makes the wise choice to make the viewer feel like a tourist on Mexican soil, allowing us to wander around with the characters and take in the local culture. We are shown how difficult it is for these individuals who face constant attacks by the creatures. We see Mexican civilians mourning their losses while America offers little to no aid to the Mexican armed forces. It is this raw emotion that really takes its toll on the viewer and makes Monsters such an emotional journey. Electronic musician John Hopkins’ soaring score, at once dreamily inquisitive, intimate, and romantic, compliments partially destroyed cities and moist eyes of the mourners. It was also interesting to watch how the Mexican civilians have routed their daily lives around the constant problems with the extraterrestrial beings. I was hooked on Edwards’ camera bobbing around and showing me street signs that warn those who travel down that road to have a gas mask handy and indicating that we are near an infected zone. The eeriest is a gigantic sign that indicates just how enormous the infected area is, our heroes silently absorbing their risky situation.

Since the film has such a low budget, Edwards is forced to rely on his main protagonists to drive the film. They need to be convincing and engaging or else the film will loose us, as it can only go so far with the visitors-in-a-foreign-land approach. McNairy and Able do have a spark and it isn’t hard to see that the film is swerving into romantic territory. McNairy’s Andrew desperately tries to keep things as casual as possible, always trying to break the awkward tension between him and Samantha. Able’s Samantha is battling an inner conflict, trying to repress her growing feelings for Andrew, who bottles up a secret of his own. Together they face tense situations that never amount to much of anything, a close-encounter here and a false alarm there, Andrew always quick to whip out his camera and attempt to document what they are seeing. Only once do things really get deadly for the duo, but it is brief and we only really see the gruesome aftermath of what has panned out. I’m all for the subtle approach but I’d like to see why we are all so terrified of these creatures. All we ever really see them do it wander into a city here or pick up a car there, which adds a layer of minor disappointment to the road trip that is Monsters.

For a film that lacks a big Hollywood price tag, Edwards does an incredible job with the special effects, which were said to have been accomplished on his laptop. His aliens are a sight to behold and I’m reluctant to reveal too much about them, as they are one of the only real sources of mystery in the film. Things get very apocalyptic when the duo finally sets foot on American soil, a sequence that offers another minor surprise. As I said, Monsters is too ready to explain itself away to the viewer, refusing to keep its politics ambiguous. It’s not hard to decipher the message of the film if you’ve been filled in on the plot so I feel it was unnecessary to have the characters explain things further to us. For its handful of flaws, Monsters is still an above average science fiction drama, one with likable characters and lovely use of location (wait for the sequence where Andrew and Samantha spend the night at an Aztec pyramid). I just wish Edwards wouldn’t have shied away from tossing us around a little bit more. Monsters would be so much better if you were still recovering from it the next day.

Grade: B

Monsters is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

by Steve Habrat

I’m glad I let Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy marinate in my mind for a few hours before I sat down to hammer out a review of it. I emerged from the matinee showing with my head spinning and my brain scrambling to put the pieces of this puzzle together. I was so hastily trying to wrap my head around what I had just seen. I was initially let down by it and to think I was so excited to see this smoky, earth toned espionage thriller that looked like it was ripped out of the 1970s. I thought it would be full of thrills and white-knuckle moments. Folks, I’m here to tell you it’s not what you think it is. Despite passing itself off as a Cold War spy flick, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about the men that were causalities of this war that consisted of suspicion and heightened awareness of the individual at your side. Accusations flew in place of bullets. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about bombed out egos rather than bombed out cities. If character studies and talky dramas turn you off, either wait until this film is at your local Red Box or skip it entirely. If you are willing to let it into your brain, you will find it slowly creeping down your spine hours after you see it.

Set in 1973, retired British Intelligence agent George Smiley is lured out of retirement by Oliver Lacon (Played by Simon McBurney), the civil servant in charge of intelligence, to investigate a mole who has infiltrated intelligence and has apparently been there for years. Smiley teams up with fleeing agent Ricki Tarr (Played by Tom Hardy) and intelligence officer Peter Guillam (Played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and together they launch an investigation aimed at the new Chief of the Circus Percy Alleline (Played by Toby Jones), his deputy Bill Haydon (Played by Colin Firth), and his allies Roy Bland (Played by Ciarán Hinds) and Toby Esterhause (Played by David Dencik). Smiley begins meeting with individuals who were forced out of positions due to their suspicions and accusations, now left in ruin and haunted by what the know. Along the journey, Smiley tries to repair his shattered past and come to terms with his demons that silently plague him.

While it is certainly a droll film in it’s first forty-five minutes, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy finally sets things in motion when more layers begin to peel away. The one aspect I really liked in the beginning was the fact that Smiley barely spoke any dialogue and he lets his world-weary face do all the work. His eyes are cartoonishly enlarged behind his thick-rimmed specs and his mouth slightly opens as if he is about to let a thought out but he quickly remembers to cage it back up. He is a curious one. When he does speak, he has a raspy and weary voice to fit his somnolent eyes, though his words have been dipped in thick globs of confidence. Oldman does a terrific job with Smiley and he will certainly get an Oscar nomination for his aloof portrayal of John le Carré’s heartbroken spy. I found myself replaying the scenes of Smiley strolling through the misty, dingy streets of Cold War London or Smiley sitting alone in his apartment as the television chirps in the background. There is a knock at the door and in response, his head slightly turns, and this is when we get a quick glimpse at his broken and lonely heart.

The rest of the supporting players in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy hold up quite well next to the slow burn of Oldman’s Smiley. This is, afterall, a character piece. Firth’s Bill Haydon is a standout, providing some small bursts of humor in the relentlessly dreary atmosphere. Hardy’s Ricki Tarr seems like he will be the tough guy but Hardy has the good sense to show us that even tough guys have a breaking point. Jones’ Percy Alleline is a supercilious and loose cannon little twerp who you would never dare cross (even if he only stands at 5’5”). What is fascinating about these men, who all appear to be working on the same side, is that if their eyes were daggers, no one would be left standing. They sit around in a smoky boardroom and stare each other down, loose their cools, stomp off, and sulk. And yet Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy holds the moments where we see them fall victim to all the suspicion, accusations, and attempts at ruin. They collapse when the chips are down and it is almost worse than any of the actually carnage that the film shows us.

Behind all the cigarette smoke and glaring actors, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy offers us eye-popping art direction, allowing Cold War London to really come alive. At times, I felt that the sets were actually characters in the movie. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is also shrouded in a film noir atmosphere and the only thing missing is a femme fatale to lure these men to their fate. Director Tomas Alfredson has made a film that slowly grows in the hours after it has been seen, coaxing you back to uncover more. It is watered by your own puzzlement over it and your drive to want to put it all together. The film never resorts to gunfights or fists fights and it only builds excitement through heated exchange. The downfall of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is that the film sometimes seems unsure how to actually build that suspense and the narrative gets caught up in itself. Talky and arty with a nifty old school swag, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy works better as a portrait of wrecked men rather than as a chilly espionage mystery.

Grade: B+