Christmas Evil AKA You Better Watch Out (1980)
Director: Lewis Jackson
Starring: Brandon Maggart, Jeffrey DeMunn, Dianne Hull, Andy Fenwick, Brian Neville, Joe Jamrog, Peter Neuman
(out of 4)
WARNING: Some spoilers ahead.
Having been traumatized as a child by the image of his mother getting it on with ol’ St. Nick, Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart) grows up into a creepy loner, occasionally spying on the kids in the neighborhood and putting their names into two books – one for the good kids and one for the bad ones, obviously. A toy factory worker recently promoted to management, Harry witnesses greed, selfishness, and cynicism everywhere he goes, and is barely tolerated by the people around him, including his own brother who was the first to tell him there was no Santa Claus. Increasingly isolated, his Santa Claus obsession gives way to full on madness, and Harry goes out on Christmas eve giving presents to the good children, while dishing out some slayin’ to the bad adults who deserve it.
That’s Lewis Jackson’s Christmas Evil (AKA You Better Watch Out) in a nutshell – not really a slasher at all, but a character study that happens to include slasher elements. It’s a true grindhouse item – grainy print and gritty photography – which works in its favor. I would call it a lower-budget Taxi Driver, except Travis Bickle this time is played by Fiona Apple’s dad. (No, really!) Brandon Maggart does a great slow-burn here; the film reaches the half-way point and there haven’t been any murders yet. Basically, we are treated to Harry’s mental deterioration gradually, which must have been boring for all those patrons of the grimy Times Square cinemas. It’s too bad that the companion holiday slasher which came out 4 years later, Silent Night, Deadly Night, got all of the infamous press, because Christmas Evil is a more heartfelt movie. Don’t get me wrong – I like Silent Night, Deadly Night, but these are two separate beasts. Silent Night, Deadly Night is an exploitation piece that doesn’t pretend otherwise; Christmas Evil has loftier goals in mind.
It is difficult to see the character of Harry as anything but tragic, even when he is axing people to death with a painted hatchet. The creepiest thing about him is shown at the beginning, when Harry grabs binoculars and spies on the kids through their windows. His obsession with one particular young girl is uncomfortable, as it brings to mind all of those news stories about that one guy in the local hood who is a little bit too friendly to children if you know what I mean. Interestingly enough, as the film progresses we realize that Harry’s fascination with children is really one of a desire for him to return to the innocence of childhood. There’s nothing sexual at all involved, even in Harry’s dealings with adults. (We never seem him interacting with women, for example). Harry is a twisted Santa, of course – but we still understand his desire to define his world in black and white, just as children do. I felt for him as he tries to explain his philosophy to an adult mob, with the children trying to protect him. Jackson unmistakeably draws parallels with Frankenstein’s monster, going as far as having people with torches chasing Harry in the streets.
I think that giving Harry a fixation with Santa Claus is a commentary on Santa as the ultimate authority figure trying to establish order, and Christmas Evil is just taking the jolly fat man’s reward/punishment system to extremes. The final frames of the film are pretty amazing, with Harry/Santa taking off in his painted van/sleigh across the moonlight, in a shot that predates Thelma & Louise by over 10 years! It’s only absurd if you are addicted to literal readings of movies; otherwise, it’s a surreal and inevitable conclusion for a character just trying to make sense of the world to find a place in it for himself and for children. While sporting its share of gore effects, the movie actually treats Christmas with reverence, which makes it similar to Bob Clark’s Black Christmas and the complete antithesis of Glen Morgan’s mean-spirited remake.
The DVD I watched was a bare-bones Troma release, but I have heard that there is some good stuff on the Synapse Edition, including Widescreen anamorphic and two commentary tracks with director Jackson and John Waters, who called this his favorite holiday flick.
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