Tagline: You’d better take care…Santa is coming to town!
Director: Lewis Jackson
Writer: Lewis Jackson
Starring: Brandon Maggart, Jeffrey DeMunn, Dianne Hull, Andy Fenwick, Brian Neville, Joe Jamrog, Wally Moran, Gus Salud, Ellen McElduff, Brian Hartigan
18 | 1hr 40 min | Horror, Slasher
Budget: $750,000 (estimated)
Someone had to do it. After the unmitigated seasonal success of John Carpenter’s Halloween, it was inevitable that Kris Kringle would get the psycho treatment. I mean, Santa Claus, the indomitable force who decides who has been naughty and who has been nice and breaks into homes in the dead of night with sacks full of god knows what. When it comes to the fancy dress realms of slasherdom, what better gimmick to guarantee success?
Christmas has always been a popular theme when it comes movies. For producers, it is a promotional dream. Not only does it guarantee ticket sales for gullible families the world over, it adds an extra special glint to proceedings, intensifying feelings of poignancy and making character resolutions all the more meaningful. In the days of It’s a Wonderful Life, it provided pure wish fulfilment, but as cinema evolved the festive period was no less potent. In 1984, Joe Dante’s Gremlins contributed to the founding of the PG-13 rating with a Christmas tale that parents deemed just a little too frightening for its peewee demographic, and just image the likes of Die Hard and Lethal Weapon without that undercurrent of yuletide salvation. Of all the fantastic movies associated with the period, transgressive cult director John Waters went on record as saying that Lewis Jackson’s Christmas Evil is ‘the greatest Christmas movie ever made’. Inevitably, horror would also throw up its fair share of festive-themed flicks, so how highly does this pre-certificate slasher rank in relative terms?
For me, this is a movie that will divide opinion as it seems somewhat uncertain of itself. Originally titled Better Watch Out, Christmas Evil was settled upon in order to cash-in on both the slasher boom and the promotional possibilities already mentioned, but the movie is actually a very different animal. Something I think we can all agree on is that this is the least notable of a trinity of seasonal slashers. For one thing, it can’t hold a candle to the first splatter flick to carry the festive name. Although living in the shadow of Michael Myers, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas is widely regarded as the first out-and-out slasher, a seminal movie which established many of the sub-genre’s tropes, and which is technically miles ahead of the majority of movies to cash in on the low-budget phenomenon that spawned the likes of Jason Voorhees and Fred Krueger.
The third of those movies, Silent Night Deadly Night, is notable for altogether different reasons, proving the straw that broke the reindeer’s back as parents took to the streets in protest in the midst of a censorship frenzy that outraged moviegoers and critics alike. This was the same year that Paramount released Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, a movie that paved the way for a heavily edited incarnation of a money-spinning franchise that would turn to meta humour and all sorts of gimmicks in subsequent years. Four years prior to the MPAA’s crackdown, the censorship body laid waste to a proposed newspaper ad for Christmas Evil, which caused the distributor to cancel a wide release, and even after it crept into theatres it received an astoundingly bad reception. Not only from disgusted viewers and critics, but from slasher enthusiasts who were understandably unhappy with the movie’s lack of kills. Let’s just say the movie’s estimated $750,000 budget is telling.
This is where the movie runs into problems. On the one hand, we have a fairly authentic character study about a man pushed to the brink on what for many proves to be the loneliest time of the year. But what value is there in a character study when it comes to movies of this ilk? The very best of the genre rely on mystery and suspense, while the rest provide vicarious thrills for an audience who pay to see blood and guts. After all, there’s a reason why practical effects maestro Tom Savini is among the best known figures in the genre.
Like so many other slashers, the movie begins with a flashback recounting a pivotal moment in a young man’s life, and once again that moment results in our sympathetic villain developing an aversion to sex that on this occasion is tied in with jolly old Saint Nick. Decades pass, and what we are left with is an introverted loner who has risen to manage a toy factory full of cynical conveyor belt grunts, a bunch of slack-jawed booze hounds who pounce on their bosses weakness and drive him over the edge. The fact that they all dress in green is about as mocking as the movie gets, and to its detriment.
Soon, Harry (Brandon Maggart) is spying on the neighbourhood kids and noting who has been naughty or nice, habits that result in reality distancing solitude and ultimately murder. John Waters saw the movie as a commentary on sex change, our lead channelling his urges instead on a need to pass for Santa, and the movie’s most famous fan may have a point, particularly during scenes in which Harry first tries Santa on for size, though depicting cross-dressers as depraved murderers is likely to offend a fair few people — just ask Brian De Palma.
Maggart gives a formidable performance as a man suffering a long overdue nervous breakdown, and his uneasy determination to become the real Santa only serves to highlight the macabre reality of a fictional character who basically acts as a judgemental deterrent for children the world over, one who sports the colours of the Coca-Cola brand and rewards compliance with consumer promises in the name of capitalism.
Although Jackson seems to focus more on Harry’s life-altering incident and its sexual implications, the movie works just as well as a commentary on the darker side of Christmas, portraying a man of irrevocable solitude pushed over the edge by the prospect of communal togetherness. Jackson, who actually wrote the screenplay for Christmas Evil before the release of genre innovator Halloween, doesn’t consider the movie a slasher, and it’s easy to see why. Thanks to the commercial modus of the sub-genre’s Golden Age, the movie proves something of a muddled affair, marketing itself as one thing while veering towards another — a surefire way to disappoint viewers on both sides of the fence.
After sneaking into a neighbouring bully’s house and leaving gifts for his children, Harry tries to smother his work-related nemesis with his sack of goodies before reaching for the tree’s plastic decoration and slicing his throat with it. An earlier attack with an implement through the eyeball is probably more rewarding, but this is the most ridiculous.
Most Absurd Moment
In a scene strangely reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, a flame-wielding mob of vengeful suburbanites pursue our unlikely killer, but where did they get their makeshift early 19th century torches on such short notice? Perhaps the local hardware store had a festive two-for-one offer.
Most Absurd Dialogue
Discussing the recent spate of Santa-related murders, Detective Gleason is able to see the positives of a festive massacre.
Detective Gleason: You know, maybe our Santa’s gonna do some good after all.
Detective Gottleib: You mean give the myth back its meaning?
Detective Gleason: Myth Schmyth! He’ll make kids scared again. They won’t think everything’s coming to them so easy. If they’re bad [makes cutthroat sign] we’ll send Santa to get ’em.’
Detective Gottleib: You’re a real philosopher, you know that, Gleason?