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. After all, this is Santa Claus, the indomitable force who decides who has been naughty and nice and breaks into homes in the dead of night with sacks full of god knows what! He has an obvious drinking problem; realistically, how many sherrys can one get through while navigating a legion of reindeer slaves across an entire planet? Look at him the wrong way and he may just run you over. Then there’s his fabled laugh, the same Die Hard‘s John McClane used to punctuate the grisly death of Hans Gruber’s terrorist lackey with the kind of festive cynicism many of us have learned to embrace. Ho! Ho! Ho! 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 to movies. For producers it is a promotional dream. For one thing it guarantees ticket sales for gullible families the world over. Just look at some of the seasonal stinkers we’ve been forced to endure throughout the years: Babes in Toyland, Jack Frost, Jingle All the Way 2, Home Alone 3, Santa with Muscles… I mean, talk about pulling the wrong end of the cracker. Christmas also 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 mawkish wish fulfilment for the whole family, but as cinema evolved, Christmas movies went beyond the realms of sickly-sweet communities and geriatric guardian angels. 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 imagine the likes of Lethal Weapon without that undercurrent of yuletide salvation. Would that movie have been the same had Riggs not been invited to Christmas dinner?
Of all the movies associated with the festive period, transgressive cult director John Waters went on record as saying that Lewis Jackson’s Christmas Evil is “the greatest Christmas movie ever made”, a bold statement if ever I’ve heard one. 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, it is a movie that will divide opinion. 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 film is actually a very different animal.
Something I think we can all agree on is that this is the least notable of a holy trinity of seasonal slashers. For one thing, it can’t hold a candle to the first to carry the festive name. Though 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. In terms of innovation, it is 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 kinds of commercial chicanery 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. In this regard, the film makes poor use of its $750,000 budget (Friday the 13th cost $50,000 less that same year).
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, the rest providing vicarious thrills for an audience who pay to see blood and guts. Done well, genre and budget can be totally irrelevant, but when you market your movie as an out-and-out slasher during the sub-genre’s golden age, people are going to expect an out-and-out slasher. I can only imagine the disappointment of teenagers across America while sitting through long stretches of loosely-paced inanity when all that was needed was an axe through some poor sucker’s skull. 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 boy’s life, and once again that moment results in our sympathetic villain developing an aversion to sex that on this occasion is tied to jolly old Saint Nick. Let’s just say that the poor kid’s mother has a rather troubling fetish that was presumably developed during childhood. I guess it runs in the family. Decades pass, and what remains is an introverted loner who has risen to manage a toy factory full of cynical conveyor belt grunts, slack-jawed booze hounds who pounce on their bosses weakness, precipitating the kind of emotional breakdown that is crying out for a little blood. 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 instead channelling his urges 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. There must be an idea for a Patrick Bateman-esque slasher in there somewhere.
Though 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 Halloween, doesn’t consider the movie a slasher, and it’s easy to see why. You can’t blame him for tapping into commercial trends — how many moviegoers in the homophobic 80s would pay to see a character study about a cross-dresser made on less than a million dollars? — but the result is a muddled affair which falls into a creative grey area, a surefire way to disappoint viewers on both sides of the fence.