Killer Santa movies were always the top priority to tear apart for critics of a merry time ago. Silent Night, Deadly Night of 1984 would be assassinated from theater showings for its advertisements of a jolly axe murdering Claus, even when it was nothing new at the time. 1980 brought To All a Good Night and Christmas Evil with it – one, a Santa sorority slasher; the other, a cautiously produced character study, with only small elements of the slasher genre present. Christmas Evil, aka Terror in Toyland and You Better Watch Out!, was a body count flick to any unsuspecting moviegoer who would dare pass by its tape. Once the film started up, the hype for some was diminished. For others like director John Waters, it turned out to be “The greatest Christmas movie ever made.” In the tradition of Maniac, for a better comparison, here’s how Christmas Evilreally measures up as a seasonal horror.
Harry Stadling (Maggart) is in love with the idea of Santa Claus so much that he actually makes it his mission to carry out the duties of the jolly ol' man in red. He spies on the children of his neighborhood, jotting down in his big book whose been naughty or nice. His job at the toy factory is filled with crooked workers and greedy businessmen, who seem to have forgotten what Christmas is really about. Harry’s brother Phil (DeMunn) has also abandoned the belief in Santa and the festivities, but this year, Harry will show them all. He’s about to make the good boys and girls cheer with joy when Harry, dressed as the famous gift giver, shows up to present his toys to all those worthy of receiving them. And to those who are less commendable, he’s got an axe and spike stuffed away in his bag of goodies to make sure that they no longer share their unhappy beliefs with the rest of the world. Harry no longer worships Santa...he is Santa!
The version that I viewed, which is the You Better Watch Out! director’s cut, gave me mixed feelings about what I had just watched. There was no denying that the Christmas atmosphere was there. From the electronic spin on the festive score, to sparkling decorations and snow galore, the spirit had definitely blessed this exploitative venture. The children are mostly filled with the love of the holiday, and like in reality, the adults are being their own selves, leaving the magic for the younger ones. Harry is followed all the way through the flick, as we see how he copes with the taunting of his co-workers and feels compelled to help out those such as the sick kids at the hospital. He may be a killer, but he has a heart, which makes Harry multidimensional. You can’t help but feel sorry for the man even after you watch him hack up a few people. But to be fair, ‘they had it coming’.
Jackson gets the background of our lead down perfectly, not because of what he tells us about the Stadling’s past, but what he tells us about Harry. Harry’s childhood is nothing bad. It’s all Harry’s emotional state that drives him to go overboard with the Christmas infatuation. He learns at a young age in the prologue that Santa is not real; that the one he spies on is his father. This causes him to cut himself over the pain he is feeling inside. There it is. Our answer is also explained when we see how Philip is the person of strength between the brothers, the one who has to keep Harry in place because of his poor personality. Christmas Evil moves at a slow pace not to pad the production (although there is some) but to give the viewer better characterizations and sense of knowledge for what Harry is feeling in his life.
This may be disappointing to hear, but the murders are not the centerpiece for the movie. Yes, they have an important play on what events should follow, but Christmas Evil feels more like a character drama than a straight up horror movie. We have a massacre scene, the horror highlight of this outing that bleeds beautifully, if not too quick to enjoy to its fullest. With this being most of the kills that Watch Out! has to offer, the end evaluation is that there just isn’t enough stalk to merit a slasher title. At least they are creative. One man is killed by a pointy Christmas tree star (!) after a failed attempt to smother him. It sounds more impressive than it is. The real purpose of Christmas Evil is the opportunity to show this time of year in its raw form, where everybody is caught up in a rush, never stopping to smell the cool air and reminisce in the youthful cheer, like Harry.
Harry is furious to learn at his work Christmas party that the toys they send off to the children’s hospital are not counted in relevance to how many children there actually are. Harry and the audience sees that little care has been taken this year, and we almost understand why Harry snaps and demands revenge on those who have done him wrong. Depressingly, everybody who dies is just a dick to Harry, not really to, say, sick kids. This spoils the film a little bit as Harry becomes a killer with a lost cause, except to eliminate those who have pissed him off. When authorities are on the look out for a killer Santa, it’s not too easy to find him as inevitably, there are a million Santas all about the city. Harry gets stopped by a group of kids who, news informed or not, still want to meet and hug him. He has no hate towards them as the love is mutual. His heart’s in the right place, just not his brain. The townspeople however believe him to be a lunatic out for bloodlust, so they try to hunt him down with flaming torches. Holy fireplace stockings!
Christmas Evil has been released a couple times on DVD and the best is arguably the director’s cut, widescreen Synapse special edition DVD, with a few crisps and crinkles in the picture, but overall a wonderful resurrection. With two audio commentaries, storyboard sequences, audition tapes and even comment cards from a theatrical showing back in 1980, it’s the one you’re looking for if you ever happen to become a part of its cult fan club. Unsurprisingly, the comment cards in the extras were generally negative responses, as is with many people who watch Christmas Evil. I’ll admit to seeing it in a brighter, reddish-green light when I watched it again, possibly because I wasn’t expecting a slasher like I was a while before. Lewis Jackson’s vision can be seen by those who think about it. It’s a normal film about a man who wants there to be a glimmer of hope for Christmas time and acts on his dream in a peculiar way. Its best attribute is the ending, which comes out of nowhere with a surreal event that is so ridiculous, it’s a much needed life inducer. The entire film is way too drawn out and forgettable to keep, so choose one foggy Christmas Eve and dip in once. Rent it!