Christmas Evil (1980) Review by RevTerry

The holidays can make people lose their shit, and in very special ways. It would seem we all were gifted our own custom brand of madness early on in life, and we can't help but break it out come December. I mean, there are some really common core elements to the crazy-ass outward shit we do. You have your Yuletide-disciple types, with twenty-five different seasonal outfits, who make sure every speaker is producing Christmas music like it's their fucking job. These are the self-proclaimed traditionalists, like the office party coordinator that has already sent out three themed emails to the whole workplace by the 19th. Some of them have, in recent years, also enlisted in a kind of war that involves disposable coffee cups and loudly saying “Christmas” immediately after an unfortunate blasphemer mistakenly wishes them a “Happy Holiday”. There are then the scores of militant shoppers who use this time to get out the year’s aggression in the retail arena in fully sanctioned combat. Cutthroat anger radiates from the battle-torn aisles of Walmart (or Target if you're fancy), where many fall slain to the increased pushy ass demands of commercials and misplaced guilt. In the year’s closing, the purchase-addicted are given the ultimate excuse--credit cards get maxed, and the CEOs of retail giants have an extra incestuous money pile orgy (on top of their usual monthly money pile orgy), it's a national tradition. Seemingly, on the other end of things, you have a large part of the population that just looks fucking bummed around this time, or even agitated. All the talk about quality interpersonal relationships and the emphasis on spending money can be the perfect combo for feeling like shit if you don't have people in your life or money to spend on them. None of this is really that simple though, because everybody adds their own twist, or remixes a few parts. The yearly escapades are tied heavily into the important things in your life, like family, finances, or even whatever hell you call a workplace. Everyone feels the impact, you can't dodge it without a time machine. Its been happening your whole life, developing further after each year's winter. The best part is, nobody receives your personal concoction of cheer and trauma, you own it. For several reasons, the spiced traditional blend of fuck-it-all capitalism, stolen seasonal celebrations, and the imaginary judgmental fat man have made monsters of us all. So during this time, try to remember that everyone is out of their fucking gourd, including you. It is the fucking season for it.  You're just going have to make it to January without killing someone, unlike the woefully confused Harry in Christmas Evil (1980).
As children, Harry and his brother Philip stayed up late one Christmas Eve to watch as Saint Nicholas dropped off gifts and munched on some cookies they left behind. After the mythical intruder had made an exit, their mother quickly shooed them to bed, where the two boys argued over the validity of the Kringle encounter. After a few faith-based quips, Harry became fed up with his unbeliever brother and stormed out of the bedroom to get his mom to back him up (or something). Unfortunately for little Harry, Santa hadn't exactly left and was instead passionately licking mom’s leg in front of the fireplace ( picturesque stockings and all) when he entered the living room. Finding out Santa is fake is hard for some kids, but walking in on your parents fucking is rough on anyone, so Harry finds a dark corner and does some creepy shit to cope. Fast forward to a fully grown, balding Harry (Brandon Maggart) who now works at a toy factory, of all places, and is the bain of his successful family-man brother's (Jeffrey DeMunn) existence. Recently, Harry has received a promotion to a desk position but still lends himself to ridicule from his coworkers back on the line, even being muscled into one of their shifts while they go drinking. It isn't all bad, as he has a deep love for toys, and lives for anything Claus related, so the job fits. His apartment is fully lined in holiday decorations, and he spends his free time in his Santa Claus outfit, seemingly, year-round ( although it is almost Christmas so we can give him the benefit of doubt). He also has the totally normal hobby of documenting the neighborhood children's misdeeds in leather-bound books, deeming them good or naughty based on his judgment of their actions. For whatever reason, this particular year’s approaching 25th takes a drastic toll on Harry, and, along with the added bullying from his former linemates, elevates his already problematic obsessions into full-on delusions. In the midst of some kind of breakdown, Harry begins donning his outfit outside the house, acting as if he was Saint Nick himself. This includes doing things he thinks Father Christmas would do, like giving gifts to orphans, telling kids to be good, and stabbing mouthy yuppies in the face with a sharp toy (the good old days of playtime craftsmanship). Of course, everyone gets weirded out (except the kids who are easily swayed by toys) and tries to ruin Christmas by stopping the good-natured rampage. Harry, however, is sure he has enough holiday spirit for all and isn't going down easy. 
Christmas Evil (aka You Better Watch Out) is a mixed bag of emotions, and it pulls full force into each. At its core, it's less a horror film and more a psychological thriller or drama. The film's world is cruel and filled with selfish manipulative people, making a few passing comments about our application of the holiday in our actual society. A lot of time is spent watching Harry as he reacts to the realistic, regular disappointments in life.  His problems are restrained and ordinary but trigger a slow downward spiral into quirky madness. This core dissent takes more from Maniac (1980), Taxi Driver (1976) and even Psycho (1960) than it does any of the emerging slashers that came before it. At times it also comes close to striking the same cords Falling Down (1993) would play to in the 90s. Our killer is the film’s main character and extremely human. It almost hurts to watch him break further from reality as it moves along. The plot makes stops to build up embarrassing moments to a point of being felt. Its narrative sometimes indulges Henry's vision but often drops off into repercussions. Despite his obvious delusions and increasing creep factor, you start to root for the poor bastard, and the perspective almost allows it. Without mentioning too many Scorsese/De Niro movies, it feels like the killer Santa Claus version of The King of Comedy (1982).  It is consistently a Christmas movie, complete with would-be touching moments, only tainted by an uneasy foreshadowing. In fact, I'm pretty sure, it’s a morbid, unofficial remake of  Miracle on 34th Street (1947). It mirrors the classic tale’s plot but twists each event in awkward, mean-spirited ways, even inexplicably borrowing some elements from its closing scene (what the fuck was that?). In the same vein, there are moments of unaligned comedy, although it's hard to know what to laugh at during Harry's awkward interactions. Any humor is blended with realistic social anxiety and an ever-increasing threat of a breakdown on Harry's part. The confusing drive to the film helps create an awesomely unnerving story that builds up to its main characters eventual violent rampage. If it's a slasher (like the cover seems to promise), then it's only during its final thirty minutes. Our killer isn't superhuman, undead, or the product of special circumstances, his life resembles our own in many boring ass ways, he just didn't handle the Yuletide bullshit very well this year.
The film borrows much of its technical style from family Christmas films, and large chunks feel like they came directly from a 1980s made for TV movie. Because the killer’s identity is known, and he is the film’s subject at all times, there is none of the classic stalking and concealment that had already almost become a cliche for American horror by that time. It’s definitely dingy but not intentionally dark, and any grime is a happy side effect of age and budget. Throughout, the editing feels broken and unfinished, as if rushed. Early on, there is a low-balled attempt at using young Harry's delusional perspective that doesn't fly very well, along with a few post-involved errors. The mangled jumps and cuts are a low point, but they still assist in moving the somewhat slow story along at a tolerable pace. Only slightly lost in the paste job, all the camera work is beautifully set and with purpose. It brings over classic composition and lighting from its out of place, fairy tale DNA, adding off-kilter impact to the subject matter. The gore comes in late, and it doesn't stick around long. There's more stock put into the tension proceeding the violence. What blood splatter you do get is pretty fun, and because it is restrained, never really loses its bite. Really, there is little explicit content outside of these moments, leaving it up to less-than-trashy psychological scares for better or worse (depending on who you are or what mood you're in).  Unsurprisingly, the movie is lined with Xmas tunes, and it brings in random jingle bell noises with some great timing, adding to the fucked up mix of moods.
From what I understand, the film was writer-director Lewis Jackson’s third feature as well as his last.  Jackson reportedly set work on the film ten years prior, completing two films before seeing it realized. It would also his be only surviving work, as his previous films, The Deviates (1970) and The Transformation: A Sandwich of Nightmares (1974) are seemingly lost to time (or maybe a divorce).  A lot of the film's effectiveness is in its homicidal Kringle, played by Brandon Maggart. Maggart’s killer's almost childlike and naive worldview drives home an eventual violent climax to a memorable degree. He never feels anywhere near evil, just dangerously damaged and unable to function in society. Maggart, who is apparently in a ton of shit I don't remember him in, does a great job blending the contrasting scenes with his take on the trope and material. His blood soaked Christmas comes early in a long list (see last year's List of Killer Santa Flicks), but still stands out as distinct and fresh to this day. The brother is played by a younger Jeffrey DeMunn, who I definitely recognize. DeMunn has a long career in small (angry) mainstream film and TV roles, but will always (in my mind) be the scientist that was buried by his homies in the first X-Files movie (Fight The Future,1998). He comes in a little hammy, but the later scenes foreshadow the latter half of his career in a positive way. There's plenty of terrible acting, and some of the delivery of the side character is laughable, but great acting isn't really something I have come to expect in holiday movies, so it's actually doing pretty well in that department. Plus look out for an (extremely) quick cameo by the films Director Lewis Jackson as a bartender at Harry’s office party.
Christmas Evil is a family holiday film that has, seemingly, undergone back alley surgery to have its cheer removed and replaced with uneasy dread. It's almost a difficult film, but its eclectic mix of feels is too bizarre to be truly dramatic. It works, but only on its own seasonally depraved terms. Next to other killer-Kringle flicks, it comes up short on instant gratification and titillation, but it can make a good break from cornball holiday slashers while keeping with the theme. It has a little more to chew on than its peers. Just because the main character has stabbed a dude in the eye, doesn't mean you can't have a touching moment where he hands out presents to orphans-- life is complicated. Obviously, I wouldn't for health reasons, but part of me just wants to give Harry a hug. The holiday really did a number on him. Christmas has a fucked up power over all of us, so don't feel bad if you start to crack this season. Stop short of skull-fucking random assholes with toy soldiers, and you should make it through another year like everyone else.
 1h 40min | 1980
 Director: Lewis Jackson
Writer: Lewis Jackson 

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Review by:
RevTerry


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