December 1, 2017

Movie Review: Christmas Evil

As the Christmas season rolls around each year, there are a few certain films that always get watched. I always visit seasonal classics such as Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story, Elf, and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Then there are the action regulars, most notably Die Hard, Die Hard 2: Die Harder, and Lethal Weapon. Those are all well and good, but being a horror movie fan, there are the darker holiday films that need to have some time spent with them, this includes the likes of Black Christmas, Silent Night, Deadly Night, Krampus, and Red Christmas. In recent years a new film has come to my attention and has quickly risen through the ranks, Christmas Evil.

Christmas Evil was originally released in 1980 under the title You Better Watch Out (which is the title card on this print, despite Christmas Evil being on the cover art). It also had at least one video release with the title Terror in Toyland, which is easily the worst of the three names. It was also one of the first Christmas themed horror films, following Silent Night, Bloody Night and Black Christmas, and predating Silent Night, Deadly Night by a few years. It is also one of the few on the list that takes more of a psychological angle than anything else. It is a long time before any killing happens and a lot of the focus is spent on our unstable Santa.

The movie was written and directed by Lewis Jackson and was the last film that he directed, which is a shame, because this really is a fine film. On the other side of the camera, making us believe in the insanity we are witnessing is Brandon Maggart, who is also Fiona Apple’s father. Joining him on screen are early roles for Patricia Richardson (Home Improvement, The Middle) and Jeffrey Demunn (The Walking Dead).

What is the movie about? It is about one man who becomes so obsessed with Santa Claus that he wants to become him and uphold the lofty ideals of the man himself. Of course, his views become warped early on when his image of the holiday gift giver becomes cracked when he witnesses his father dressed as Santa enjoying a little adult time with his mother. Following the credits we catch up with him as an adult. He is a lonely man without a family, pacing his apartment obsessing over Santa.

Things take a turn as he realizes that his boss and co-workers at the toy factory that he works at. He dresses up as Santa Claus and exacts some bloody justice for their mean and greedy self-involved thoughts. At the same time, he has been keeping a list of the neighborhood kids and whether they have been good or bad. The thing is, the deeper into the movie we get, the loosed his hold on reality becomes and the more dangerous he comes to be before he just flies off the rails into a completely demented fantasy. That fantasy comes complete with villagers armed with torches and an ending that will leave you scratching your head.

It is a movie of surprising quality that is sure to enter the annual rotation for anyone who tends towards the darker side. It is more than a slasher film, it is a psychological study of a person whose mind is slowly crumbling away. In a way, our antagonist is a protagonist, and a sympathetic one at that.

Christmas Evil is not a movie about some teenagers or co-eds trying to survive a crazed killer. It is more about one person who never got the help or guidance he needed when he was young. He was left to fester with his warped view of Christmas and his idealized image of what Santa should be and what he should mean. All of this has grown to take over his mind and all those around him choose to ignore or belittle him for his Christmas love. We even see his own brother scream at him and call him sick, not offering help, mind you.

It is a sad story and I actually feel bad for him. Granted, he does end up going around killing people, but it is not that he wants to be a killer. Since he does not get the attention and guidance that he needs he grows up a little twisted and warped. He is a person who has essentially been pushed to the fringe, disenfranchised, and he reaches his breaking point where he demands some satisfaction and takes out his anger and frustrations upon those who do not accept his basic kindness or lack the simple human empathy.

Christmas Evil is a movie that has a lot more going on than you would think at first glance. There are multiple ways to interpret the events. You can take them literally, you can see them as events occurring in a damaged mind, or some combination of the two. To me, the actuality is a combination of actual and imagined. I believe that he is making strange interpretations in his crumbling psyche that lead to the actual manifestation of his frustrations coming out as the murders before slipping back into more pure fantasy towards the end.

In the end, all I can say is take a watch, see what you think. It is a holiday gem. It is a twist in the usual happy holiday film. Also, it should be noted that it is available in a very nice restored edition from Vinegar Syndrome, featuring three commentary tracks (one featuring John Waters), as well as vintage interviews, original trailer, and comment cards from an early screening.


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