CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980) - Movie/Blu-ray Review (Vinegar Syndrome)
Languishing in obscurity for decades, Lewis Jackson's holiday “horror” film Christmas Evil has been getting more attention in recent years due to its unique approach to its central character, a middle-aged sadsack who has grown up seriously obsessed with Santa Claus and the Christmas season. I first became aware of the film thanks to Leonard Maltin's classic movie guide, where he mentions the film in his BOMB review of the much more well known Silent Night, Deadly Night which also involves a man who commits a series of murders in a Santa suit. However, Maltin wisely alphabetically listed Jackson's film not as Christmas Evil but rather under its original title You Better Watch Out, which is a lot more appropriate when you realize this is a less a Halloween-type horror film than a delicious combination of rich black comedy and intelligent character study. Jackson's film isn't near as notorious (or gory, for that matter) as Silent Night, Deadly Night and this isn't the very first time that Santa goes slaying as opposed to sleighing, although the circumstances surrounding the lead character's tendency to kill are wildly different than any other brought to the screen. Some parents will complain that it's sacrilegious to ho-ho- ho with that bowl full of jelly simply due to their hallowed traditions while it seemed inevitable that holiday and horror would consummate in the history of cinema. Unlike another fictional character who is also associated with Christmas, it's truly ridiculous to treat Santa as something so sacred when in reality he's nothing more than a lie to make children behave around the holidays. Christmas Evil (You Better Watch Out) is coming down your chimney on Vinegar Syndrome's 2014 Blu-ray version which not only provides a 4K restoration but several stockings full of extras.
Opening up on Christmas Eve in 1947, we meet a young boy named Harry who witnesses Santa (actually his Dad) being naughty with his mother by the Christmas tree, which causes psychological harm to his fragile little mind. As an adult, Harry is working at a toy factory and converting himself into the “real” Santa Claus by spying on the neighborhood children, rewarding those who have been good and keeping records on those who have been bad. Treated like dirt by his co-workers and lacking any companionship unlike his married brother, Harry's psychological disorder begins to spiral out of control during the Christmas holidays of 1980. Armed with a van full of toys and a Santa suit he has stitched himself, Harry goes on a quest to bring presents to all the good children while also committing a few murders due to his psychological rage and instability. The question of whether the audience is supposed to sympathize with Harry is tough to answer, although it's clear we are meant to absorb the character's day to day activities and contemplate what is real and what is imaginary, complete with an off-the- wall ending which is both unpredictable and insanely memorable. Granted, Christmas Evil is full of depressing details as the tension builds, although it's also marked by a truly wicked sense of humor which is ultimately meant to relieve the viewer's disturbance—and it succeeds in creative fashion more often than not. According to the original theatrical comment cards from 1980, audience members dismissed the film as sick and deranged, failing to see that Jackson has much more on his mind than merely building a body count; it also didn't help that film was sold as just another slasher in the tradition of Halloween and Friday the 13th. As a result, Christmas Evil alienated true horror fans while turning off those who found a the notion of a killer Santa to be offensive, even downright immoral although few others saw the film in its original release, allowing its slashing cousin Silent Night, Deadly Night to endure the commercial/critical crucifixion by picketing parents.
What greatly benefits Christmas Evil is a strong central performance by character actor Brandan Maggart, a solid character actor better known in some circles as Fiona Apple's father. Harry's extreme loneliness and psychological damage is clearly shown through his actions and quiet nature, most notably spying on the neighborhood children via a pair of binoculars and, as Santa would in the North Pole, keeps a physical library of yearly profiles. That being said, I've always been a bit confused as to why the episode that triggered Harry as a child was so traumatic; did Harry hurt himself because he discovered there was no Santa or because he was merely intimidated by the sexual act itself, which doesn't seem likely either; perhaps it's even a combination of the two, although I still find it difficult to swallow on a narrative level. It's not like his mother wasn't having fun or exhibiting any kind of alarm during the encounter. It's not like he saw his parents murdered by Santa like in Silent Night, Deadly Night or he was being abused or assaulted by anyone. The prologue is just a bit too vague and we don't get much out of it aside from the fact that it was this moment in which Harry's trauma is triggered and will obviously affect him for the rest of his life; personally, I just didn't think it was strong enough and probably would have preferred a much-more traumatizing flashback. Luckily, Maggart sells the character with all aces and spades. The picture also benefits from Ricardo Aronovic's sublime cinematography, which is aided by actual snow and slush during Harry's deliveries; according to Jackson himself, the $750,000 production was filmed in actual bone-chilling temperatures. The New Jersey suburbs really come alive as we follow Harry on Christmas Eve and the next day.
The first time I watched Christmas Evil years ago it came off as a mixed bag because while I enjoyed the film for the most part, the picture quality was rather atrocious, as it was one of those old prints that was so damaged that it seemed to be beyond repair. Considering the fact this was screened at grindhouse theaters throughout the '80s, it's no wonder it was treated like crap by the various distributors; plus, the modified title of Christmas Evil certainly doesn't do any justice to Jackson's story and especially Harry's character because it's absolutely clear that he isn't evil...just lonely, sad and mentally unbalanced. Just for the record, Jackson lets us know his justified disdain for the nonsensical title change on his commentaries, noting that he was upset because he wasn't informed of the title change until after the fact. By 2014, Jackson was finally able to claim full ownership over the film and re-incorporate deleted footage to make it an official director's cut with the original title You Better Watch Out actually appearing onscreen. That same year, Vinegar Syndrome would provide a stellar Blu-ray treatment of Christmas Evil presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, 1080p resolution and the picture quality of the director's cut is nothing short of a holiday miracle. Considering the age, low budget and previously atrocious cuts, the 4K transfer its still exceptionally clean while the colors—particularly the many reds, whites & greens—all shine as brightly as the lights on a Christmas tree. The mono soundtrack was also given a much-needed, high definition upgrade, with all of the dialogue easily heard without any cracks or hiss. Vinegar Syndrome's DVD copy looks and sounds about the same, although not all of the bonus features on the DVD have been transplanted onto the Blu-ray. Bottom line is, considering the huge uptick in the visual and audio elements, Christmas Evil played much better upon second viewing, although I still entirely don't buy the prologue.
- BLU-RAY EXTRAS & SPECS -
Compiling many of the extras previously available on DVDs by Troma and Synapse, the most substantial of the bunch are a trio of audio commentaries featuring Lewis Jackson. The first solo track is probably the best one as Jackson kicks off with his proclamation that he did storyboards for practically every scene; many of those storyboards, including script notes are also available for viewing as an extra. Jackson keeps talking about his inspirations, previous work and intense struggles to get the movie made and its erratic distribution, which resulted in mostly negative feedback. It's a terrific track that covers pretty much everything about the independent production; unfortunately, the second track with Jackson and star Brandon Maggart is only quasi-interesting. It's certainly worth a listen, but the best track by far is the third one with a super-fan / cult filmmaker John Waters, which is hilarious and great fun to listen to, even if you have to deal with some more repeated information. The Blu-ray extras also include the original red-band theatrical trailer (1:43) and the aforementioned comment cards from the 1980 sneak previews which boast riotous reactions such as “Beats Bing Crosby!?”, “What was this supposed to prove?” and “Don't release!”. One of the 27 cards is an upset parent who wrote that the film “will give weirdos bad ideas.” On Vinegar's DVD copy we get all of the same extras on the Blu-ray plus even more, including separate Troma interviews with Jackson and Maggart, both running approximately 7 minutes each. Jackson recalls actors who came in for auditions which became big later such as Glenn Close and Kathleen Turner; unfortunately, neither of those actresses make an appearance in the 26 minutes of audition tapes. However, the tapes do include JoBeth Williams and Lindsay Crouse, as well as Richard Bright, George Dzundza and David Rasche. There are also 6½ minutes of deleted scenes to what all adds up to an outstanding Vinegar Syndrome release which is well worth buying and watching every Christmas, each with a different commentary track.
- ABOUT THE AUTHOR -
Stone Gasman has been addicted to cinema ever since he was a child, becoming hooked on Chaplin, Hitchcock and Wilder by the time he was 10 years old. The film which changed his life was The Best Years of Our Lives, the 1946 winner for Best Picture and eight additional Oscars, which ultimately inspired him to join the US Navy. He is now a disabled veteran residing in New York City.