You Can Keep Your Christmas Cheer, I’ll Take “Christmas Evil” Every Time

Posted: December 22, 2009 in movies
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"Christmas Evil" Movie Poster

This time of year the question is often asked, “What is the best Christmas movie ever made?” The usual contenders always seem to emerge, of course — “It’s A Wonderful Life,” “A Christmas Story” , yadda yadda etc. etc. Horror fans may suggest either “Black Christmas” or “Silent Night, Deadly Night.” But no less an authority than John Waters has gleefully declared writer-director Lewis Jackson’s 0verlooked 1980 B-movie masterpiece “Christmas Evil” (a.k.a. “You Better Watch Out,” actually Jackson’s original — and preferred — title) to be the absolute best of the bunch, and I’m with him on that all the way. Not so much a straightforward horror film as a black, tragicomic morality tale, this bizarre little flick hits all the right notes and is so self-assured in its absolutely singular bizarreness that you can’t help but sit back in awe as  the bleakly absurd spectacle of it all plays out before your eyes.

If you'd seen this with your own two eyes when you were a kid, wouldn't you be scarred for life, too? Especially if the woman in question was your mother?

When little Harry Stradling was a kid, he was the sort of tyke who just couldn’t wait for Christmas. He’d stay up all night, pacing back and forth in his room, hoping to hear Santa landing on the rooftop and sliding down the chimney. Unfortunately, he learned that old Kris Kringle wasn’t real the hard way — one Christmas Eve he thought he heard something downstairs, went to investigate hoping to catch Old St. Nick in the act, and found his dad, dressed in a Santa suit, going down on his mom. He’s never been the same since.

Fast forward about 30 or 40 years and our guy Harry (played by distinguished Broadway actor Brandon Maggart, who never had much of a career in film, apparently wants nothing to do with this one anymore, and is now best known for being the father of Fiona Apple) is  a rather disturbed and introverted sort, the kind of troubled soul his New York City neighbors should probably keep an eye on — except he’s already keeping an eye on them. Or, more specifically, on their children. He’s making a list and checking it twice, cataloging who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. And this Christmas, he’s finally going to do something about it.

Harry's got it all in his book, right down to the neighbor kids' hygiene habits

Harry works at a toy factory, you see, where he’s recently been promoted from the line up to some low-level management position or other. He misses being down on the factory floor “close to the toys,” as he says, and he’s unimpressed with the executive “suits” he now has to kiss up to. Amidst talk of  post-Christmas plant downsizing (quite prescient in 1980) and a nebulous new management directive  forcing the workers to give to charity while ownership does nothing of the sort (again, a disgustingly common enough practice these days but rather novel for its time) at the company holiday party, Harry starts to hatch his master plan in his mind. Harry’s trauma-inducing bout with accidental voyeurism has caused him to grow into something of a Christmas purist, if you will, and he’s out to save all that is right and true with the holiday season and to — umm — excise all that isn’t. In short order he procures a van, a bunch of toys, a Santa costume, and some weapons, and he decides to bring back the less-than-jolly St. Nick legends of old to life — the ones where he’s both jolly and vindictive, handing out toys only to those who deserve them, and vengeance to those who don’t.

Harry's getting an idea ---

Soon it’s Christmas Eve, and having blown off his brother’s family for the second holiday in a row (he took a pass on spending Thanksgiving with him, his wife, and their kids, as well), he instead springs into action in his custom (hand)-painted Christmaswagon. Kids at an orphanage get a whole load of goodies. The friendly folks at a large family holiday get-together get a visit where he displays his friendly side (as do they to him). But a yuppie scumbag emerging from a midnight mass service at a church in ritzy part of town gets skewered through the eyeball after declaring that Santa better give him something good because he has “superlative taste” (can’t say I blame Harry for that one), and the guy who suckered Harry into picking up his shift at the factory earlier that night so he could go out drinking with his buddies on Christmas Eve meets his red-suited, white-bearded maker, as well.

Santa Harry

Soon, Harry’s a hunted man, as townsfolk who think he’s acting a little bit weird around their kids take up torches and pitchforks and chase him through the New York/New Jersey streets like a modern-day version of the mob hunting down Frankenstein’s monster. But little do they know Harry has a surefire method of escape that delivers one of the most jaw-droppingly awesome endings in movie history. For some reason it’s hotly debated conclusion that some people just can’t get their heads around, but I’m here to tell you that not only is it absolutely astonishingly perverse it its obvious, albeit surreal, simplicity, it’s literally the only way this story could, or for that matter should, finish up.

DVD Cover for "Christmas Evil" from Synapse Films

Available for years only as a bare-bones release from Troma, in 2006 the good folks at Synapse Films finally issued a bona fide and thoroughly comprehensive “special edition” release of full director’s cut of this twisted gem. Not only does it feature a sparkling new widescreen anamorphic transfer of the film with remastered 2.0 stereo sound that’s an absolutely joy to watch and listen to, but there are two commentaries, one featuring director Lewis Jackson where he gives an awesomely involving account of just how low-budget exploitation films such as this came to fruition in the late 70s/early 80s and all the various pitfalls along the way as it moved from script to screen, but there’s a second commentary track featuring Jackson joined by the film’s most famous fan, the legendary John Waters himself! Needless to say, it’s a riot from start to finish. Also included are a selection of stinging lobby comment cards from a test screening of the film, deleted scenes, screen test outtakes, and a comic-style “essay” on the film from “Motion Picture Purgatory” author/illustrator Rick Trembles. Great stuff all around.

What can I say? Everything about “Christmas Evil” works, from the red-and-green-heavy color schemee utilized throughout to Maggart’s amazing, and strangely involving, performance in the lead, to the laugh-out-loud grotesquery, to the police lineup of drunken guys in Santa suits, to the often-quite-incisive sociall commentary,  to the already-mentioned supremely awesome ending. It’s an absolute one-of-a-kind piece of moviemaking. And while Lewis Jackson, sadly, has never made another film, truth be told he doesn’t need to. This stands as a singular work of genuinely madcap, unhinged genius that will never be duplicated and, frankly, in the annals of Chritmas moviemaking, never surpassed.

Comments
  1. John Stanton says:

    Thank you so much for this review. You summarized the film very well and captured its essence.
    A must see for fans of offbeat cinema.

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