With the approach of Christmas comes the inevitable release of a slew of films joining the ranks of the “Yuletide Slasher”. While you wait for the Silent Night remake to enter cinemas I would like to recommend one X-mas related horror film for your collection. Released back in 1980 under the title You Better Watch Out, Christmas Evil (why did they bother to change the title?) has garnered a cult following and the praise of “Pope of Trash” John Waters, slowly lifting it above the throng of abandoned B-features that populate 70’s – 80’s horror.
The film opens on Christmas Eve 1947 where two brothers watch their father dressed as Santa deliver presents to the house, young Harry later sneaks down stairs to find his father, still dressed as Santa, fondling his mother and Christmas is changed forever. Jump forward thirty years and Harry is a desk Jockey at a production-line toy factory, disgruntled at the lack of Christmas cheer in his fellow employees and obsessively listing the deeds of the local children in his “Naughty” and “Nice” books. Slowly Harry slips into an obsessive rage-driven Christmas nightmare where he deals out his own brand of Christmas justice.
The first thing that one can’t fail to notice is that, for a film left in the side-lines, Christmas Evil is actually well-shot and directed, sure there’s some crude editing and naff moments of action but on the whole the film has more rewards than flops. After style the story impresses with a much more toned down approach to carnage than expected. The film isn’t a blood bath start to finish, its collected and well-paced, letting us into Harry’s life and introducing us to all the assholes he meets every day, so that there’s always a sense of, rather than being a psychopath, Harry is just a troubled guy. Considering character construction along with the garish colouring and keen social commentary, Christmas Evil plays out like Falling Down by way of The Grinch and Peeping Tom.
Brandon Maggart’s genuinely superb performance is the keystone of the feature, without his ranged approach the film could have dwindled but thankfully there’s enough conviction, misery, and alienation to build a believable psychopath. Most films never quite pull of the inception of a murderer, but Jackson’s careful scripting allows Maggart moments of bombastic absurdity then grounds him with poignant moments of total isolation. But that’s not to say the film takes itself too seriously, there’s a self-awareness that helps make the piece easier to swallow. Also, a young Jeffrey DeMunn (The Walking Dead, The Mist) appears as Harry’s brother and makes for enjoyable viewing, especially towards the finale. The only criticism of his performance would be he’s not used nearly enough.
Jackson’s film has received flak over the years for being anti-Christmas but the film seems more focused on the commercialisation of Christmas as opposed to an attack on the holiday itself. A sharp eye for the trashy quality of Christmas imagery and the miserable, at times pointless, bizarre functions of the holiday push the film beyond the reach of a crappy B-film. This is a film at once ridiculing the Santa myth (Santa Clauses at police line-up) and celebrating it, whilst dragging the whole Christmas ordeal into a sewer of madness and mayhem.
This review is in no way the product of low expectations; it’s a reaction to something genuinely sharp, a real gem amidst the cascade of trashy horror escapades, plus it culminates in probably one of the best horror climaxes I’ve seen, an ending which seals the deal on the brilliance of Jackson’s festive chaos. Well written, well crafted, with a great lead performance, Christmas Evil is a beautifully constructed cult terror tale with a keen eye for cultural satire, if you’re looking for the perfect Christmas movie then look no further.
Dir. Lewis Jackson
Stars. Brandon Maggart, Jeffrey DeMunn, Dianne Hull, Andy Fenwick, Mark Margolis