Lewis Jackson’s black comedy horror film Christmas Evil is the best ‘bad santa’ movie ever made
Lewis Jackson’s blackly comic 1980 horror film You Better Watch Out, aka Christmas Evil, begins like so many slasher-centric shockers do, with a kid witnessing a parental sex act, here it’s Mommy kissing Santa Claus. Of course in this case, Santa is really little Harry Stadling’s dad, covertly having a fine time kissing mommy’s netherlips under the mistletoe. But for Harry, who is obsessed with Christmas and the idea of Santa, the scene is traumatic and will forever skew his morality.
There are so many Christmas-set horror movies and a glut of them trade in exploiting the hallowed image of Santa, hero to all toy-crazed kids and the pop culture-friendly face of the entire Holiday, with the real man of the hour, Jesus, being a distant second. And while meat and potatoes slasher Santa movies like Silent Night, Deadly Night and Santa’s Slay are admittedly fun and lurid romps, none can hold a candy cane to Christmas Evil. Because this film refuses to settle on being simple exploitation. It’s a serious character study of a sociopath whose good intentions ride him off the rails, like Travis Bickle re-imagined as a fever-brained 12-year old in a red suit and packing a sack of some very, very sharp toys.
The film follows its surreal, sexually-charged opening by catching up with a now adult Harry, living alone 30 years later. The disturbed but seemingly sweet-natured man works on the assembly line at a toy factory by day and, in his off time, spies on neighborhood children through windows, deeming who is “naughty” and who is “nice” and logging names in ledgers. What he plans to do with this information is anyone’s guess, but it seems to give his life purpose.
Harry’s entire life revolves around Christmas and his obsession with the iconography of the season runs sympatico with his genuine horror at the plight of the poor, the disenfranchised and the misery of children. His eccentric nature makes him an easy mark for his sniggering co-workers who use him and exploit him and generally laugh at his sincere, if woefully-misguided world view. After railing against his company’s inferior, thoughtless product and after being pushed too far, Harry finally snaps, dons his Santa suit and devises a plan to dole out punishment to those who he deems morally corrupt while also bringing delight to as many children as he can. In regards to the former, indeed much blood is spilled. In respect to the latter, scenes like the one in which Harry delivers toys to sick hospitalized children add empathy and soul to the film, again something that many of its X-mas horror peers simply do not have.
In many ways, Christmas Evil reminds me of the classic The Twilight Zone episode “Night of the Meek”, where Art Carney’s alcoholic and depressed department store Santa is given the power to perform real Christmas miracles. Imagine if Carney was really just mentally ill and you have this film, which despite its exploitation film thrust, is still most assuredly operating on the same basic Rod Serling-esque humanitarian principals. Except here, we get to see Santa forge lethal toy soldiers and plunge them into his braying victim’s eye sockets while bludgeoning them graphically with an axe.
There is so much to savor in Christmas Evil, from the sly script to the innovative and tight direction to the central performances of Maggart’s Harry and, as his pushed-to-his-limits brother, Frank Darabont regular Jeffrey DeMunn (The Walking Dead, The Shawshank Redemption). I love the relationship between these two men, how we define their personalities in childhood and then see how their very different identities mutate and connect in adulthood. It’s a moving dual character arc and both actors sell it beautifully.
And the movie has such a strange, cheap and comic book look and feel, with a sense of queasy joy as we enter Harry’s cartoonish, candy-colored private world. In these sequences, observing Harry’s daily rituals, I was reminded of 1985’s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. There’s that same sense of giddy, man-child absurdity though, of course, the absurd joy of it is tempered with the fact that we know this man is deeply, irrevocably troubled. Again, so much credit must be given to Maggart, a character actor who here is clearly savoring the chance to take center stage. It’s one of the genre’s greatest, unsung performances.
I think the power of Christmas Evil is summed up perfectly in its final moments (spoilers ahead). As Harry reaches the end of his rope, his fake white beard covered in blood and both his brother, the law and a lynch mob coming at him in hot pursuit, the now-wanted murderer drives his van off a bridge. Said van is painted with a picture of Santa’s sleigh and, as Harry’s mind snaps for the last time, he hallucinates that his vehicle is taking flight, ascending high into the sky and flying over the moon like E.T. — 2 years before there was an E.T. — while Joel Harris’ tinkly, darkly whimsical synth music plays in the background. It’s a sad finale, but it’s also absurdly funny and wildly cinematic.
And that’s why Christmas Evil is so good, that’s why John Waters cites it as his favorite Christmas movie and that’s why it’s a timeless picture to revisit. It’s a real, very serious and smart drama and a bitter indictment of the lies we tell our kids and how those lies can obscure their perception of reality and it all hides in the skin of a kitschy trash movie. It is one of the rare genre films that has its cake and eats it too.
So, this season, make some time for it, won’t you?